We have just had Christmas, the point in the year when churches are most full. You will find amongst the pews people who otherwise never cross the entrance porch, making their annual pilgrimage to sing carols and rejoice in the festive spirit. For the rest of the year, churches are far less full – and increasingly so. We all know this but the story is a little more complex than those headline figures of decline suggest.
For instance, the number of people visiting cathedrals has increased very significantly in the last few years – and not just to look around: they are going to services, concerts and community events there, just as much visiting as tourists. Why is this? I am not sure anyone has a simple answer to that but it is surely true that the quality of the ‘offer’ provided by cathedrals makes them much more enticing than a dark and draughty parish church.
A large part of that is to do with music – and in particular, choral music. The English choral tradition is one of our great cultural gifts to the world – to my mind every bit as important as the Italian Renaissance masters, French cookery, German classical composers or Russian novelists.
There are two reasons why. First, we have in the King James’ Bible and the Book of Common Prayer works of English that are of incomparable influence and beauty. Both have infused both our vocabulary but also our idiomatic repertory in a way that now few people realise. From ‘read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest’ to ‘white as snow’, our whole language is moulded around these great books. And it is these that form the basis of sung matins and evensong, the two staples of Church of England choral worship in cathedrals across the land.
Second, for reasons that are not entirely clear, English choirs have developed a discipline and regard for quality that has not been maintained consistently on the Continent. Centuries ago the Vatican Choir was famous for the beauty of its singing, as were other choirs across Europe. But in the last century it is only England that has maintained a consistently high quality choral tradition.
I know this more intimately than most, because I was a boy chorister at St John’s College in Cambridge. It is still the thing I am most proud of having done in my life, because it gave me the opportunity to be a musician at a very high professional level and to learn the rigour and excitement that comes with that. It was hard work, especially for a little boy – but it taught me things that I would never otherwise have learned and gave me experiences that have formed me. All of this makes me a passionate supporter of our choirs, because I know what being in a choir can do for a boy or girl, no matter what their background.
Which makes me all the more glad that we are seeing the choral tradition being rebuilt here in Ipswich. A few years ago the civic church of St Mary-le-Tower started fundraising for their choral foundation, which already provides for a good choir with a professional director and organist. It is something we should all support: a good choir in a church attracts worshippers, which in turn helps make our places of worship more vibrant places – something that benefits the whole community, in and out of the church. Ipswich may not have a cathedral but the ambition of St Mary’s is to build a musical offering that is the equal of a good cathedral choir. That is a great thing to which to strive – great for St Mary’s, great for Ipswich, great for our thriving choral tradition and great for the boys and girls who will sing and see their lives changed as a result.