There is something remarkable about traditional English and Anglican choral music. We hear it in the sustained notes sung without vibrato, and the full throated melodical willingness almost to shout out the most stirring words in beloved anthems.
For me, this was most movingly displayed in the recent Service of Prayer and Reflection on the Queen’s Life, broadcast from St Paul’s Cathedral, London, following the televised address by the new King Charles.
The beautifully lyrical Herbert Howells tune, Michael, set for the processional hymn, was a most appropriate way to begin this liturgy remembering Elizabeth. Especially with its text, so meaningful for the occasion (“All my hope on God is founded…”). And then, to my further wonder, the first anthem was also a stirring setting by Howells, and sung in the most inspiring way by the cathedral choristers.
Having lived almost six years in England, all of it at Oxford, with the opportunity to hear Evensong sung by equally gifted choirs on a daily basis during term, has surely disposed me to a particular bias. English Anglicans can do liturgy and ceremony in the most superior and yet also spiritually evocative way, especially when it is non-politicized. We have much to learn from them on this side of ‘the pond.’
Perhaps it is first a willingness – by some of the most reticent people I have lived and worked with – to reach for and grasp at transcendence. And then, to express that desire and its fulfillment in worship, in a way that is so compelling for many. Witness two thousand seats filled on short notice in a first come, first served way for the Prayer and Reflection service for Queen Elizabeth. Many of those among the congregation appeared moved by the experience though it was also apparent that not all were familiar with Anglican hymns or forms of worship.
I would suggest that it was, and will remain, in large part the capacity of music – and music well-composed and well-prepared – which draws people into the power of beauty, and which also creates experiences of transcendence and of truth. Yet it is also the power of the word, both in the form of the words of the liturgies as well as in the Word as presented in Scripture. Well-chosen and well-presented biblical and liturgical texts, as well as those prepared for proclamation, allow people unfamiliar with the Christian faith and its customary practices to find themselves stirred. For this preparation and these practices invite others to be curious about the transcendent motivation behind and accounting for these remarkable occasions of public worship.
I have no doubt that the Queen’s upcoming funeral will provide no less of such an experience.
The above photos are screen captures of images from the UK’s Sky News streaming rebroadcast of the Service of Prayer and Reflection on the Queen’s Life, from St. Paul’s Cathedral, London (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KgOridFp7Do). Here is a link to the full text of that service (C ofE_Anglican_service_of_prayer_and_reflection_1)
I offer this with grateful thanks for the music ministry of John Hamersma, Mary Hamersma Baas, and Benita Woltersdorf-Fredlund, whose ministries have not only enriched my life and those of many others, but also have changed and affirmed our lives forward in a most positive way.