Twenty years of the Girls' Choir

By The Right Revd Michael Perham, Former Bishop of Gloucester - 06 November 2015
 A picture of the Norwich Cathedral Girls
This blog is of the sermon delivered by The Right Revd Michael Perham, Former Bishop of Gloucester, on All Saints Day 2015, in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of Norwich Cathedral Girls’ Choir.

It is, of course, a real delight, real joy, to be here again - to be in Norwich, to be in this Cathedral, to be hearing the choir, to be sharing in this anniversary. I thank the Dean for her invitation and, if I may speak for all your guests, the returnees, thank you all for your welcome. It is an honour to preach at this wonderful celebration.

I’m rather against clergy who talk about themselves much in sermons, but please forgive me if I begin slightly auto-biographically, for it does throw some light on what we are celebrating. Around 1990, 25 years ago, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York were persuaded to set up a Commission to enquire into the state of English church music. Some distinguished musicians served on it, names that will be familiar to some of the older people here this afternoon - Harry Bramma, Lionel Dakers, Alan Wicks, Richard Shephard. The then Bishop of Portsmouth was the chairman. Among the other members was a parish priest from Poole. That was me!

The Commission reported in 1992 and among its recommendations to Cathedral Chapters was this one:

Those responsible for choir schools should seek ways both of recruiting children from less wealthy backgrounds and of providing the same musical and liturgical education for girls as that enjoyed by boys.

At the time the report was written only two cathedrals, Salisbury and St Mary’s Cathedral Edinburgh had girls’ choirs. The Commission argued for more, though reading the report 23 years later I have to say it was very cautious and tentative about the development. I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry at this sentence.

A common reason for preferring a boys’ choir is that for many people the sound of an unbroken voice symbolises a particular kind of innocence. A boy’s voice is sometimes seen as especially precious because it is fragile and cannot last, any more than the snowdrops and crocuses of early spring.

More positively it stated

Too many girls and women have been lost to church music in the past because of lack of opportunity. This should be reversed, not simply to redress an inequality, but also because the addition of girls could bring a new dimension to music-making in cathedrals.

Hurrah for that! It may have helped that within a few months of the report being published the parish priest from Poole had become the Precentor of Norwich Cathedral. Encouraged by a supportive Dean and Chapter, and with some enthusiasm and not too much anxiety in the Cathedral congregation, and with a talented choir director in the shape of Neil Taylor, the Norwich Cathedral Girls’ Choir emerged 20 years ago, at first in diocesan blue, and what a wonderful innovation it was. And for that we give God thanks today and salute the pioneers some of whom are here today. A delight to see and hear them.

The first reading at Evensong today, from the Prophecy of Isaiah, speaks of a God about to create new heavens and a new earth and who invites people to be glad and to rejoice in what he is creating. God rejoices in the new thing he is doing and delights in his people. And I do believe that when we take significant steps forward, as Norwich did in 1995 with the formation of the Girls’ Choir, we are responding to the Holy Spirit of God who invites us to be co-workers with a God who delights to do new things. A new choir - well it’s not exactly a new heaven or a new earth - but it is something beautiful and creative and it has proved a wonderful blessing. A blessing to this Cathedral, to its life, its mission, its worship, and a blessing to those who have sung in it, teaching and training them, in some cases launching them into greater things musically, perhaps for some drawing them more deeply into faith and spirituality, always, I suspect, developing lasting friendships. All blessing, all blessing from God.

But the choir sang for the first time at All Saintstide and here we are, 20 years on, on the Feast of All Saints. The Commission’s report, to which the choir was a response, was published under the title, In Tune with Heaven. It’s a quotation from John Milton.

O may we soon again renew that Song,
And keep in tune with Heaven, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.

The message, of course, of All Saints’ Day is that we don’t have to wait till some after life beyond our death to sing in tune with heaven and to be united with God’s celestial consort, the company of the angels and the saints, the cloud of witnesses of which the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews speaks. All Saints’ Day affirms that when we celebrate the liturgy in spirit and in truth, when we sing with heart and voice and understanding, we daringly anticipate the worship of heaven, we clock in for a while to the songs of the angels and the praises of the saints. What exactly heaven is like is, of course, a mystery and we recognise the inadequacy and the provisionality of the language we use. But I think there are two truths that shine through.

First that we are intended for friendship, for belonging, for communion one with another. It begins in the friendships and belongings of groups of which we are members. We are social beings, made for relationship, made for affection, made to laugh and cry and work and play together. A choir is one such group. This choir has been for 20 years one such group. It broadens into membership of the Church of Christ, at its best a wonderful company of friends and fellow workers, enjoying fellowship with one another across the world, a belonging and a communion that begins with our baptism. But then it broaden still more and transcends time and space to bind us together, to give us a sense of belonging together, drawn into what Archbishop Cranmer in today’s collect calls “one communion and fellowship in the mystical body” of Christ. It’s a wonderful truth about belonging and about relationships, friendships, that unite heaven and earth in a single family. And whether at that level or at every level below, choir included, it is the work of the God who made us for fellowship and who wants us to belong.

But then there is another truth. The Letter to the Hebrews hints at it, when, alongside its picture of the great cloud of witnesses, unnamed but united, the communion of the saints, it names a number of individuals, all part of the history of the Jewish people before the coming of Christ - Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and more. All men, I’m afraid, but, for gender equality, let’s add Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca, Deborah, Hannah, Ruth and Esther. We are part of our company, but we do not lose our identity. Each is individual and precious in the mind and heart of God. 

The same would be true of the New Testament period. Jesus called people into an apostolic company and in the early church, as the Acts of the Apostles describes it, they live in community sharing a common life. But still they are individuals  -  Peter and Paul, Nathaniel, Mary, Phoebe, Timothy, Martha, Elizabeth, Matthew, Luke. And the Church in her wisdom has kept them as individuals, given them feast days of their own, like Simon and Jude last week, recognised that, for all their participation in a company, a communion, they remain for God and for us individual people, loved by God for their uniqueness.

And you can come nearer home and a little nearer the present day in the saints and heroes of Norfolk  -  Herbert, Julian, Fursey, Thomas, Margery. Edith, especially this year Edith. Special to each community are those individuals who have walked the same paths that we walk, worshipped in the same places as we have. All part of the communion of saints, but personal to us and to our communities. Each individual and precious in the mind and heart of God.

This is the God who knows us by name, makes us his own and watches over each one of us. Whether we are Jo or Laura or Lucy or Jemima or Rachel or Esther or Lindsey or Camilla or Emily or Alice or Liz or Sophie or Amelia or Arabella or Claire or any others of the first girls in the Cathedral Choir or any of those in the twenty years since, God delights in your belonging, but takes pleasure also in the unique you, a girl, a woman, each with your name, with a unique personality, a unique vocation. Takes pleasure, but also takes care, and will do all the day of your life here on earth and beyond, hoping perhaps that as you journey through life your song may be in tune with heaven, but loving you still even if you lose the tune for a while.

And if my emphasis this afternoon is inevitably on one gender, here is the corrective. God delights in the belonging, takes pleasure in the uniqueness, of every boy and every man, each with their name, with their unique personality, with their unique vocation. Man and woman both made in the image of God, both equal in God’s delight.

As we celebrate a twenty year achievement and pray for a blessing for the future, as we celebrate once again the Feast of All Saints, give thanks to the God who makes us to belong and wants us to belong, who calls each by name and wants us to know ourselves uniquely loved and utterly precious in his eyes. Such a picture is surely in tune with heaven.

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