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Music reaches the parts other activities don’t

13 December 2013

Parish churches can deepen their relationships with their community through singing, says Angus Ritchie 

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 friendships.

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 England.

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 month.

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.

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