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Kennington’s choristers rise to a challenge

29 November 2013

Mark Williams reflects on a new departure in his London parish's work with children

Infectious enthusiasm:left: Ben Clark working with a group of the children in south London.

Infectious enthusiasm:left: Ben Clark working with a group of the children in south London.

"HE DOESN'T just like the music: he loves it." Two years of reflection had led the parish of St John the Divine, Kennington, in south London, to the point of appointing a Director of Children's Choirs. We asked our primary-school choir's views on the candidates for the job, and this was their verdict on Ben Clark, the person we chose for this task.

While St John the Divine is proud of its long-standing choral tradition, for the past forty years the musical life of the church had been led entirely by adults.

Meanwhile, the inner-city setting of the parish is one where young people are at risk of youth-on-youth violence and gangs, and the PCC had struggled to work out how best to support young people in the area and create positive opportunities for them - that is, until it became clear that, whatever was to be done in mission and outreach with young people, it should stay true to the parish and its traditions, both in its worship and in supporting education.

(As well as the primary school, the parish has a secondary school, and was the founding parish of what is now the Culham St Gabriel's Trust, which supports religious education and worship in schools.)

This work would be too important to be embarked upon in haste, and needed to be well planned and of a high quality if it were to make a difference and be sustainable. Over two years, we put together our plans, consulting widely inside and outside the parish. It gradually emerged that what we were exploring would not be one choir, but two: that we should aim to start a boys' choir and a girls' choir, since experience showed that a mixed children's choir often became a girls' choir only - and even more so where there is little tradition of boys singing.

There were many conversations, and passionate voices, and at times it might have been tempting "just to get something going". But we found the patience to wait until we had a solid vision of what we were trying to achieve before searching for the right person to lead the project.

Once we had appointed him as our director of children's choirs, the charismatic Ben Clark got the children excited about singing through a series of workshops in local schools, and then auditioned those who wanted to join up.

Sixty children have been recruited from the primary schools of Brixton and Camberwell, and you can count on one hand the young singers who had been inside St John the Divine on a Sunday morning six months ago (not to mention their families).

Weekly rehearsals started after Easter, and in July the choristers were taken on a residential to St John's College Choir School in Cambridge, for an intense four days of singing, leading up to a service of choral evensong. The same is planned for next summer, but with two evensongs and a eucharist.

The choirs' regular monthly pattern of services is now established. One children's choir sings for the parish eucharist once a month, and the other for evensong. By Christmas, the new choirs should be kitted out in cassocks and surplices, for which supporters have been digging deep. We have a keen desire to show that the children can look, as well as sound, as good as the best: not just liking the music - and the worship - but loving it.

We reject any suggestion that this is élitist. This is about being ambitious for our inner-city children, and believing that they can achieve as much as anyone else, if only they are given the opportunity. There is a pernicious stereotyping of children from black and minority-ethnic backgrounds (the majority of the members of the choirs), that only certain things will appeal to them - that they will only sing gospel or hip hop, for example.

Our children should not be pigeonholed into this kind of music, though it might be a part of their diet; they can also acquire a love for classical music and for the repertoire of the Anglican choral tradition. After nine months of singing, they are still coming, and they respond best to the most challenging music they are given. Children are very good at sniffing out things that are not genuine. We believe that they can do it, and they have responded with enthusiasm.

This is a "caught, not taught" approach to mission, which we believe will be the likely to be the most successful way of nurturing children into adulthood within the church. Very often, children's work in church is about dumbing down and doing things that no grown-up would want to be seen dead (or, in this case, heard dead) doing.

Some of what we do for and with children is like that, and this is inevitable, because some of what we adults want to do in worship and other ways would bore children. But experience shows that those who survive church into adulthood have usually had regular involvement in what goes on in the main service, and are challenged to contribute in a grown-up way - be that as an altar server or a musician.

This is, of course, not a one-way track. The presence of 60 young choristers is tremendously enriching to the community, and, besides being enthusiastic champions of the children, the adult choir and the congregation are enlivened by them.

The novel point about these choirs is that they are inducting children into what we adults have come to find valuable. We do not aim to have children's choirs singing children's ditties, but, rather, children gradually learning about the gospel in the style (in particular, choral style) that the members of St John the Divine find nourishing. In the process, we adult worshippers rejoice to see children being put in touch with the music that is in them, and with the love of Christ, which they are helping us to celebrate.

The Revd Mark Williams is Vicar of St John the Divine, Kennington, in the diocese of Southwark.

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