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Interview: June Boyce-Tillman priest, composer, and academic

11 July 2014

'Many women don't start their real work until they are older'

In Tune with Heaven or Not tells the story of the women in Christian liturgical music traditions. One concerns hymn-writing, where women are well represented from the 19th century onwards.

I did over 20 interviews with women involved in alternative worshipping groups in the US, Iceland, Germany, and the UK. The first chapter and the conclusion deal with feminist theology and musicology brought together to produce a model of musicking in Wisdom's ways.

I was inspired to write it to reveal some of the hidden stories in Christianity. If my generation of women don't tell these stories, we shall lose another part of our history. Only by telling stories will we defeat stories that diminish women.

A week or so ago, there was a concert featuring a new concerto for organ and orchestra by Kaija Saariaho, an internationally acclaimed composer, commissioned by the Southbank as part of the celebrations of the restoration of the Royal Festival Hall organ. All the reviews I saw were excellent. Apparently a man well known in the musical world came up afterwards to congratulate her. He said some nice things about the piece, and then he said: "Did you write it all yourself?" She said, 'Yes, of course." He said: "Did you not have some help?" She said: "No!" "But with things like the orchestration, didn't you need help?" This happened a week ago, in 2014 - not 1914.

I'm a self-supporting priest attached to Holy Trinity, Roehampton, and an honorary chaplain to Winchester Cathedral, Professor of Applied Music at Winchester University, Extraordinary Professor at North-West University, South Africa, composer, conductor, doctoral supervisor, performer of one-woman shows, convenor of the Winchester Centre for the Arts as Well-being, and also spend some time working in schools - which I love, as I was a teacher for 25 years. All the children taught me so much, especially in the research that I did on children's composing and improvising.

I regard all of these activities as part of my priesthood. I love celeb-rating and preaching, and all my creative work. I love composing and performing. In the one-person performances, I sing, play, move, and tell stories - all mixed together.

I call myself Applied Professor of Music, because I'm more interested in what art can do for people than what people can do for art. I try to include as many different kinds of people as I can in my composing, because it creates well-being in society as well as individuals.

The Great Turning was performed in Winchester Cathedral in March.  It's based on the book Stories of the Great Turning edited by Peter Reason and Melanie Newman. A lot of the work went into distilling what would work in a musical interpretation, and then versifying parts of the text. It emphasises that we are all in the cosmos together. The music ranges from unison songs to more complex pieces for choirs that can read notation. The orchestral parts were written for the Southern Sinfonia, and include parts for improvisation.

I love the big pieces in the cathedral with such a mix of people - old, young, literate, orate, experienced, inexperienced. I see that as my vocation.

I love ancient sacred spaces like Winchester Cathedral, where Dean James Atwell has allowed me to do so many wonderful things. I regularly sit there and pray the spaces before performances, and I have a real sense of communion with the ancient stones. The natural world and visionary experiences also provide me with inspiration.

God was my best friend throughout my childhood. He heard my most intimate thoughts and relieved me of my guilt. I had an altar in my bedroom which I tended carefully. I had visions of angels. I was considered a problem in my confirmation class because I asked too many questions. Finally, I grasped God's unknowability - the mystery - which became clearer through the interfaith dialogue that I started in 1986 in south London. I experience the Spirit through my creativity. My contemplative practice is part of enabling the Christ within me to grow.

My earliest memories of church are of wanting to be the priest. Most of my middle life I worked for women to be ordained. Then I was too busy being divorced when we finally achieved it. I thought carefully before I presented myself, as I was almost too old. But many women don't start their real work until they are older, because they have a career-break to care for children and parents.

I regard myself as a priest in all situations. When I was conducting The Great Turning and raising my hands to sustain the final chord, I realised it was the same gesture as I use for "Lift up your hearts" in the eucharist. I then realised that in both situations I was asking people to lift up their hearts.

I was at Westminster Abbey for John Tavener's memorial recently. There was only one woman in the procession, and she was a verger. After all the struggles we went through, women are not coming through the church hierarchies.

I see no greater hope in the area of sexuality, and I can see no basis in the life of Jesus for the Church's attitude on either of these issues. I wrote a hymn for the visit of Bishop Gene Robinson to St Martin-in-the-Fields. I think in music we can create a more inclusive Church than does the Church by including as great a variety of people as possible, and that's what I am working towards - a musical inclusive ecclesiology.

Jesus always includes people who are outsiders. This is important to me as a priest, and I wear my collar most of the time to show where I am coming from. I do sometimes surprise people as a priest wanting to reach out to other traditions. But my musical and my priestly functions coincide completely - to bring together, reconcile, and heal.

I studied music at St Hugh's College, Oxford. The music faculty was very male at the time: there were no women lecturing, and no women in the syllabus. Misogynist jokes were par for the course. The professor, playing from a Handel score, said: "This recitative starts 'wretched woman' and believe you me, Handel knew what he was talking about." It taught me that women do not compose or conduct. It took me another 20 years to challenge this learned disempowerment.

I was a lonely, isolated, abused only child of older parents, born three months premature during the war. One of my grandfathers was the village dance-band pianist, and the other sang in the church choir. There were musical evenings, and I remember sitting on the end of the double piano-stool while my grandfather played schottisches, military two-steps, and the Lancers. My parents gave me piano lessons, andI sang in the choir of St Mary's, Southampton. Most church choirs at that time did not include girls.

I've two caring sons and am divorced, but I have found some members of my father's family. I have one beautiful grandchild, Scarlett, who gives me so much joy.

The New Forest is my favourite place, as I grew up there. I love green places with lots of trees.

My piano teacher, Mary Rowe, and the Head of Music at Southampton Grammar School for Girls, Barbara Noyce, set me safely on my current path. St Hugh's College pro-vided me with a wonderful community of strong, intelligent women. I've been influenced by the feminist eco-theologian Mary Grey; and Ianthe Pratt, of the Association for Inclusive Language, and Cath-olic Women's Network, with whom I have worshipped for some 20 years, as well as Carol Boulter of WomenChurch.

Hildegard of Bingen has inspired me as a composer, as well as Stanford and Parry and English folk music. I've written two operas on her, and used much of her work in my pieces.

Recently I've loved Jonathan Sacks's The Dignity of Difference. My relaxation is whodunits, especially Dorothy Sayers and P. D. James.

I pray regularly for over an hour a day. I always pray three times a day for my family and close friends. I pray for peace-making initiatives and healing for the world. I pray for people who ask for my prayers, which sometimes includes my atheist friends.

I would like to be locked in a church with Mary Magdalene. I see her as a strong woman (not a prostitute, sinner, or mentally ill) who may have been involved in the remains of a goddess tradition in Jerusalem, and with whom Jesus could discuss his deepest ideas. She was a visionary for the rest of her life. I'd love to sort out some of the tangles around her history.

The Revd Professor June Boyce-Tillman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

In Tune with Heaven or Not: Women in Christian liturgical music is published by Peter Lang (£49).


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