A sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere Choral at the Evensong at the completion of the Summer School of the New Zealand Royal School of Church Music, Christchurch Cathedral, 18th January 1998.
In my church choir in England I have the pleasure of singing next to a counter tenor with particularly luscious voice. But like counter tenors the world over this loin-tingling voice doesnít always blend perfectly into the sound of the choir as a whole. Now I am endowed with an alto normally described as useful, but I am one of natureís blenders. One of those singers whose role it is to disappear into othersí voices. So I lean towards my neighbour and blend my ordinary tone into his gorgeous one, and hear issuing from us jointly a perfectly divine sound, a sound into which others join, and so blend into the rest of the choir. Together we join in the music of heaven, and I experience the purest of earthly pleasures - better than food, better than sex, better even than drinking wine.
This minor miracle is repeated over and over again in choirs up and down the singing world. Two voices become one, three voices become one, a hundred voices become something quite different from the sum of their parts. And sometimes, as we have heard tonight, that sound created by a hundred disparate people, fat, thin, old and young, cranky, charming:- that sound knocks on heavenís door. To make it happen the group of individuals has made itself something other than a group of individuals. Itís a strange process: each person must sing with his or her whole person - with boldness and caution, with precision and yet with passion. You must be yourself and yet at the same time, you must submerge yourself in the whole. If we didnít hear and see this miracle called choir singing around us all the time, we wouldnít believe it possible.
Now when youíre singing in choir, being yourself, and simultaneously being a part of the people around you, paying attention to the music, even occasionally paying attention to the choir director, youíre doing something which is a part of Godís work. But you are doing more: you are participating in the very nature of God.
How can singing is choir be participating in the nature of God?
A properly-functioning choir is a community in action. By definition, the members must work co-operatively and individually; and this is also the definition of community - working co-operatively and individually. In addition, the members will probably eat and drink together, lend each other camping gear, give each other birthday cards, care about each otherís exam results and the progress of the babyís teeth. In short, will know and love one another. Your choir will be working as a community, all the time, not just when it sings.
But a choir is a special sort of community:- a community selected - at least one hopes - on a certain talent or passion for singing. As such it is by definition not inclusive, and therefore can only be a partial model for the true Christian community, which is by definition, inclusive. A church choir should be a community within a larger community, that is, the parish or other community of worshippers, and as such it must operate as a member of that larger community, not as a special unit stuck out the side. In a parish community, the music group is like the jam-making group or the flower group, one group among many, and must play its part with love and energy. The choir has no more right to keep themselves apart from the jam ladies than the soprano with the super top C has the right to think herself a better choir person than the hardworking and definitely undervalued altos.
Itís really important to get our community behaviour right because being in community, that is - being an individual in relation to other individuals, and thus making a whole - being in community goes to the very core of our nature, and further in or further up, to the very core of the nature of God.
Philosophers and sociologists have expended much energy and many words on the nature of the Self . I do not propose to give you a mini lecture of this subject now. I think it is enough to observe that human beings left to their own devices always form communities. This seems to be what we always do, and where we are happiest and most natural. The human person only exists in relation to other people. "I know who I am because of you, and you and you." One to one relationships are important, but they are essentially closed; one to one relationships do not give us enough context about ourselves or enough room to move. One to one relationships are often characterised by need and greed. Human beings grow and grow whole amid the complexity, the resilience, the breadth and depth of a whole network of relationships:- family, friends, work-mates, neighbours, fellow-enthusiasts.
So we find ourselves naturally forming or joining one or many communities. Some may be transitory - like the community clustered round your kidsí school. Once the children have left you no longer belong to that one, but thatís OK, because there are others - the people who meet each year at the river mouth, your fellow dog-fanciers whom you meet at all the dog-shows, the people in your street, or the loose alliance of friends and family that you hang out with.
There are many communities within a society; and the most significant of these is the church.
The church community or parish is, (or should be) a model of the perfect community - it is (or should be) entirely inclusive. A church community is practically the only community in which an oddball person can be assured of a welcome. In a parish that is living the gospel everyone is accepted; indeed the community delights in differences of age, colour, background, abilityÖ A living church community welcomes back again and again those who have wandered off or left in a huff. Such a community laughs at and loves the foibles of its members, looks after their interest, weeps with their sorrow, rejoices in their achievement. If your church community is not like that, if it doesnít operate as a living group of lovers, then youíve got two choices - make it happen or find another one. Because if your church group is not a community, you are being denied your right as a human being and as a Christian, part of your very nature is being denied, and your path to God is being blocked.
But donít get me wrong! Iím not advocating the view that the church of God is nothing more than a community living out the gospel. This sort of view was trendy in the seventies and eighties and saw our Christian path as simply a matter of getting together, forming a community, supporting one another. Full stop. As if the church of God were an extension of Rotary or Plunket. But if you have any concept of God that is larger than yourself, the community of the people of God has got to be more than a historic service club. It is the people of God. If you believe in any sort of God other than a cosy fellow-feeling, then Godís community has got to be more than a closed system of being kind to each other. Otherwise what would be the point of all this? All this architecture, all this effort, all this infrastructure, all this music? If the church community only exists to make its members feel good then we might as well pour all this effort into something more useful like the local Bush Society or the Repertory Theatre.
No, the community of the people of God is ultimately about God.
And this is where the Trinity comes into the story.
The Trinity? Whatís the Trinity got to do with singing in choir and living in community? you ask.
The concept of the Trinity, of the Triune God, God as three persons, equal, co-eternal, was not formulated as a tidy way of dealing with sticky bits of the gospel. The concept of the Trinity grew out of profound mediations by early Christian philosophers on the very nature of God. God, they saw, was more than One Person, alone and vague, God they saw was three persons, whom we like to call Father Son and Holy Spirit, three persons, loving one another equally, eternally, perfectly. Not groups of two in a series of one-on-one relationship - Father to Son, Father with Spirit and so on, but three perpetually in community. Now this view of the Trinity which is powerfully understood in the Eastern churches has been largely lost to us in the West where we love hierarchy. But itís slowing creeping in. Itís not an easy concept to grasp, especially for those of us from the Protestant tradition, used to a one-to one relationship with God, a best mates, or father-child relationship. These other way of understanding God are not invalid. But God is bigger than our concept of God, and part of our Christian exploration is to find new vistas of this bigger-than-we-thought Godhead.
In the account of creation in Genesis we read: God said "Let us make humankind in our own image."
This does not mean that God has two arms and two legs or two of anything else. We are made in Godís image insofar as we are creatures whose very nature is to relate, to love, to commune, as the three persons of the Trinity commune. To say we are made in Godís image means that the nature of the human creature is to exist in community one with another, because that is also the very nature of God. When we are existing in community one with another we are most truly human, most truly ourselves, and most truly like God.
It is therefore the most extraordinary bounty of this bigger-than-we-thought Godhead that when weíre ploughing through Messiah together, when weíre standing around the barbecue holding a tinny, when weíre fielding in the social game of cricket after choir practice, when in fact we are having the most fun, we are actually partaking in the very nature of God.
Who could resist such amazing grace?