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Book review: On Voice: Speech, song and silence, human and divine by Victoria Johnson

10 May 2024

Philip Welsh considers a thoughtful book about the vocation to praise

THE originality of On Voice is to have found a theme that sends the Christian imagination in such a fertile range of directions, centred in the conviction that “There is no other purpose than to praise God. . . The call of the church is to sing along with the voice of Christ in creation.”

Victoria Johnson writes from her years as Precentor of York Minster, before moving to Cambridge. Yet what she says is not restricted to “the ‘elite’ soundtrack of Anglicanism”. She writes sensitively about the reality of parish music (“just as long as the vicar has chosen a good tune that everyone knows”), and convincingly conveys the power of football supporters’ singing, acknowledging that it is often “neither virtuous nor kind” (Features, 5 January).

We hear about the voice of God in creation, and in the unknown voice of Jesus “that resounds in the vocative”; in church bells, “reminding the world there is another story to tell”; in organs; and in the preacher’s voice. She would like the metaphor of God as light amplified into God as sound. She explores the Church’s loss of voice with Covid, the vanished world of castrati voices, and the new world of AI-generated voices, and attends to voices that have been ignored, and to the voice of silence. Nor do the whales go unheard.

This is not a systematic or analytical study, but a thought-provoking sequence of meditations which does not define voice too narrowly, but roams across song and speech, sound, and silence. The author is often personal and autobiographical, sometimes quite lyrical, just occasionally floating off into the triforium.

I would be interested to know what the author would say to those who don’t hear the various voices as well as we used to. Where does it leave us, if we hear the organ but can’t recognise the tune; if we barely hear our singing voice, let alone other people’s; and if the hearing loop gives access to the voices of those leading worship, but suppresses the congregational voice?

Like a good sermon, the strength of On Voice is not any attempt to say the last word on the subject, but its capacity to generate thoughts and connections of our own, unsuspected by the writer — as I found when visiting a current exhibition at the Bodleian.

On arrival, one is confronted by the freakish manuscript of the 12th-century Ormulum, homilies in English on Bible readings at the mass, which uses the author’s home-made phonetic spelling, possibly to help clergy more at home in Latin or French to find their vernacular voice. And it uniquely enables us to hear the voice of our distant ancestors, and not just read their words. At the other end of the room is a typescript of a late poem by Samuel Beckett, written after an episode of aphasia or loss of speech, its conclusion the more poignant as being the author’s final published words:

folly for to need to seem to

a faint afar away over the
what —
what is the word —
what is the word

No full stop. The voice just hangs there.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

On Voice: Speech, song and silence, human and divine
Victoria Johnson
DLT £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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