PEOPLE come to church because of the music. This is the hypothesis behind a six-month-old scheme in Portsmouth diocese, which hopes to create a new congregation through singing.
Music is crucial to outreach, the project’s musical director, Alastair Ross, says, describing his new venture, the Choir Church scheme, based in Milton, Portsmouth.
Last year, the diocese announced that it would be investing in a new children’s and young people’s choir, in an effort to “use the power of music to launch a new congregation” (News, 31 August 2018).
The scheme was devised by Portsmouth Cathedral and its Master of Choristers, Dr David Price, in collaboration with the Priest-in-Charge of St James’s, Milton, Canon Paul Armstead.
Mr Ross himself is an unorthodox figure. He has the crests of each of the dioceses he has worked for tattooed on his left forearm, and could easil be mistaken for a fan of Portsmouth FC, which shares the same crest as his current diocese. He proved to me that he mainly supports York City and Hibernian, by showing me more tattoos.
His ability to bring people together through music is undeniable. Following him around for a few hours, it was easy to see how successful he has been already in building new relationships.
For example, there are the schoolchildren at a primary school, Meon Valley Juniors, who stay behind after school once a week just to sing. Then there is the community choir, Breve Easy, which Mr Ross runs in Milton.
“A huge amount of the work to start off with was networking,” Mr Ross says. “I needed to make a good impression, and it was building trust.
“Often, if you go in somewhere and say ‘I’m from the church,’ they go ‘Oh, right.’ But it has not been like that at all; they’ve all been lovely. I’ve gone into places and said: ‘I’m a musician, from St James’s, how can I help?’”
So far, Mr Ross has been invited into four local schools, and he says that there are another two in the pipeline. He has created tailor-made projects for each school.
“It has been wonderful. I’m at that point in some places where people go, ‘Oh hello, Mr Ross,’ and that is lovely. That was always going to be my main priority for the first six months, as well as hearing them singing.”
Witnessing one of his sessions at Meon Valley, it was possible to see how children were calmed and inspired. When the children entered the music room after school, many of them were in a noisy, playful mood; yet they quickly came together to concentrate on the singing.
While some are clearly more advanced than others, all coheres: the more skilled singers stop to help some of the newer children. Most can’t read music, but under the guidance of Mr Ross, this is no hindrance.
At the end of the session, the best performer on the day gets to choose a contemporary song to sing: songs from the Disney film Moana prove popular.
The children were rehearsing for the D-Day commemorations, held in Portsmouth earlier this month. The music is a little complicated, but Mr Ross was confident that the children would be fine on the day.
Breve Easy also performed on one of the stages in Southsea for the D-Day event — sadly not the main stage because of the rain.
The community choir came about because Mr Ross was aware that, while he was seeing children in schools, and, by and large, their grandparents’ generation at St James’s on a Sunday, it was difficult to meet parents and those in aged between.
The community choir had come on well, he said. “They’re sounding really good. That choir is pastorally useful as well. Parents show their emotions a lot more, in a funny way.”
Two members of the community choir, Lorraine and Rebecca, agree that it has been great fun. They both stayed on at the end of the Wednesday-night session to chat to Mr Ross about the music. The choir sing “Scarborough Fair” and a “Song for Peace”, but also have time to have fun with songs by ABBA, to the women’s obvious enjoyment.
It is too early for explicit evangelism, Mr Ross says. “It is less of a recruitment drive to start with; we are just letting people know we are here for everyone. Before the actual ‘come to church’, we’re just trying to make ourselves present.”
He is certain, though, that music is crucial to outreach: “These children that I’m currently seeing — if we sat down and read the Bible together, would they listen? This seems like a much more vibrant way of introducing ourselves.”
The existing congregation at St James’s, had been very welcoming, Mr Ross says. “When you’ve got a church like this, with such a rich heritage, it’s very hard to come crashing in and go ‘Wahey, let’s try this.’ I think it’s fair to say we’re doing things gently.
“We’ve got an all-ages service in July, and that will be the first time that I will bring a school choir into our Sunday-morning service.”
Meeting parents and adults outside the church is the most difficult thing, Mr Ross says. “It’s really difficult to access parents. It’s nobody’s fault; it’s just the way it is. I’ve got to know the kids, which is fantastic; but Milton is big, and I’m not going to sit at the bar all night, or go round someone’s house. It’s really hard to engage with them.”
It is too early to see whether the Choir Church model can be replicated. Ask me in three years, Mr Ross says.
“It can only be seen as a positive thing, though, and if other cathedrals were to do it, they would not regret it.”
Portsmouth is a perfect place for it, Mr Ross says, “because it’s not a stuffy place at all. Portsmouth Cathedral should not be intimidating in any way. But I can see why in other cities — I grew up in York — there’s a gap.”
The cathedral’s backing is vital, though, he says. “I spent so many years in cathedrals that the sung tradition to me is what sets me off, it’s what sets me alight. I think it’s really important to offer that to other people. . .
“The music inspires you and brings you so much closer to God. I think that should be an avenue we explore, just as much as the written scripture.”