From the choir stalls to the altar

17 November 2017

Madeleine Davies hears how choirs are drawing children, and their families, into the life of the Church of England

ALL SAINTS, NORTHAMPTON

Stalls to the altar: Choirboys at the altar rail at All Saints’, Northampton

Stalls to the altar: Choirboys at the altar rail at All Saints’, Northampton

WHEN the General Synod debated the renewal of the Church of England last year, it fell to one of its youngest members, Hannah Grivell, to mention an aspect of church life with a centuries-old record of bringing children through the Church’s doors. Young people were joining her church, and getting confirmed, after joining the robed choir.

“We have got to stop telling people what they need and want, and start asking what helps you grow in faith and come to church every week,” she argued (News, 15 July 2016).

Her story is echoed in other parishes. When Richard Bendelow agreed to become organist at St Leonard’s, Loftus, in Cleveland, one of the most deprived parishes in the country, he did so on one condition: that he could start a children’s choir. The last one had been disbanded in 1969. Today, there are 14 members — expected to be 20 by Christmas — who sing every Sunday morning. They have been recruited from schools (none of which are C of E) where teachers “jumped at it as a unique opportunity to give free musical education to white working-class kids on Teeside”, the Rector, the Revd Adam Gaunt, reports.

“So many churches now have ageing congregations and an ageing organist, and people are asking ‘What is the future going to look like?” he says. The church’s worship has been “embellished” by the choir, he continues, “and the average age of the congregation has significantly changed, with new families coming in. I thought that the choir would appeal to more middle-class people, but, actually, they are already doing stuff on Sundays; so it’s actually appealing to the children that perhaps don’t already do football or rugby or cricket.”

With funding from the PCC and private donors, the church has been able to buy robes for the choir, and a programme of social activities has been started, including a visit to Middlesbrough F.C. In August, the choir sang for a wedding, and this year there were 20 confirmation candidates: the most since 1969.

 

WHILE Mr Gaunt’s experience of revival is not unique, the organist and Master of the Choristers at Portsmouth Cathedral, Dr David Price, expresses sadness about the decline of children’s choirs, and says that he has observed a “massive polarisation” between cathedrals and parishes, musically. “Twenty-five to 30 years ago, you could have recruited [for cathedral choirs] from big parish churches. There are some great churches that do it well, but not as many as there used to be.”

He grew up in a small village in Wiltshire, where 24 boys and 12 men sang in the parish church every Sunday. “It was a vibrant group, and that was mirrored in most places. Then lots of things kicked in and knocked that tradition sideways.” He mentions the wide choice of extra-curricular activities available to children, and the growth in separation and divorce that means children are often travelling between two homes.

ALL SAINTS, NORTHAMPTONSinging together: choristers from All Saints’, Northampton, at the David Ross Education Trust Music Festival, in March

He believes that it is “not a bad thing” that there is liturgical and musical variety in the C of E, but he fears that there has been a “classic situation of throwing out the baby with the bath water, in that it has gone too far in one direction”. He refers to the announcement by the composer James MacMillan, in 2013, that he would no longer write congregational music for the Roman Catholic Church. (MacMillan explained: “The vast repository of tradition is ignored and wilfully forgotten.” New settings, he said, were “stodgy and sentimental, tonally and rhythmically stilted, melodically inane”.)

Dr Price has found that ceremony is important to the children with whom he works. He recalls how, ten years ago, a priest he was working with wanted to experiment with evensong. The change that the choristers resisted most was the suggestion that they abandon robes. “They wanted to do something different for God,” he says, “and part of that is dressing up for it, and doing something other-worldly. It is why we want to make church buildings beautiful. It’s not another hall. A choir and music is part of that trying to make something heavenly and divine.”

Choirs represent a “massive opportunity” for churches, he argues. “If you want to have a vibrant church ministry, then music is a really easy win. Children are keen to be part of it, and there is still a lot of talent out there in terms of leadership; it just needs a little bit of money thrown at it.” Through its outreach programme, Cathedral Sing, the cathedral is working with thousands of children every year.

