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Choirs sing their fresh expression of church

21 February 2020

Choir Church

The Choir Church of St George-in-the-East, London, in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, in 2018

The Choir Church of St George-in-the-East, London, in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, in 2018

THE act of singing could bring about a redefinition of “church”, a conference in east London heard earlier this month.

The Choir Church Conference, held at St George-in-the-East, Shadwell, on 6 February, brought together 60 clergy and musicians from the UK to explore the evangelistic potential of choral music.

Addressing the gathering, the Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, the Revd Lucy Winkett, suggested that the very phrase Choir Church “starts to challenge some of our hard-wired existing assumptions that are betrayed by the way we use language: that church is, in fact, the building, that has people in it from time to time, and, as part of worship, there might be a choir then to help the people worship God.

“I’m suggesting an interpretation of the nature of church that means collective singing — in a choir in a school, or in a church building, or in a field or a concert hall — can, in itself, be an expression of church. Communal singing . . . carries features of church, calling for a measure of obedience to the creator’s intention, while retaining room for individual expression, valuing . . . silence as well as sound, dissonance as well as harmony.”

Choir Church was “proposing a way of being church — collective singing — that has the potential to be nothing less than another singing Reformation”.

There has been a growing interest in how choirs can bring young people to faith (Features, 17 November 2017). A Choir Church initiative was launched last year in Milton, Portsmouth, devised by Portsmouth Cathedral and its Organist and Master of Choristers, Dr David Price, in collaboration with the Priest-in-Charge of St James’s, Milton, Canon Paul Armstead (News, 28 June 2019).

St George-in-the-East, in the diocese of London, is one of the pioneers of the movement: a choral mass is sung by children at its church school, St Paul’s, Wellclose Square, once a month (Features, 17 November 2017). The conference began at the school with a performance by the choir.

In a later workshop, the Revd Vienna McCarthy, the church’s Associate Rector, listed the ingredients of choir church as “a local school, eucharist, choral music and social justice”. Before the launch of Choir Church, she said, only one family with children at the school attended St George’s on a Sunday morning.

“Rather than hoping and praying that families in the school would come here to St George’s, Choir Church decided from the outside that it would go into the parish school. . . People who were on the fringes of the church . . . have found a way through Choir Church to plug back in.” There have been seven baptisms among those who attend Choir Church, and this week the Rector, the Revd Richard Springer, reported that six families were now also attending Sunday services.

The church’s director of music, Tom Daggett, who also leads the music-education programme at St Paul’s Cathedral, and was one of the organisers of the conference, rehearses with the children every Wednesday.

Choir Church “takes children’s formation seriously through music”, he said this week. “It’s also very flexible, and goes further than music outreach programmes by saying that the choir could be the church itself . . . bringing children to Jesus, but also taking music seriously — music with a purpose.” It was a means of “democratising our English choral tradition”, and contributing to social justice, he suggested, reaching primary schools that were “full of diverse people”.

In her talk, Ms McCarthy detailed the school’s involvement in community organising through Citizens UK, and trips to Cambridge and Oxford “to sing in otherworldly chapels and have a taste of the kind of opportunities that are theirs to take”.

“Choir Church is also about giving children experience that is in keeping with the experience they would have as they get older in church,” Mr Springer said.

Among the ideas being discussed by Mr Daggett and others is the potential to grow the movement was the establishment of an academy for young music graduates, who could form partnerships with primary schools and parish churches

Among the clergy in attendance was the Vicar of St Mary’s, Willesden, west London, the Revd Christopher Phillips, who is considering establishing a Choir Church in his parish.

“It just goes to show that proper choral music attracts young people,” he said last week. “I knew this anyway from my experience as a curate in Ilkley, but the day gave me confidence to see that it works in the inner city, too. Hopefully, the seeds that have been planted here will lead to a network of churches and schools who recognise the value of excellence in singing as a tool for mission and evangelism among young people and their families.”

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