AS THE television choirmaster Gareth Malone has demonstrated,
music has a unique power to draw people together in an otherwise
atomised society. His success - recorded in programmes such as
The Choir - has an important lesson for churches seeking
to reach out to their neighbours.
Sustaining a church's offering of music is often demanding work,
and seeking to engage the wider community may seem an impossibly
tall order. As with so much else, creativity will be unlocked only
when a congregation stops trying to recreate a perhaps-imagined
golden age, and seeks instead to build on the relationships and
opportunities that God is giving now.
Such opportunities are often greater than we realise. For all
the narratives of decline, the parish church is one of the
increasingly rare places where people gather week by week across
diversity, without payment or compulsion. The worshipping
congregation is at the heart of a much wider network of
As an increasing number of organisations are now using church
buildings during the week, the church is a unique hub of
relationship and activity. This is why the Government has entrusted
delivery of its Near Neighbours initiative to the Church of
Administered by the Church Urban Fund, Near Neighbours is a
£5-million programme that helps people of different faiths and
cultures to come together - to get to know each other, and to act
together for the common good. Funding is available to all kinds of
groups, whether of different religions, or of none - so long as
their activities will bring new people together, or deepen existing
relationships across religions or races.
A SMALL grant from Near Neighbours has helped one east London
parish to harness the potential of song to build relationships. St
Paul's, West Hackney, has founded the Cantignorus Chorus. The choir
brings the congregation together with the many users of its hall,
and other people in the parish. It is the initiative of the Rector,
the Revd Niall Weir, and is directed by Tom Daggett, who is the
co-ordinator of SingSpire, a community-music project run by the
Contextual Theology Centre.
Like many other churches, St Paul's has a wide range of
hall-users. These include North London Action for the Homeless,
Narcotics Anonymous, a lunch club for West Indians with
mental-health issues, an over-50s dance group, a housing
association, and a gardening project. Their activities reach some
of the most vulnerable people in the area.
The first challenge for St Paul's was to draw members of these
different organisations into the choir. In recruiting members, Fr
Weir and Mr Daggett were building on existing relationships between
the church and its user groups.
None the less, harnessing that good will for such an ambitious
project required a significant investment of time. Despite all the
communications technology, they found that there was no substitute
for face-to-face meetings in drawing the communities together.
Mr Daggett says: "The choir is a celebration of Hackney's
diversity; it recognises the fact that life can be difficult for
all of us - regardless of our circumstances. This theme is strongly
reflected in the song we're seeking to learn and record, 'Holding
out a helping hand to you', written by Fr Niall himself."
After six rehearsals, the choir travelled last month to Angel
Studios in Islington, to record the song professionally. It has now
been released as a single - with backing tracks by schoolchildren
from the area, joined by the choristers of St Paul's Cathedral -
and is aiming for the Christmas charts. It has already attracted
some publicity, including an article in The Times last
THE experience has been transformative for members of the choir.
It has changed their attitudes towards themselves. As people who
are often belittled, they have discovered a new confidence: towards
each other, as social and cultural barriers have been breached; and
towards the church, because of its willingness to reach out
imaginatively to its neighbours.
The work at St Paul's need not be a one-off. The factors that
have made this possible are shared by many other parishes. While a
Christmas number-one hit would be wonderful, the real hope is that
the Cantignorus Chorus will inspire other churches to imagine - and
achieve - things that might at first have seemed impossible.
The SingSpire project plans to work in the next few months with
more parish churches that want to develop community choirs - and
also to learn from others who are already using music to reach out
to their neighbours. The experience of St Paul's suggests that this
work requires a large investment of time and energy, but that the
results more than repay the effort.
Canon Angus Ritchie is Director of the Contextual Theology
Centre, and Assistant Priest at St Peter's, Bethnal Green.
The single "Holding out a helping hand to you" is available
from iTunes, from Amazon, and at www.theology-centre.org, which has
more information on the SingSpire project.