Most of the choristers at the cathedral come from unchurched families. The mother of one chorister baptised and confirmed last Easter is now exploring ordination; the parents of another were confirmed at the same time as their son’s baptism. “People come to the choir because they want music, but then subsequently find faith through that music,” he observes.

 

THE origins of the “traditional” parish choir, robed and sitting in the chancel, are “nothing like as ancient as is commonly imagined,” Dean Trevor Beeson, writing in In Tuneful Accord: The church musicians, says. He found the first recorded instance in 1818, when six men and six boy-choristers led worship at Leeds Parish Church; by 1860, they were “widespread”, “a reaction against the dull West Gallery singers” (Features, 25 August).

The war years had a “devastating effect” on parish choirs, including the recruitment of boys, but they were exacerbated by other changes, including education reforms in the 1950s, which meant that the children who might once have been recruited from church schools moved to larger, more distant, state secondaries. Meanwhile, “television offered a greater excitement than most choir practices”.

The increase in the number of parishes that were adopting the eucharist as their main Sunday worship, with its emphasis on congregational singing, and the disappearance of choral matins and the decline of evensong, also challenged the place of choirs, as did the revival of the Evangelical movement, with its informal, guitar-led music, in the 1960s.

The fact that, “in an increasingly secular age, many thousands of dedicated amateur singers and instrumentalists are still ready to assist the church’s worship . . . is a matter for wonder and gratitude,” Dean Beeson concluded.

ADAM GAUNTHappy day: the new choir at St Leonard’s, Loftus, at a wedding, this year

 

TOM DAGGETT, who leads the music-education programme at St Paul’s Cathedral, founded the Hackney Children’s Choir in 2014. He had been been “surprised by the [low] level of provision in terms of music education, and also the lack of children’s voices heard on regular occasion in church”. Children were recruited from nine schools, and now sing regularly, including at the cathedral. He is also director of music at St-George-in-the-East, in London, which last year planted a congregation based around a choral eucharist at the church school, sung on the first Wednesday of the month.

A “good deal of singing” takes place in C of E schools, he thinks, “but what is being slightly lost is the focus on sharing a real range of music with kids, including the choral tradition, and also the skill of being able to read music and get through lots of material. The older generation across the country sings really well, because they went to church and sang in school.” He also laments that “funding for music education has been totally decimated, especially at secondary-school level.” The Church can “speak into this issue in really imaginative ways”.

He regrets the low expectations of children’s abilities. “Standards were so high, and people believed that children could achieve great things as musicians at an early age,” he explains. “Now, too many people dumb down music for kids. . . One school spent a whole term learning to sing “Amazing grace”, which is diabolical. You should be able to teach that in two minutes, and have them singing it from memory, frankly.”

He tells the story of a school in London where children told teachers they preferred the Orbis Factor that they had learned at the parish church to the repertoire touted as being more child-friendly.

He is also aware that there are insufficient numbers of people coming forward as choral educators. “This is a really viable career-option for professional musicians, and the Church should support it, frankly. I get lots of requests saying: ‘We have an ancient choir: is there anything you can suggest?’ and I say, ‘Yes, create a children’s choir.

“You need to find the money to pay someone to do it, and have enough money to resource it. If you don’t resource music in your parish, and have bad music, what do you expect is going to happen?”

 

“I GENUINELY have no idea where I would be now, or what I would be doing, had I not been involved in my church choir,” says Dr Amanda Mackey, an academic whose doctorate explored girls’ choirs (News, 27 May 2016). She was a member of her parish church choir from the age of six to 18. “It was definitely my introduction to church, and probably my introduction to faith. When I got involved in youth group in my teens, my personal connection to what was going on theology-wise and faith-wise was through the music that I already knew.” 

She remembers her choir director as “a mentor to me in my rather difficult teen years”.

