Friday, 27 September 2013

As St Michael and All Angels’ new organ roared into glorious life last night, I swear we could all feel His pleasure

Last night the Bishop of London blessed St Michael and All Angels, Bedford Park’s fabulous new organ. I’ve had a soft spot for Richard Chartres ever since he preached an excellent sermon at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. He was in fine form again yesterday, duffing up puritans who believe music has no place in a church, and pointing out that the two subjects banned by the utilitarians who founded London University were theology and music, neither of which have anything to do with weighing or measuring, but both of which deal with far more important aspects of life.

Some members of the congregation were of the opinion that it would have been better to spend the money on the poor. But as somebody once remarked – I forget who – they are always with us. I’m sure those of us for whom music provides a glimpse of the Sublime are grateful that those wealth redistribution enthusiasts who see the Church as the religious wing of the Labour Party didn’t win the day.

There were many highlights last night: the choir singing ’Ecce Sacerdos Magnus’ (‘Behold the Great High Priest’) at the start of the Service of Blessing (I think it was Bruckner's setting), their rendition of John Taverner’s haunting ‘God is with us’; Ralph Vaughan Williams’s lovely ‘Prelude on Rhosymedre’; the rapturous applause for the Swiss organ-makers who attended the service; and, after the Dismissal (‘The Mass is ended/Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’), our Director of Music, Jonathan Dods, playing 'Carillons de Westminster' from Louis Vierne’s Pieces de Fantaisie.

When we eventually got home, we watched a recording of the third and final part of Neil Brand’s excellent BBC Four series, Sound of the Cinema (available to UK readers on the BBC iPlayer, here) in which the Greek composer Vangelis described the inspiration he derived while composing the score for Chariots of Fire from the lines given to the runner Eric Liddell: “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” It struck me that the whole of St Michael’s congregation had been able to feel His pleasure yesterday evening, especially during the last two extraordinary minutes of ‘Carillons de Westminster’, which, deservedly, resulted in a standing ovation:


  1. The Rector and I have a running facetious argument about music in the service. Having grown up in the Southern Baptist church, I feel that I met my quota for joyful noise around the age of five. Though my stance is not supported by scripture I hold it firmly...even after being called out in a sermon..."Yes, Erik, even you will sing."

    We go to the early service. There is no singing. I love the quiet contemplative nature of the service.

    It's ironic really because I don't know of any more clear expression of transcendence in the Universe than music. I just can't separate the music in church from those Sunday mornings as a child where it just never stopped.

    1. I hardly ever went to church as a child - maybe I was lucky! For those times when I want peaceful contemplation, I tend to go to Evensong, which is very grown-up and muted and sombre, and from which I emerge feeling peaceful. For Sunday Mass, though, I prefer the Full Monty - bells, smells, birettas, choirs and organ, which all leave me feeling cheerful. I suspect lack of religious ceremony in childhood means I'm sort of making up for lost time.

      By the way, there's a terrific old song by Joe Ely called "Boxcars" where he talks about "Big old Buicks by the Baptist Church/Cadillacs at the Church of Christ" - ring any bells?

      And please forgive my ignorance, but what sort of music do Southern Baptists perform? Are we talking traditional hymns or gospel? And what sort of music are you and your rector arguing about - likely to be the same stuff we hear in our church, or is there a distinct American (Southern or otherwise) Anglican musical tradition?

    2. The Baptist Church was mainly old Gospel songs...Old Rugged Cross and that. Of course, every Sunday somebody would give a witness through song and sing some awful contemporary/pop Christian song...usually while crying. You can get down with the old gospel songs.

      We use the old hymnal in our church...should be the same songs.

      I'm not sure about box car or the connotation there...Church of Christ is pretty hard music. The stereotype would put them lower on the socio-economic scale...which contradicts the presence of a Cadillac (especially considering what I assume is the time frame of the song). Have to look into that.

    3. I looked the Boxcars stuff up on the web last year and couldn't make any sense of it, and wondered whether it would be obvious to a Southerner - seemed counter-intuitive- maybe it's meant to be ironic or something. Joe Ely is a Texan, so I presume he knows about this stuff!

      We only sing one modern thing in our church - a Gloria with rhythmic handclaps - I find this incredibly embarrassing, and I presume it's meant to break down our natural Nordic reserve (if it is, it's not working). If anybody sang a contemporary Christian song while crying, I guarantee there'd be a stampede for the exit, quite possibly led by the clergy. Having said that, I'd love to visit a proper Baptist service and an Anglican one in the South - as long as I wasn't called on to testify! I'd love the old-timey hymns, that's for sure - I get a lump in the throat whenever they're used in films.

      I meant to say that one of the reasons for enjoying Evensong is that they always read from the King James version of the Bible, which is a great relief.

    4. Let's just cut to it...fwhat you want is the Joshua Firey Sword of Holiness Church of the Spirit in Christ.

    5. Fantastic clip, e.f. The music's great! I just wished they'd booked the Rev. M Vernon Hunt and the band for next month's christening of Prince George.