Sermon given at Evensong on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity 2022
"Music and poetry have in all ages been counted divine..."
The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon in Residence
Sunday, 10th July 2022 at 3.00 PM
In 1688, the publisher and playwright Henry Playford had a bit of a windfall, producing the first volume of Henry Purcell’s Harmonia Sacra – this collection of sacred songs together with a later collection of his keyboard music, and an earlier collection of instrumental sonatas quickly became extremely popular. Playford himself decided to write the introduction for his readers. He wrote, “For ‘tis the meanest and most mechanical office of this Noble Science to play upon the ear, and strike the fancy with a superficial delight; but when Holy and Spiritual things are its subject, it proves of a more subtle and refined nature. Whilst darting itself through the organs of sense, it warms and actuates all the powers of the soul, and fills the mind with the brightest and most ravishing contemplations. Music and poetry have in all ages been counted divine, and therefore they cannot be more naturally employed than when they are conversant about Heaven, that region of harmony from whence they are derived.”
The tragically short-lived Henry Purcell, of course, was organist here at Westminster Abbey. But the notion that harmony itself was derived from heaven was not an insight original to the 17th Century. Back as far as Plato in the 5th Century BC existed the notion that what went on upon the earth was somehow an imperfect mirror of the life of the celestial realms. Voice and verse, those ‘Blest Pair of Sirens’ in Playford’s slightly older contemporary’s John Milton’s words, were in fact more than just ‘pledges’ of heaven’s joys. By the early Christian middle ages this had become so developed that the liturgy itself was seen as an image of the worship of heaven. This of course had its roots in the worshipping life of the Jerusalem Temple, with its Holy of Holies – that actual meeting point between God and humanity into which the High Priest went but once a year. In the Gospels, Jesus himself refers to his own body as this Temple, to be torn down and rebuilt – resurrected – in three days; Christ now not simply the image, but the total revelation of God’s presence in, with and for humanity. Not an imperfect mirror, but the perfect icon. So, a few centuries later, some early Christian fathers can speak of Christ as himself “the Song of God”, the one whose New Song revives the universe, whose Love Song seeks to draws the whole of creation into life with him ‘in Endless morn of light.’
Anyone who has done any work on harmony or composition knows that musical images and metaphors are inherently quite complex, and when examined, potentially quite technical. So, the Abbey choristers, and anyone else here who has done their Grade Five musical theory, will know that those suspensions and wonderful harmonic patterns for which Purcell is so famed in his instrumental and vocal music, don’t just simply emerge. They have to be prepared, sounded, and resolved. Prepare, sound, resolve I remember my music teachers saying to me. Prepare, sound, resolve. Today is the last Sunday of the Choir Term and of the academic year, so today seven of our choristers will leave the choir and Choir School, along with one of our long-serving Lay Vicars – these last few years, of course have been marked by the pandemic and its associated dislocations, but the life of this placed is shaped by singing the liturgy, singing music and poetry which, to quote Playford again, “are conversant about Heaven.” The Abbey has prepared us to share in Christ’s song for the world, and has shaped us – including in the tricky times, whether we’ve realised that or not – whilst we’ve been doing it. Prepare, sound, resolve. Not just ‘honouring the Lord’ with their lips, although heaven knows our choristers have done a lot of that, in Church, on Zoom rehearsals, in recordings, broadcasts, and in concerts, but also through learning the kind of practical outworking of Christ’s love which comes through living alongside other people, through learning how to operate as a team, through to learning that we are all parts of a wider whole, beautifully and individually willed and made, whilst also created for community, to serve, heal and forgive one another.
The liturgical life of the church is a kind of moulding – the great Dominican writer Timothy Radcliffe asks, “Why go to Church?” his answer, “To be sent out again.” Christian communities prepare us to go out and “sound”, to resonate with the Gospel that we have heard here, and to tell that story to others. Musically, when a suspension “sounds” it can be momentarily uncomfortable as two notes clash together in dissonance. But even then, such dissonance is itself a kind of harmonic relationship. Being a Christian, especially being a young Christian today can be full of challenges – taking our faith seriously amongst people who often don’t understand, or who laugh at it, or just dismiss it, can be really difficult. The worshipping life of the Abbey has prepared our leavers to know that Christianity is not primarily a set of rules, or intellectual propositions. Today’s second lesson made that perfectly clear. It is firstly about a relationship – a relationship with Christ in prayer, in the Eucharist, and in living with and loving other people. A kind of harmony, which sometimes feels dissonant or uncomfortable, sometimes full of doubts and questions, but which is always part of a wider harmonic pattern, which is moving towards the third harmonic move – resolution. Prepare, sound, resolve.
In terms of Christian discipleship, resolution is the life of Heaven, when we shall “live with him in endless morn of light.” This is something which theologians like to say is “already, but not yet.” We glimpse the life of heaven here and there, in acts of love and forgiveness, in holy communion, in prayer and hope-filled living. But it’s not fully here yet. We know that only too well when we look at how broken, violent and disfigured our world is. So, we continue to sound, and to stay with all the questions, and all the contradictions that Christian life throws up – no easy answers, because we seek the Giver, not the gift. This is not new-age feel-good religion, but a way which seeks harmony with the very origin of life, love and energy which we call God. How we need that deep, rich vision of God and God’s limitless love for the world at a time when our society is so fractured, when our ecology is in such danger, and when soundbites occasionally masquerading as conversation threaten our ability to discern the common good.
Christian discipleship is constantly in preparation, in sounding, and seeking resolution. The life of the Abbey itself is a mirror of that. Situated at the heart of a wonderfully multi-cultural and diverse world city, the Abbey’s role is to prepare people – those of us who live here, tourists and pilgrims alike – to know Christ more truly. It is a place of “sounding”, where people can come to discover, sometimes surprisingly, that their song can be in harmony with Christ, the Song of God; it is a place where the heady mixture of history, memory and our current confused cultural identities are all held together by Christ; and it is a place where the dissonances of our society and our own lives are highlighted. And with that, we must sit and pray. Not rushing towards quick and false resolution, but taking the world’s questions seriously on their own terms, not seeking short cuts, but watching and waiting for signs of God’s resolution. Where the hope of Advent is held together with the joy of Pentecost. Moments where earth and heaven touch, where superficial delight gives way to ravishing, disorienting contemplation.
Prepare, sound, resolve. This place is not heaven. But it is a sacrament: a pledge of heaven’s joy. It is not the joy itself, no matter how wonderful, how glorious, how blessed. We are always here being prepared, prepared to sound the Gospel, occasionally glimpsing, touching and offering moments of total resolution, as we learn how to receive that totally free harmonious gift of Christ’s song in our discipleship, and to sing it for ourselves.