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An Heroic Ministry
Verse of the day
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Fuller Youth Institute, US
Sophia Network, UK
In tune with tradition
One of the UK's favourite religious events takes place on Christmas Eve. Entrance is ‘ticket only’ and invitations are highly prized. An outside broadcast unit is always present and the service is transmitted live to large radio and TV audiences. Yet this flagship event does not open with the contribution of an Archbishop or other ecclesial dignitary, nor for that matter of any adult at all. The responsibility rests on the shoulders, or more literally on the vocal chords, of a young boy. What’s more, the child’s involvement is not a cute piece of seasonal whimsy but the contribution of a talented, professional and supremely well-trained artist. The chorister who opens the festival of nine lessons and carols by sending his pure notes out into the vaults of King’s College Cambridge rarely disappoints the trust that has been placed in him.
Those of us who work with young people in the church are prone to pat ourselves on the back when we persuade the vicar to allow a member of the youth to give a reading or lead an intercession in a service. If we smuggle in a youth-drama, a worship song led by a youth-band, or wrest the reins of power from the grown-ups for long enough to present an entirely youth-led service, then it feels like it might just be time to switch-off our mobiles, say goodbye to Starbucks and retire to the great chill-out zone in the sky. Too often we allow ourselves to think that trusting young people with important work within the life of the church – on a peer council, in a peer-led cell group, or fronting a youth worship band – is a radical recent invention of our own generation of youth ministers. But is that really the case?
Throughout history, young people have fostered and facilitated the worship of the congregation through their involvement with choirs and, to a lesser extent, their involvement in liturgical worship as servers. These frequently overlooked ministries have much to teach us. But what could we learn from these traditional youth ministries and how might they challenge and help us to develop our own work with young people?
The choir boy
Choirs were known in churches from at least the fourth century. Certainly by the sixth, Pope Gregory the Great had formed the schola cantorem (school of singers) to train choirs that included young boys. Today’s cathedral choir schools can trace their lineage directly back to this common ancestor. The history of young helpers in the Eucharistic liturgies is scarcely shorter. For a long time this kind of liturgical service in the Mass was performed only by those who already had a vocation to the priesthood. More recently, these duties – carrying the cross in the procession, swinging the incense, making responses, helping to prepare the altar, washing the celebrant’s hands or ringing the sacring bell at the moment of the elevation of the elements – have been performed by committed young members of the parish not just those on the long road towards priesthood. Historically the tasks of singing and serving were only performed by boys. Within the Roman Catholic Church the priesthood, of course, remains male, but since 1994 girls have been permitted to be involved in serving and the rules have also been relaxed in many choirs both protestant and catholic.
Contemplating cathedral culture
So why is it so easy for us to ignore these traditional ministries? One answer might be that many congregations and organizations engaged in youth work and ministry are related to what might be called a ‘low-church’ tradition that doesn’t go in for the kinds of service in which formal, traditional choirs and young servers are involved. However, I think there is a related but more fundamental answer to the question. Frequently we equate choirs with cultural activity (indeed a particular kind of ‘high’ or ‘classical’ culture) rather than religious activity. While there is some justification for this, we should be careful not to base our judgement on a caricature.
Dr Stephen Darlington, the director of the choir of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, does not see what he and his choir do as a primarily cultural act. He argues that the whole choir is well aware that their role in church is an act of service, a part of the liturgy, and is done to facilitate the worship of God. In this setting, the constant striving for the highest standards is not intended to bring glory to the choir but to provide a vehicle for the expression of glory to God. Errors are detested because, ironically, they draw attention to the music and therefore away from God.
Dr Darlington also believes that singing in the choir during services is often a profound spiritual and religious experience for the young choristers. While some are from Christian families many others have found their way into the choir because a teacher or other adult recognised their talent. But while their explicit understanding of the faith might be lacking Dr Darlington is quite certain that even those who have little or no Christian background are inevitably touched by what goes on everyday in the Cathedral. They get an awareness of spirituality at a curiously deep level, he says, and they gain a kind of root understanding or appreciation of the Christian faith.
Talking to choristers reinforces this view. Although singing in choirs of this nature is a time-consuming and demanding activity with daily practices and services where great concentration and energy are demanded, it seems that the choristers consider it worth the effort. Charles Normand, who sang both at school and church and, eventually, became a choral scholar at Caius and Gonville College, Cambridge, and Joel Cooper who is currently at Christ Church Cathedral School both describe the experience of singing in a choir as spiritually and more generally beneficial.
One of the common themes in their discussion of life as a chorister relates to the demanding nature of the commitment. Normand says of choir duty, ‘you couldn’t get out of it unless there was a really valid reason/illness – less musical friends didn’t always understand this so sometimes friendships outside of music were impacted’. Along the same lines, Cooper notes that learning hard pieces of music is certainly not ‘fun’ in any typical sense of the word; it’s far more like work than play.
