CATHEDRAL VIEW: Proud doesn’t begin to describe it

St Peter's Day service and reception at Peterborough Cathedral
St Peter's Day service and reception at Peterborough Cathedral
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Canon Missioner Sarah Brown:

I never thought I would ever regret having read William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” as one of my set O’Level texts (a million years ago obviously).

I didn’t think it had made much impression on me other than as a useful passport to an English A’ Level but as I stood eyeball to eyeball with the cathedral choir before and after my first few services I found myself having alarming flashbacks.

Something about the purposefulness of their robed marching in pairs, their professional detachment, their expressionless surveying of- (gasp)- me- took me straight to Golding’s plane-crash choir and their descent into cannibalism and I felt, to put it mildly, unnerved! Imagination may be a gift from God, but it has its dark side.

And then lo! I was invited to tea with the junior members of the choir. Putting aside ridiculous notions of what (or who) might be on the menu and lured by the possibility of a cuppa I courageously presented myself at the house of song at the appointed hour and was immediately engulfed by a room full of noisy, normal, polite children in King’s School uniform eating sandwiches and fruit, nattering, colouring and discussing (was it a diplomatic set up? I shall never know) details of my sermon the day before. How could I fail to be charmed?

These youngsters audition at 6 years old and if accepted very quickly learn the meaning of commitment. They rehearse at school for an hour before school begins and then at the end of the school day are transported here for tea, homework and rehearsal before Evensong. They don’t all sing every day but the commitment for them and their families is considerable. And goodness me can they sing! These children learn not just about music and faith, but they deliver a standard of professionalism that is rare to find in adults, let alone children. Not only are they musicians of a high standard, but they can concentrate fiercely for long periods, work as a team, walk in straight lines and not bump into the font and I have not once heard from their vicinity the tell-tale thump of a kicked kneeler (apart from mine) I am SO impressed.

I sat in on a rehearsal with the girls’ choir- and yes, normal girl sparkiness and sense of fun, but it was a delight to see their knowledge, discipline and technical ability and then to watch that transform in the cathedral itself into so much more more than technical performance; a fleeting and restful intimation of something other and higher and holier than we can express as their voices tap the soaring echoes of these arches to sing of God.

Apart from the obvious and entirely rational fear of being hunted through the cloisters by hungry small boys with spears (maybe the sandwiches are a wise preventative measure) I had been most afraid that a choir of this level would be all pretention and performance. It isn’t. I realise that most choristers understand for whose glory they sing. Perhaps some don’t, but the pervading spirit is right. I’m still working out what I think about cathedral worship and all this formal choral traditional which precludes obvious participation by the congregation, but it is FEELING as if it might require a different sort of participation, and that it is probably worth finding out . More when I’ve chewed it over.

I caught myself totally by surprise coming over all emotional at a concert in the cathedral when a number of our young choristers joined with global stars The Sixteen to sing part of the great Vivaldi Gloria. Proud doesn’t even begin to describe it. That’s my choir that is.