She agrees that there are many opportunities open to children, but argues that there are “very few which encourage professionalism, teamwork, and personal accountability without a competitive factor. Choir does that. And, in a parish-church choir, you may get to sing in a multi-generational group. How often can kids work together as equal members of a team with adults, held to the same standard as the adults?”

Although initiatives such as “Sing Up” (for which the Government allocated £1 million to cathedrals) have in the past engaged tens of thousands of children, she believes that cathedrals could promote more singing in parishes. She points to “great work” in the Roman Catholic diocese of Leeds, where choral directors work with 3500 children every week, across 53 schools.

She has a number of suggestions: “What if a cathedral paired up with a nearby parish church during auditions, and those young singers who are not quite ready for the cathedral choir go and sing with the parish church until the next audition round, to help strengthen whatever was lacking?”

Having started two children’s choirs herself, her advice to people starting from scratch is “Don’t scare off your new budding singers with sky-high expectations. Meet them where they are, and set tiny achievable goals, and celebrate each one, because they will almost certainly be hard-won.”

ALL SAINTS, NORTHAMPTONPraise: members of the choir of All Saints, Northampton, at the David Ross Education Trust Music Festival, in March

 

THE Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) provides a framework for choral singers to develop their skills through its programme Voice for Life, started 50 years ago. The head of education, Rosemary Field, reports that about 600 children every year pass the exams (all of the choristers who started last year at Loftus have passed the second of five levels).

Her question about contemporary worship music in the “lighter popular” genre is: “If we are only at home in any one century, how do we cope with our origins and our roots?” After all, translators of scripture generally seek to be accurate rather than adopt popular parlance. She also thinks that it is a “big misconception to predicate everything on the idea that children like this or like that, because, actually, they are only exposed to what they are exposed to. If they have not seen all the choices, then you get a skewed answer.”

 

KEITH GETTY, the composer who wrote hymns that include “In Christ alone”, is more critical of the modern-worship movement, which he accuses of causing “carnage. . . [It] said it was more towards youth; it was more actually just towards individuals.” A passionate advocate of congregational singing, he launched his initiative “Sing!” this year, beginning with a summit in Nashville and touring throughout the United States.

He is concerned that, where once hymns were chosen for collections because of their likely long-term duration, the modern-worship movement asks “what song can speak to the moment, sounds like the moment, even sounds like radio?” Hymns are scriptural, offer poetic, nuanced lyrics, and are written for congregations, he says. “A lot of modern worship was written for someone to perform on radio.”

He suspects that “one of the reasons why the fall-out [from churches] between 20- to 40-year-olds is almost as critical as the fall-out in the teenager years is that they bought into a Christian faith with light songs that gave simple answers to difficult questions.”

He tells the story of Cecil Frances Alexander, who wrote hymns, including “Once in royal David’s city”, to teach children the faith. “She was concerned they were singing shallow songs and that would be chaotic for their life later, [offering] a shallow understanding of God.”

Choirs also allowed children “who would otherwise be outside the auspices of church . . . to know that the corridors and halls of that old building were somewhere they could be welcomed, admitted, and applauded”, and taught that “you are not the centre of the world but part of the whole body of people”.

Mr Getty estimates that it takes about three years to build a children’s choir (“unless you have outstanding leadership, and a surplus of children, which is a rarity”) and advises churches to begin by focusing on key dates in the life of the Church.

 

AT ALL SAINTS’, Northampton, there is a record of boy choristers that dates back to 1388. Today, the church has a combined choir of 40 singers, including three separate choruses (boy choristers, girl choristers, and adult/teenage choral scholars) recruited from 27 schools. The net is cast wide across the county and beyond.

The music director, Jem Lowther, is conscious that the Church is now competing with a range of activities that take place on a Sunday, but reports that there is “absolutely no lack of interest from parents or children . . . the difference is that, increasingly, you have to go to them; they won’t necessarily come to you”. He goes out into towns and schools, confident that “what we are doing is of much greater value than almost any other extra-curricular activity they could be doing”.

