Sermon for Evensong

17 September 2006 at :00 am

In the week just gone the church commemorated Saint John Chrysostom. So for this, the day on which we admit new choristers and singing boys to the choir of this Abbey Church, I take as my text part of a sermon of his on the psalms.

"Even if you do not understand the meaning of the words, for the time being teach your mouth to say them, for the tongue is sanctified by the words alone whenever it says them with good will. Once we have become confirmed in this custom, we will not neglect this duty either deliberately or through indifference, as custom will compel us to fulfil this grateful service every day, even if unwilling. Nor will any complaint concerning this singing arise, even if one has grown old, is still a child, has a rough voice, or is altogether ignorant of rhythm. This is because what is sought here is a sober soul, an alert mind, a contrite heart, sound reason and a clear conscience. If having these you enter into the holy choir of God, you will be able to stand beside David yourself."

Sermon II on psalm 69.

Fantastic words, wise words, but not only about singing but about living a life of faith. Now to help us appreciate exactly why Chrysostom's words about singing are so wonderful, especially for our choristers but also for the rest of us, let's compare them with the writing of educational specialists writing some sixteen hundred years later.

The document entitled Music Manifesto was published by the Department for Education and Skills in 2004. Let me quote from this document. "We believe that music is important in itself ." Well that's a considerable relief; and how profoundly put - from the pen of our current Environment secretary David Miliband. "We believe that music is important in itself and for its ability to change how we think, feel and act.".

Isn't this rather naïve? That music changes how we think, feel and act - surely isn't necessarily a good thing in itself. What if it changes us for the worse? What if the i-pod I'm wearing changes the way I act from being a quiet adult passenger on the bus into an odious thug who behaves and speaks at a volume as if no-one else matters?

We later read this. "There is an increasing belief in the power of music to contribute to whole school development and community regeneration. There is greater understanding about what young people want and an increased recognition of the need to bring music education into the 21st century."

Let's look at this bit by bit. "an increasing belief in the power of music to contribute to whole school development.' The idea that this is a recent discovery is mendacious. For people who claim to be passionate about music they know precious little, for example, about the brass band movement, the amateur oratorio tradition, or the Eisteddfod tradition. These have been the social glue of huge areas of the country for more than a hundred and fifty years. Let's also not forget that the church has known about the immense power of music for much longer, John Chrysostom included.

Singing can help develop, as Chrysostom wrote, an "alert mind,.. sound reason, and a clear conscience.'

Let's look at the second sentence of that Music Manifesto paragraph.

"There is a greater understanding about what young people want."

Well firstly I have great doubts that this is the case but even if it were the case - the idea that giving young people exactly what they say they want, be it in terms of leisure activity, food, or education, can do extreme damage.

Let's look at what John Chrysostom has to say about this.

"Even if you do not understand the meaning of the words, for the time being teach your mouth to say them, for the tongue is sanctified by the words alone whenever it says them with good will."

Chrysostom hints at vital things for education. That the moments of learning and understanding do not always occur at the same time. Or, put simply, the penny sometimes drops at a later date. It's the same with the Christian faith. You teach the infant the Lord's prayer a considerable time before the child comes to begin to understand. Learn the words first, understand them later. This is why we used to learn and teach by rote. Now this, of course, is anathema to the authors of the Music Manifesto who believe that learning, understanding and enjoyment should all happen at the same time, whether you're aged 4, 14 or 41.

Chrysostom, on the other hand, also hints at the importance of discipline and habit. This does everyone good, Chrysostom says, "even if one has grown old, is still a child, has a rough voice, or is altogether ignorant of rhythm." Our music foundation knows that singing on a daily basis brings its rewards. To do something well means having to do it, to do it again, and again, and again, and again. It's hard work. But hard work brings its rewards.

Not so for the authors of Music Manifesto. Here's what a former education secretary, Estelle Morris, says of the act of music making.

"It's about everyone with a love of music coming together to create the soundtrack to young people's lives.' This might sound wonderful to some ears but notice that no hard work or practice is referred to - you simply have to come together with good intentions and everything will be fantastic.

And what of the final part of that paragraph. The authors write of "an increased recognition of the need to bring music education into the 21st century."

Who actually wants to go somewhere if it doesn't look that attractive. Or who wants to go there imprisoned by the imbecilities of the National Curriculum, considered by the majority of teachers to be a disaster. Or, if we have to go there, may we please take some excellent things from our past. May we take with us, for example, the tonic sol-fa system, a system of notation which enabled everyone in schools to read music but is now been abandoned in the name of progress? May we take the county music services of the 1960's and 70's and 80's with us, which ensured that young children were given ear tests, given instruments to learn on the strength of those tests, and free instrumental lessons; this is a system that has crumbled to virtually nothing in some areas of the country and only remains in others thanks to the efforts of local people rather than central government? Many, myself included, abhor the constant appeal to progress as if it were synonymous with best practise is meretricious.

Chrysostom, on the other hand, expresses what everyone knows deep down. That music isn't first and foremost a thing to show how with-it you are or how 21st century you are, rather it helps you find out who you are, it helps you find out what sort of person you are, it's one of the few things that has the ability to make people sit down, be quiet and listen, it has the ability to give voice to those things which you can't put down in words - why you love that girl so much, why you miss your dead uncle so much. And last, though certainly not least, it is something that is beautiful - so it teaches us about goodness and blessedness.

What these boys formally become a part of today is a place where there is considerable wisdom; about education, about wisdom itself, about music, about the formation of well-balanced adults. Of course, because they've been here already for at least a year, they already know quite a bit about the virtues of this place. They know already, they've had glimpses already, of the treasures that come with the toil and travail of several hours singing a day. Chrysostom knew this too. It is not something that we discovered on May 1st 1997.

It is not a difficult thing to ridicule the authors of glossy political documents. And one thing for which it is impossible to do is to chastise the authors of Music Manifesto for a lack of good intentions. But the fundamental difference between the Music Manifesto and the vision of John Chrysostom is not good intentions, both have those in bucket loads: rather it is how to achieve these good intentions. Chrysostom knew, as former choristers of this place know, that a plethora of things are needed to bring forth good fruits from good intentions; good intentions without graft are no good. Chrysostom knew, the church knows, former choristers know of; the need to listen to others, the need to know when to be quiet or quieter, the need to work harder when others are indisposed, the need to give more for the cause than we had once been prepared to give, the need to take responsibility, the need to recognise the importance of one's own voice but also it's place in a larger choir. These are things needed for the benefit of this choir, the school in which our Choristers are taught, this Abbey Church, the Church throughout the world, and for the sort of society we all want.

"What is sought here is a sober soul, an alert mind, a contrite heart, sound reason and a clear conscience. If having these you enter into the holy choir of God, you will be able to stand beside David yourself."

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