Thursday, 13 July 2017

'One equal music': a homily for the end of the choir year

This is the text of the homily given by Canon Andrew Stead, our Precentor, at Evensong on Sunday 9 June, 2017, the last service at which departing members of the choral foundation sang. It is reproduced here with permission.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Surely the Lord is in this place, and this is no other but the house of God, and the gate of heaven. And into that gate they shall enter, and in that house they shall dwell, where there shall be no Cloud nor Sun, no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no foes nor friends, but one equal communion and identity; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity. 

John Donne concluded a sermon given at Whitehall on February 29 1627 with these words referencing the story of Jacob’s Dream of the angels ascending and descending from heaven on the ladder resting between earth and heaven. Donne was speaking about the Christian hope and his conviction that Christians would achieve the beatific vision, the ultimate communion with God. In Donne’s wonderfully chosen and crafted words there is a recurrent construction: one equal light; one equal music; one equal possession; one equal communion; one equal eternity.

What drew me to that extract from Donne’s sermon were the words, ‘one equal music’ words that informed the title of one of one of my favourite novels by Vikram Seth: An Equal Music. An Equal Music is a book about love, about the love of a woman lost and found and lost again; it is a book about music and how the love of music can run like a passionate fugue through a life. In one passage in the book there is a description of a string quartet and the relationships between the individual musicians and how in the moment of playing a scale all of the individuality, differences and tensions dissipated as seemingly without prompt they play the perfect scale together. In the simplicity of that a sort of perfection is achieved, a synergy between the musicians playing; and there is something profoundly spiritual about that moment as if it were making connections that tapping into the very order of creation.

Donne’s words, ‘one equal music’, resonate in passages like this and speak of a power that goes way beyond individual talent and musicianship, or indeed the achievement of the individuals coming together. There is a sophistication and a sense of connection springing from a common humanity that can be so much more than just a sum of the parts.

Our anthem, Blest pair of sirens, this afternoon helps us consider this in another way as it points us towards considering, through Milton’s words, the relationship between voice and verse; words and music; rhythm, metre and harmony. The direction of this interplay points very much in the same way to eternity and to the courts of heaven, as do John Donne’s words – words and music, voice and verse, the individuals (and the collective) transporting humanity through a God given creativity to the union with our creator Himself. Music has this ability to serve as a vehicle enabling the worship of God in so many ways, whether as an expression of devotion and worship by the composer and musicians themselves, or carrying a congregation in hymnody or psalmody to engage with words and meaning through bringing them together with one voice; or enabling worshippers to have a sense of awe and wonder, of beauty and truth at the deepest level of their being through listening and mediating upon what they are listening to. It is not a thing of the moment either as, in every sense, communion takes place and something is taken away. It is often that this taking away, this glimpse of truth, of beauty and the divine, that occurs in the relationship of voice and verse, the carrying the other, that important moments are captured and later through the singing of the tune, that a word, phrase, idea or glimpse of the divine is made alive again.

St Augustine in his Confessions, often deeply concerned about the worldly nature of music, was forced to concede of music’s ability to touch the soul and tap into a world beyond itself as he said,

How I wept to hear your hymns and songs, deeply moved by the voices of your sweet singing in church. Their voices penetrated my ears, and with them truth found its way into my heart; my frozen feeling for God began to thaw, tears flowed and I experienced joy and relief. 

At the end of an academic year our Choral Foundation are also coming to the end of their choir year. We are grateful to them as individuals and as a choir for all that they do through their musicianship to enable not only their own worship of God but that of our collective worship and our mission in this place. They help us in maintaining the opus dei in this place; the daily round of the offices, and they are an important part of our missional offering as a cathedral bringing, as they do, many to have their frozen feelings for God to thaw and to convey the reality of the love of God through an encounter with truth and beauty.

In a few minutes time after the offertory hymn we will be saying thank you and farewell to members of the foundation who are leaving us and we will be praying for them God’s blessing and we do that with love and gratitude for all that they have done to support and be part of the mission and worship of this Cathedral Church through their music making, discipline and hard work. We hope that along the road they too have grown in faith, in their humanity and as musicians, and that whatever is next in their lives that they will still look back on their time in the Choral Foundation as a blessed and special time.

Our anthem, and the quotation I read from John Donne, point beyond the immediate and into eternity. Our music making here is always by definition going to be full of imperfection but we are reminded of a greater reality and the hope of eternity where we will be, ‘in tune with heaven’: one equal light; one equal music; one equal possession; one equal communion; one equal eternity. And, as Milton puts it, in words concluding this evening’s anthem:

O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heav’n, till God ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light. Amen.

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