The Rector, the Revd Oliver Coss, thinks that it can be hard for churches to persuade PCCs to invest in music if they do not “immediately see a bond with people who are coming in”. Nevertheless, he understands that the choir is a form of youth ministry, and an opportunity to “begin nurturing Christian life” within those who attend.

ST JOHN THE DIVINEWalking together: the choir of St John the Divine, Kennington, at a residential in St John’s College, Cambridge, this year

Almost all of the choristers who have joined in the past year have come from outside the congregation. A “very large number” were confirmed last year. He tries to be “relaxed” about drawing choristers and their families into the life of the Church, he says: “not being in too much of a hurry to write someone on a diocesan stats form, but having an interest in what is going on their lives.”

Mr Coss echoes others on the power of choral music. “We can festishise inculturation and incarnational worship to say only that which reflects the beat of the times is valid,” he reflects. “That is not true when we think about transcendence: doing something different and stepping outside of culture, especially when being immersed means high levels of mental health problems and anxiety that arise from a pressurised environment.”

Choirs started in recent years report encouraging developments. Four years after the establishment, from scratch, of a girls’ choir and a boys’ choir at St John the Divine, Kennington, in south London (Arts, 29 November 2013), a senior choir has now been added. In total, more than 70 children are involved. Looking back, the Vicar, the Revd Mark Williams, considers the choice of musical director “absolutely crucial”. It is also important, he advises, to be “clear what the choirs are for — they need to have a role that is clear and coherent. Young people will sniff out things that don’t add up. So don’t try and be all things to all people: decide what you’re going to do, and do it well, whether that is choral, gospel, or whatever.”

While decline is undeniable, children’s choirs still function in many parishes, and are returning in others. St Botolph’s, Boston, launched a children’s choir last year; St Paul’s, Shipley, runs a junior choir, singing a mixture of Christian and secular music; and the choir of boys and men at St John the Baptist, Broughton, tours nationally, and beyond.

 

A YEAR on from her speech at the General Synod, Mrs Grivell remains a persuasive advocate for choirs. She began singing in a church choir at the age of 11, and is “not sure I would still be in church” without it. “It was a reason to go every week.”

She now worships and sings at Christ Church, Belper, alongside a number of young people who originally became involved, three years ago, through a yearly pantomime run by the youth group. “We said: ‘You can come to choir,’ and they did, it was a bit crazy!” They are now working through the RSCM’s Voice for Life scheme, and, last year, three were confirmed.

“Singing every week, you really start to understand and experience it,” Mrs Grivell says. “Especially going through things like Christmas and Holy Week, and really living it and being part of it rather than just attending; you start to come to faith, I think.”

Singing has shaped her own faith. “Bible verses are often put into hymns, and the way you sing it and hear it can be entirely different to when someone is reading it, or you are reading it,” she says. “I always try to sing the meaning of the text. . . It made me understand passages a lot better, and the type of God we have, who loves and cares for us.”

She agrees with others about the power of choral worship. “Some hymns just have that fantastic depth to them. . . You can have a nice song on a guitar, but when you get a four-part harmony and nail it, and it just sounds beautiful, it’s incredible to be part of. That is really where it’s at.”

Listen to Madeleine Davies talk more about this article on The Church Times Podcast.

Forthcoming Events

16-18 February 2018
Church Times Festival of Faith & Literature

Our literary festival with a theological slant in Bloxham, Oxfordshire. Speakers include Francis Spufford, Ruth Valerio, Eve Poole, Mark Oakley, James Runcie and many others. Find out more

5-6 May 2018
Church Times Festival of Poetry
With Sarum College, Salisbury. More details coming soon - register your interest here

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

The Church Times Podcast, hosted by Tim Wyatt and Ed Thornton, features a mixture of interviews and news analysis. Listen online

Subscribe now to get full access

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read seven articles each month for free.