The Role of the Choir

The reading set for today in the Eucharistic Lectionary comes from the book Ecclesiastes. This is a book attributed to Israel’s great king, Solomon. Solomon in his day was one of the most powerful rulers on earth—the most powerful king that Israel had ever had had, or would have. He was noted for his wisdom, and wrote books on natural history, and collections of proverbs and wise sayings. He was famous for his riches, coming from gold mines in the Horn of Africa, in quantities that even the Minister of Finance of a modern country would envy. He had a harem of a thousand of the world’s most beautiful women. Few men have had so much to boast about by way of achievement in life. Yet at the end of it all, he sees that he will be laid to rest in the grave, as will the meanest of his subjects. What do all of his achievements and luxuries mean? “Vanity” he says: “It’s all vanity and emptiness”.

Our passage encourages us to enjoy life while we can—while we are still young, and while we still have power to enjoy it—before blindness and deafness take away our faculties, and our bodies become too frail to function. But we are to know that the day will come when all of our earthly joys and successes will be taken away from us.

Solomon belongs to the Old Testament, and in the light of the Resurrection of Christ, we who are followers of Christ can take a more optimistic view of the value of all that we do on earth. Nevertheless, in an age where we are surrounded by materialism, it is not a bad thing for us to be reminded so forcefully that the rewards that this world offers are transient and valueless to us as in the end we all become subject to old age, sickness and death.

Some things, however, can be accumulated on earth which can be treasures for us in heaven. There are the ultimate spiritual treasures of truth, beauty and goodness, that belong not only in this world, but in the next. And among these, there is no doubt from the Scripture record that the Kingdom of Heaven is a place for music—music which on the one hand is so strictly a mathematical demonstration of relationships of harmony or dissonance between numbers, and on the other, a force which can stir our very deepest emotions. A church choir should be a very real link to the congregation between earth and heaven.

A choir is, in fact, a very lovely demonstration of what a Christian society is. There are a number of points about this that are worth thinking about.

One is that it is made up of very ordinary people, identified not so much by who they are, but by the task they take on themselves to do. Christianity, too, is a matter of commitment, not birth!

Secondly, there is that wonderful thing called the ‘choir effect’. When a number of people sing together, even if their voices are not first rate and they are not singing exactly on pitch, the mechanism of our hearing tends (within limits!) to translate this rather into a greater richness of sound. So the ordinary voice, by taking its place in the group, becomes extraordinary.

Thirdly, the talents we share make a result far greater than any of us could achieve alone. Some of us sing Soprano, some Alto, some Tenor, some Bass. Few of us sing particularly well off our usual line—none of us can sing more than one line at a time. So the sound that comes from a choir is fuller than any one of us can perform alone, yet it needs the contribution of each one of us to achieve its effect, blending into the whole. Heaven, too, it seems to me, is a place of harmony, not unison. It is our diverse gifts, coordinated to serve a common purpose, that makes the harmonious whole.

Lastly, there is that wonderful spirit, a kind of communion, that exists between members as each one of us fulfills his or her part in showing forth some great truth, like a jewel, in a ‘setting’ of musical beauty. There is something in that, and I imagine most of us have experienced it at some time or another, that speaks of heaven itself.

So far, however, I have only dwelt on the musical aspect of the choir. Before I finish, I would like you to think also a little about the other role you fulfill—sitting and standing at the front of the church as very visible leaders in worship.

The Sanctuary of a church, particularly a church with rather theatrical architecture as this one is, is a stage upon which the drama of the Lord’s Supper is acted out—repeatedly. The priest takes the part of Christ: the servers, choir and other helpers represent the angels and the heavenly host. The congregation are the disciples.

In the Holy Communion, through our worship, we are adding an extra dimension to people’s lives. We take the ‘things’ of our ordinary life, and add a time dimension to them, so that we see life dynamically, in terms of development, rather than statically, as a collection of material objects. That bread is not just something that we have picked up on a bakery shelf. We understand that it was once cast into the ground as a seed, was blessed by sun and rain and grew into an ear of wheat. At the proper time, its growth was stopped as it was cut and harvested, combined with other ears as it was milled into flour and baked. Now, it has sacrificed its identity and its future, to give life to mankind. Take—bless—break—give: the elements of the Communion service.

As we go on with the service, we see this same process, the process of life itself, reflected in the life and sacrifice of Jesus, and his resurrection and future coming, all of which we bring to mind.

Finally, we ourselves take part in the process. We extend our hands over the altar rail—symbolically reaching into the Kingdom of Heaven—and take back the ordinary bread and wine of ordinary life, transformed now into an image of the body and blood of Christ, to be our life and strength as we go back to live His life in the world.

All of us have a part to play in bringing this new life to the church. The priest plays the part of Christ, but the choir, too, in the setting of the sanctuary, is there to be a reminder of the fellowship of the Saints that lies for us in the world to come. Hence your robes, and the anthems that you sing. You are part of this process of lifting the congregation from earth to heaven.

To get back to Ecclesiastes—yes, we’re getting older and some of us feel that we’re beginning to lose it: yes, the glories and achievements of this world are vanity and emptiness. But there is that something more, the life beyond for which this life is no more than a beginning. And to convey that as beautifully as it can to the church, both to eyes and ears, is the responsibility of the choir.

– Text of a sermon delivered in September 1991