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Choir could be better than Sunday school, seminar hears

16 September 2021

Ash Mills

A chorister shows his robes to children attending the 2019 “Be a chorister for the day” event at Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral has restarted the programme, hosting any child in Years 2, 3, and 4 who enjoys singing, on 2 October. Details at salisburycathedral.org.uk

A chorister shows his robes to children attending the 2019 “Be a chorister for the day” event at Salisbury Cathedral. The cathedral has restarted the programme, hosting any child in Years 2, 3, and 4 who enjoys singing, on 2 October. Details at salisburycathedral.org.uk

CHOIRS and church music groups can provide an unthreatening, inclusive, and long-lasting route into the life of the Church, particularly for children and young people, a seminar offered by the Church of England’s national evangelism and discipleship team suggested this week.

The seminar, “Harnessing the power of music for mission”, was held in collaboration with the Royal Society of Church Music (RSCM), whose deputy director, Canon Sally-Anne McDougall, warned against the assumption that children and young people “will only be interested in a particular kind of church, and that won’t be one that has a choir in it.

“In my experience, that just isn’t true. Children and young people are not all the same, and neither is the kind of church or theological environment in which they will thrive.”

Introducing the seminar, held on Tuesday, the C of E’s National Lead on Evangelism and Discipleship, the Revd Dr Stephen Hance, observed: “While most Sunday schools and youth groups up and down the country, wonderful though they are, are mainly engaging perhaps with young people who have grown up in churchgoing families, when we look at choirs in cathedrals and churches . . . we find that there are a lot of young people there who have come from no particular Christian faith background at all. They have been drawn in because they like the singing, and want to be part of delivering music.”

Churches often focused on Sunday school and pre-school groups, Canon McDougall said. They were a “vital and essential part of church life. . . But I think if they were really working as a piece of substantive faith development then we might expect to see more older children continuing to engage in a way which perhaps we don’t. . .

“I think at our peril we take the view that if we plant a seed at Sunday school, people will come back when they have their own children. . . It doesn’t always happen, and we need to be alert to engaging in other ways with children and young people through music.”

Music had “a really serious role to play in helping the Church and its mission, to a degree which I think probably isn’t always fully recognised or harnessed”, she said. “Music done properly is a seriously powerful way to introduce, to discuss, to express, to embed faith into the lives of children . . . If we get this right, then we keep that connection through the teenage years and into adulthood.”

RSCM’s director, Hugh Morris, described experiences from his time as director of music at Christchurch Priory, on the south coast, including the story of an entire family who had been baptised and confirmed after initially becoming involved through their sons’ participation in the choir. “They didn’t just fade away when the boys stopped being trebles in the choir . . . because they had found a place.” He and his wife had also set up a discussion group in which teenagers in the choir could explore topics in more depth.

Among the RSCM resources highlighted was the training programme Voice for Life, which includes a “choir in context” module. Discussions about faith did not have to be done in formalised ways, Mr Morris argued. “I can talk about the meaning of music: just a little sentence here and there. . . So it’s not just ‘Here is a piece of music: let’s sing it.’ Why is it there? Why have we chosen it? What can it do?

“Music covers so many different emotions: it can support you through a whole load of different circumstances. It doesn’t stop being of any use when you stop feeling good about yourself.”

RSCM’s regional manager for south and south-west England, David Scott-Thomas, described the new programme Hymnpact!, which is aimed at helping to bridge “the gap between traditional church and modern school music”. Currently, children were often brought into churches as part of school services. “They will often sing a song or hymn, receive very polite applause, and that will be it.” RSCM sought to make the experience more meaningful, and help schools and congregations to work together. A team of writers and arrangers had created ten hymns that were aimed at children aged seven to 11 and could be performed in various contexts, accompanied by a single piano or a full ensemble.

During the course of the seminar, speakers warned that much had changed since some churchgoers had been at school themselves. Mr Morris noted that “you can’t necessarily expect children to turn up every Sunday morning at 9.30 for choir practice to sing at the ten-o’clock service,” while Mr Scott-Thomas said that those who approached schools seeking to work only with a single sex were likely to find “the door very firmly closed”.

Dr Hance noted that music could be an “unthreatening” route into the life of a church, and that choirs modelled an intergenerational approach that introduced children and young people to liturgy. In contrast, a Sunday school could be “completely and utterly different in every single respect, including look, feel, ethos” from the main service. It was then a “really big jump for people to make”.

Choirs were a “great leveller”, Mr Morris said. “In the same cathedral choir I had people who were the children of very wealthy solicitors . . . and kids from council estates, and you couldn’t possibly tell when they were singing in the choir.”

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