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Music and mission are ‘a secret chord’, Dr Hance tells RSCM conference

21 March 2023

Gloucester Cathedral

The choir of Gloucester Cathedral prepare for Holy Week and Easter

The choir of Gloucester Cathedral prepare for Holy Week and Easter

MUSIC shapes the mission of the Church: who it attracts and who it repels, the Revd Dr Stephen Hance, who is the Church of England’s national lead for evangelism, told the annual Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) online conference on Saturday.

Music is a way to the divine, he said.

In a keynote speech titled “The Secret Chord”, Dr Hance reflected on the power of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to touch people from many faith backgrounds and none. The connections between music, faith, and mission had always been integral, he said. “Music and mission are a kind of ‘secret chord’ which when combined can be extremely powerful. . .

“Music as a way to encounter with God puts us all on a level playing field. Through music, the Spirit of God invites us all to come further on and further in, no matter what our starting point. Music gently erases the boundary markers which we are so good at drawing, the boundaries between those who are inside and those who are not.” Cohen’s song had “a depth there that made many of our songs seem trite. . . When the spirit is with us then music touches us at a level that words rarely do.”

The Church existed to be in every place for every person, and was concerned, not only to offer songs of worship to God, but to enable others to do the same, Dr Hance said. Music was also a crucial tool to attract a younger and more diverse congregation. Music was intrinsic to every culture.

“If we want to reach some underrepresented cultural group, we will need new music to do it. . . If we want to attract people who are different to the ones we already have then we will have to think about what music will help or hinder that cause.”

A new approach was needed, he suggested, from embracing “the best choral worship we can offer” to “the most chaotic singing of toddler’s church”. He added that “it’s not about the music most of all, but about God. . . The secret chord of music and mission depends on putting God at the centre of it all.”

Quality did matter, he said. “The intent matters at least as much as the execution. . . But the ambition should always be to give of our best. . . God deserves our best. . . because beautiful music, however simple, can draw people into God’s presence, and conversely, music done badly . . . isn’t worth giving our best to. . .

“Music has the great capacity to draw in people who are not necessarily committed Christians at this moment, but who are talented musicians, and who may find, if they are allowed to put their gifts into church music, that faith emerges.”

Church and cathedral choirs were masterful at enabling personal and spiritual growth, Dr Hance said, referring to a transformation at St Leonard’s, Streatham, “in an unglamorous bit of South London . . . a thoroughly ordinary inner urban church, a little bit catholic but not really, a little bit evangelical but not that much, a building with beautiful bits” and a diverse congregation.

“This church has doubled in attendance over the five years the present Rector has been in post, and not from doing anything very left-field or wacky, but by investing in doing what we do as well as we can do it, and most especially the music and the liturgy. The present music director has built a wonderful choir through hard work and skilful networking and the music on a Sunday morning is always excellent, sometimes glorious. We now have a children’s choir who are taking their first steps and they will become excellent over time too.

“It’s all about the right level of investment in the people, helping them to discover and develop their skills and talents, to become more than they thought they could be. . . We call it discipleship.”

Music and mission was about variety and accessibility in today’s fragmented and diverse culture, he said, but this was not an argument for “dumbing-down” or advocating “blended worship”, of “trying to tick the boxes for all people. We should be investing in developing every style that connects with the significant numbers of people in our nation today.”

Dr Hance urged any church or benefice to “Do something. Do what your resources and context allow for. Perhaps find space for one other kind of expression of music, maybe a monthly Taizé service. Do one thing. It’s a massive challenge for the whole Church.”

Jonathan Robinson, a former resident at Iona Abbey, and a specialist in congregational singing, spoke of the power of music to rejuvenate the worship of a church. Congregational music was one way to unite and affirm, he said, suggesting that, “They’ll never sing that. . .” had been said of every introduction of a new setting for an old hymn. But the process of learning new things could be made as acceptable.

“Singing someone else’s song helps us to connect with them,” he suggested, likening the context to the communality that was created when a train broke down and passengers who had previous avoided contact had began to talk, “and even shared their sandwiches.” The church community was characterised by singleness of heart in seeking God’s approval.

“Introducing a new repertoire puts everyone in the same boat,” he said, emphasising the profitability of learning it before a gathering begins and offering many simple techniques for how best to do so. The impetus for learning a new song might be when a new Sunday is included in the liturgical calendar, or someone has returned from a summer camp passionate to see a new song adopted by the leadership, he said.

“Leaders and musicians must work together and love the people they’re serving,” he said. A repertoire list would always be intentionally balanced, “fuzzy at the edges, capable of resourcing a congregation. . . Believe in the song you are teaching. There is common purpose in striving together.”

Dr Andy Thomas, who has built a choir at the diverse church of St John’s, Waterloo, described church music as not only about the faith of people hearing it, but of those making it, in a session about developing the faith of a choir or music group.

“We can strengthen the links between choir and congregation, not just in the text we sing. To sing in harmony, you have to listen to others,” he reflected. “Your part only makes sense in relation to others. There is something of obedience to the people around you, to the music that enables you to sing in harmony and relates to believing and faith. It is a visual glimpse of Thy Kingdom Come.”

He recommended the Sunday by Sunday RSCM resource of short notes and commentary on the Bible readings. “Mass begins before you leave home on Sunday,” he said, emphasising the importance of the leader’s own prayer life in engaging the people they were leading.

He concluded that “getting to know the congregation as best we can and what helps them to connect with worship” was a good first step, citing the many different nationalities in the St John’s choir and a request from some from Sierra Leone: “Can we sing in Creole?”

The choir was part of the gathered assembly, he said.

“This is not a musical hierarchy. It is more than just a microcosm of the whole congregation. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’.”

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