However, both Normand and Cooper feel the discipline of committed dedication to the choir brings rewards. One benefit is relational. Normand observes that while singing often made socialising outside of the choirs difficult, the friendship networks based around music have proved more durable than others. But there is also a spiritual pay-off related to the effort required. Cooper told me that it is when he is feeling tired and almost unable to go on (aside from the actual effort of singing being a chorister involves long days and lots of standing still in one place) that he is most likely to feel God’s presence, that ‘God is helping me’, as he puts it.
They both also see the role of the choir as one of worship and of helping others to worship. Cooper, who attends a charismatic Anglican church with his family, has no problem associating what he does in a traditional choir with the kind of worship he engages in at his own church. Normand believes that even choral pieces to which the rest of the congregation merely listen inspire worship. In this case he believes the worship arises out of the congregation’s appreciation of the beauty of the music and its ultimate source in God. ‘I guess this is linked with the emotion you feel and the excitement when the music you are making sounds so beautiful – it’s something God our creator invented.’
Cooper has noted tension between members of the choir who practice the Christian faith and those that do not. He tells me that in his choir the head chorister is a committed Christian who has recently been confirmed and he sometimes gets annoyed when other boys don’t take the religious content seriously. But Cooper considers these moments to be exceptions to the rule. Going further, Normand thinks the appreciation of the beauty of music is a great path to belief, ‘the complexity and beauty of music really helps the argument of an intelligent creator, I think.’
Finally, both see their choir singing as relating directly to their faith as it is lived out in their daily lives and in other church settings. Most importantly, Normand notes that it helped him to see the value of committing to and serving a church and that it built the discipline into him to carry on with this into adult life. Father Daniel Seward a priest with responsibility for work with young people at the Oratory Church in Oxford also emphasises the importance of the way these traditional ministries teach young people about service. So important is this emphasis and discipline that the patron saint of servers is St Stephen, the first martyr, who is renowned for his servant attitude as much as for the fullness of grace, power and Spirit that he exhibited. Father Daniel sees such service not as an ‘extra’, almost theatrical, role that they play out in addition to their day-to-day Christian walk but as a central and particularly powerful part of that walk of faith. He says, ‘Since the Eucharist is the characteristic act of the Christian and … “the source and summit of the Christian life”, there can be no better way of coming to know Christ than through an active participation in the sacramental life of the Church.’
So what can we learn from these ministries in spite of the fact that we probably won’t be reproducing exactly these kinds of activities in our congregations? I think that there are three principle areas in which consideration of these traditional ministries can challenge and inform the way we develop youth involvement in our churches.
1. Integrating young people and adults
Choirs and liturgical service both involve young people and adults working side-by-side in situations where both groups have real responsibility and genuinely challenging and stimulating roles but, importantly, the communal nature of the activities leaves little room for individualism or egotism. This integrated service reduces one of the greatest dangers of introducing young people into leadership roles – the danger that leadership that starts off serving others easily becomes self-serving in young-adults who are only ‘on the way’ to social and psychological maturity. Real responsibility and real respect within the context of an integrated team is perhaps far healthier than some of our current models for propelling young people into leadership. What working in a mixed youth-adult choir and serving alongside the Priests offer is a very special kind of apprenticeship and mentoring. There are all of the rewards of being trusted, involved and playing a significant role but few of the dangers of being individually put in charge of your peers or of part of a service.
2. In serious pursuit of excellence
Secondly, considering the history of choirs and liturgical service provides a useful contrast that highlights the way that most of today’s youth ministry is positioned within the young person’s leisure time and leisure activity. Choirs in particular are a throwback to an earlier era. The high expectation of professionalism from the choristers, spoken of by both Normand and Cooper, is related to the positioning of choral activity within the realm of education and work (some choristers are paid directly and many other receive large educational bursaries for their participation). Too often the reason that church leaders are wary about allowing young people to be involved in the service is that too much of what we / they offer is slapdash or hit-and-miss. Clearly we don’t have the financial, human or time resources of the great choirs but perhaps a shift in attitude away from seeing church activities as leisure activities for personal pleasure and entertainment might cause a shift in the opportunities that we can offer the young people and the quality of what they are able to produce. The pursuit of excellence with the inevitable challenges and commitments that that implies could introduce a new dimension to the faith-walk of the young people.
Finally, these traditional ministries offer an interesting perspective on the missional debate over whether belonging should or could precede believing. Again consideration of the way choirs work and the testimony of adult directors and young choristers offer food for thought. Just as choirs are a healthy mix of adults and young people, so they are a healthy (?) mix of believers and non-believers. While many youth programmes are happy to run football teams or social activities for mixed groups of believing and non-believing young people, most would draw the line at involving non-believers in the organisation and execution of youth services. Yet perhaps young people who are open but have not yet developed an explicit faith of their own might very naturally be drawn to this personal faith by such involvement. Clearly there would need to be careful thought given to what was and wasn’t appropriate but, provided they show goodwill towards the faith and provided they are willing to treat the service with respect, the experience of the choristers suggests that the unique personal talents each individual brings might offer something new to the community and gradually draw that individual closer to God.
Jonathan Brant has worked in youth work for over 15 years in the US, UK and South America and is currently working towards a doctorate in theology at Oxford University.