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Please enter through the choir stalls

02 February 2024

Sung worship opens doors, argues Andy Thomas


THE choir at St John’s, Waterloo, was, in many ways, a very ordinary choir, of the type to be found in many English parish churches and beyond. It consisted of volunteers from the congregation with a mix of musical abilities and experiences.

There was a core group on whom I could rely, Sunday by Sunday, alongside others whose attendance was more sporadic. We led the hymns and other sung parts of the worship, and sang a piece during communion — usually something short but effective, taken from Iona, Taizé, or international repertoire.

To me, however, this was a very special choir. I had arrived in late 2010 and agreed to develop the music on a voluntary basis, focusing firstly on building a choir. With essential support from a new vicar and proactive choir members, we had built it from scratch, despite being told that it had been tried before and failed.

The impact on the worship was significant: the hymns were now sung at a good pace — previously they dragged — and the choir piece during communion led to genuine, prayerful silence, once the distribution was complete, rather than the usual hum of chitter-chatter.

What really struck me was the way its impact rippled beyond the worship and into the church community. For example, my namesake Andy was new to the community and rediscovering his Christian faith. In conversation one Sunday, he let slip that he enjoyed singing. As he was a shy, self-effacing man, it took a while, but, eventually, I persuaded him to join the choir.

Shortly after I left in 2016, I asked him to comment on his experience of doing so. “How much richer has my whole church, worship, and companionship experience been for the spirituality of our music,” he wrote. “I feel so much more part of St John’s because I was asked to sing. They had the confidence I didn’t. But now I do have it and I carry it in everything I do both in church and outside.”

Singing in the choir transformed Andy’s experience of St John’s. It gave him a sense of belonging, enriched his experience of worship, and bolstered his self-confidence in a way that had an impact on his life beyond the church walls.

Furthermore, the choir membership reflected the ethnic diversity in the congregation — at one point, I counted eight different nationalities. This enabled us to draw it out and celebrate it — for example, by singing repertoire that was distinctive of the different cultures. The choir even helped the gathered community to process difficult events, such as the death of Holly, a longstanding member who was famous for wearing a decorated bedpan as a hat for the Queen’s Jubilee.

I’ll never forget how the choir broke out into spontaneous singing during the final hymn, the Sunday morning after Holly died, and how that turned the worship from one of awkwardness, where people didn’t know how to respond, into a brief celebration of her long and colourful life.


ST PAUL described the Church as the body of Christ — one that is made up of many members performing a variety of functions, like the different parts of a body. Church music is one of those functions, and that is often the extent of the inspiration we draw from that metaphor as church musicians.

Yet there is so much more we can learn from it. In particular, what I hadn’t appreciated until reflecting on my experience at St John’s is how church music helps us to build the body of Christ.

Paul outlined two stages to building the body of Christ: first, the body is knitted together by the Holy Spirit; then it is built up and invigorated by love. In terms of the first stage, music is often connected with an experience of the Spirit, whether as part of “Spirit-led” worship, or prompted by the evocative sound of a robed choir or instrumental group.

What St John’s and many other churches have taught me is that you don’t need either of those things to connect with the divine — to catch a glimpse of a reality that transcends this one, and is profoundly greater than it. Experiencing a diversity of voices singing in straightforward harmony can give you a powerful sense of a Christlike reality where individuals truly listen to and accommodate each other: one that is diverse yet unified — shaped by the individuals that comprise it, but greater than the sum of its parts.

Furthermore, the uncertainty that is characteristic of leading voluntary, developing choirs or instrumental groups forces you to make room for the Spirit. At St John’s, there were occasions where I changed the choir piece ten minutes before the Sunday-morning rehearsal because (say) no men had turned up, and found that the revised choice worked better than the original choice would have done. At least once, to bolster one of the sections, I drafted in an unsuspecting newcomer, who then found their home in the choir.

Once it has been knitted together by the Spirit, the second stage is that the body is built up by love: by acting towards one another as exemplified by Jesus. Part of this is what Paul referred to as “discerning the body of Christ” — enabling everyone, in all their diversity, to engage in worship.

I have already described how the congregational diversity that was represented in St John’s Choir helped us to reflect it during worship. In terms of engaging those beyond the immediate community, singing in a church choir — including one that is nascent and developing — enables spiritual growth, instils a sense of belonging, and can even transform your self-identity by giving you a part to play in the worshipping community.

These three elements, which are also central to Paul’s understanding of baptism, make joining a church choir an effective means of incorporation into the church community.


WHAT does all this mean in practice? First, if you lead music in worship, you should hold your head high, whether you are accompanying hymns on piano for a congregation of 15, persevering with a choir of eight, or leading a thriving robed choir or instrumental group. For you are helping to transform people and communities into the body of Christ.

The second implication is that, often, you don’t have to do much to get this transformative process going. Small steps make a big difference, such as the gradual introduction of some short, straightforward chants; or, more ambitiously, the forming of an occasional singing or instrumental group to help lead the congregation. You don’t need a full-time musical director to do this.

I am not a full-time, professional musician, and I was very much part-time at St John’s. It is a much easier task, however, if you master certain essentials, such as teaching straightforward music to a mixed-ability group, and understanding the available repertoire. The RSCM runs some excellent courses to that end.

The third implication is a challenge. Are you doing all that you can to help to transform the whole, diverse worshipping community in your midst?

What could I be doing? This will depend on your skills, experience, and time, and on the circumstances of your worshipping community. But I cannot see how any music leader can build Christlike communities effectively without engaging with the congregation in a sustained and meaningful way. Therefore, I would encourage you to:

  • Reach out. If you haven’t already, get to know the people in the congregation — new and not so new — focusing on their background, culture, hopes, fears, and personalities first, and only then their musical skills and experience. Get to know the ministers and their vision for the community.
  • Draw out. Use what you’ve learned to pick appropriate repertoire that draws out and celebrates the diversity in the congregation; and identify opportunities to encourage people to offer their voices and instruments in worship.
  • Work out. Introduce simple music that requires people to really listen to and accommodate each other, such as short songs in straightforward harmony, rounds, and chants that are sung in “free time” as if you are speaking them (e.g. Gregorian chants). Rehearse with the congregation regularly, and develop a discipline.
  • Look out. Look for the opportunities that are created when things don’t go to plan. Be suspicious when it’s feeling routine and rather comfortable: ensuring inclusion alongside good-quality church music is never easy.
  • Sing out. Have confidence in the importance of what you’re doing. Focus on the good that you and those you lead are generating rather than the musical challenges you are working through.

In sum, if the Church is the body of Christ, then “church” music is “body of Christ” music. It is one of the activities we do to transform us into the body of Christ — and a very effective one, including in churches with limited musical resources.

A short while after St John’s Choir was formed, we held a brief commissioning service, which ended with the prayer: “May the Lord give you wisdom, imagination, courage, strength, and love to lead and make music to God’s praise and glory. Amen.”


Andy Thomas is the author of Resounding Body: Building Christlike church communities through music (Sacristy Press, 2020). He will be speaking at the Church Times Festival of Faith and Music, to be held in York 26-28 April. faithandmusic.hymnsam.co.uk

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