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A Sermon from Sherborne
Sing we Merrily
A sermon for the end of the Abbey Choir’s year and the retirement of Paul Ellis, its Director, preached at Evensong on Sunday 7 July 2019 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes
“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching…one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Colossians 3:16).
So affirmed St Paul writing to the Christians at Colossi. That towering Tudor composer William Byrd would no doubt concur, reckoning singing to be as natural as breathing, and as beneficial to the body as to the soul: “Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing” he wrote, and we would all agree with him.
This evening, as we particularly celebrate our choir and its Director, our organists and all who make such glorious music in this Abbey Church, we do well to remember that this is not simply a pleasant pastime: it is the breath of life, the heart and lungs of worship; and as we have heard, the lung power behind me here is very considerable. Singing and making music is not just an adjunct to the worship of God. Remember St Augustine: “Those who sing pray twice over.” That has always struck me as especially pertinent to the singing of psalms. They were and remain central to Jewish worship; but in Miles Coverdale’s matchless (if sometimes less than accurate) translation in the Book of Common Prayer they have become a central pillar of traditional Anglican worship. In them we find the whole range of human emotions, from anger and anguish, through self-pity and self-righteousness, to ecstatic joy and electric outbursts of praise to God.
The psalms are a great treasury of devotional poetry, capturing the many moods of humans’ relationships with each other and with God. Just think of the opening verses of some. “Out of the deep have I called unto thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice” (130). “Lord, I am not high-minded: I have no proud looks” (131). “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept: when we remembered thee, O Sion” (137). And, for reassurance, “They that put their trust in the Lord shall be even as the Mount Sion: which may not be removed, but standeth fast for ever” (125). And there are, of course, many which express our natural reaction of thanks and praise: “I will magnify thee, O God my King: and I will praise thy Name for ever and ever. Every day will I give thanks unto thee” (145). Have you noticed that the psalmist, in his enthusiasm, often calls on everyone else to join in? “O praise the Lord. Laud ye the Name of the Lord: praise it, O ye servants of the Lord, ye that stand in the house of the Lord” (135). It could be the rallying-cry of our choir – appropriately, since they often sing it. In the following verses the psalmist provides the reason for this exuberant worship: “For why?” he asks, and answers “For the Lord is gracious….sing praises unto his Name, for it is lovely.” We worship God in song, not for anything that we might get out of it, but simply because He is lovely.
He is also the beneficent Creator of the universe, setting His “glory above the heavens,” as our psalm this evening (8) reminded us. It leads to a highly personal meditation (vv. 3 & 4): “For I will consider thy heavens, even the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained.” This is how one commentator imagines it, echoing our Rector’s eloquent description this morning of his thoughts under the Moroccan desert’s night sky. Patrick Woodhouse writes: “Could it just be that this psalm originated in the experience of a solitary poet, a devoted man steeped in the teachings, who is standing alone one night under the stars? We cannot possibly know. But we can imagine…. A poet is standing in the silence of a very dark and clear night on one of the spurs of the hills that surround Jerusalem. He gazes up into the vastness of the night sky. It is the clearest of nights. What he sees astounds him. Thousands upon thousands of stars scattered across the huge span of the heavens. In a moment of intense wonder this man sees the night sky as he has never seen it before. His response is to worship. ‘O Lord our governor’ – probably he whispered – ‘how glorious is your name in all the world!’” (Life in the Psalms, p. 107).
The psalms are indeed one of the great glories of our services, especially Evensong. But set them to Anglican chant and their effect is doubled (think of St Augustine and praying twice). I am constantly delighted and amazed by the inventiveness of our chant composers. They have a mere 14 bars to play with; yet the originality and diversity of the music they produce is a true wonder, matching and heightening the mood of the psalms they are set to. I hope and pray that, for you choristers especially, these words and tunes will always stay with you.
Evensong is a glorious celebration of our love for God and His for us, yet with the restraint and dignity proper to the Anglican tradition. Could Thomas Cranmer, as he devised this service, gathering material from the offices of Vespers and Compline and from continental liturgies, have conceivably dreamt of the wealth of music it would engender over the subsequent centuries right up to the present? It would surely astonish him.
The fact that Choral Evensong has been broadcast on BBC radio most Wednesday afternoons since 1926 speaks volumes about its appeal and reach. When in the late 1960s there was a plan to abandon it, despite fierce opposition, the only thing that persuaded them to retain it was a letter from a prisoner, who said this weekly broadcast was the one thing that kept him going and gave him hope. So it has remained, as a gracious reminder and continuation of our spiritual heritage.
Of course when dignified proceedings and live broadcasts mingle, unintentional low humour and bathos can now and then result. In a broadcast in the 1950s the cantor was given his note by the organist an octave higher than usual (perhaps to aid clarity), and, forgetting he was live on air, muttered very audibly, “What does the man think I am? A wretched canary?” I had a narrow escape five or six years ago while officiating on a live broadcast from Salisbury Cathedral. I was announcing the Office Hymn, The race that long in darkness pined. When I listened to the recording afterwards there was a pause, which was the moment I realized I had started to say “the pine that long in darkness raced.” It was a close-run thing.
Church choirs, and boy choristers in particular, have always been held in esteem. In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales the Prioress’ story tells of a small boy in the song school who so loves the beautiful plainsong antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater that – although he’s not old enough to be allowed to sing it – he persuades a senior chorister to teach it to him after school. Sadly the little chorister is kidnapped and killed in the story, but even after his death he continues to sing this prayer to the Virgin, and that leads to the capture of his killers. On a lighter note, Ernest Lough, nationally renowned as a treble in the later 1920s and the 1930s, related how, a year or two after his ground-breaking recording of Mendelssohn’s ‘Hear my prayer,’ he was in the record department of Selfridge’s as it was, by chance, being played. He was amused to overhear a woman assuring her friend, as they listened, that “that boy was taken up to heaven as he sang its highest note.” He did not reveal who he was: they might have thought he was a ghost.
High Esteem is the phrase that amply describes the way in which our choir is thought of and known. They lead our worship with beauty – the beauty of holiness – and with musical precision. So much of that, as we know, is due to the dedicated, experienced and skillful direction of Paul Ellis, who has led and trained the choir for many years, and has nurtured and inspired a whole generation of choristers. His approach is rigorous and detailed, because he believes that if a thing is worth doing it is worth doing well. His choir practices move at a considerable pace, having their own momentum – I know, because I happily sit in on many of them. The result you have heard this evening, and in hundreds of services over the years: a glorious, exciting and well-honed ensemble. And it enables us all – choristers, gentlemen and ladies of the choir, and what the psalmist calls ‘the great congregation’ – to give glory, praise and thanksgiving to God with the very best we can offer.
“O praise the Lord, for it is a good thing to sing praises unto our God: yea, a joyful and pleasant thing it is to be thankful” (Ps. 147: 1).