What is the purpose of a church choir?

Speaking as a choir member…

I’ve been a member of at least one choir, off and on, ever since I was at school, and the first ‘outside school’ choir I joined was a church one. I love singing in a choir. I have joined the church choir in most of the places we have lived for any length of time. I even met my husband in a church choir (and that’s where he learned to play the guitar).  I am not being nasty about church choirs.

One day I’ll get him to move on to a theorbo…

This summer on our travels we got to see more different churches than usual for Sunday Masses, and I found myself thinking about church choirs and what they are actually for.  My first ever blog was about why we have music at all in church, but now I’m thinking about how we do it.

Differences between choir and church choir

I would distinguish very carefully between a church choir and a choir. Choirs learn to sing something exactly and beautifully, by doing a lot of practice. They sing different sorts of music, and often outside any context except that of a concert.  Their reason for existence is to perform the music.  Church choirs on the other hand lead the people at an event (usually a religious celebration) so that those people can take part confidently in the event itself.  The church choir may sing during a time when the congregation is doing something else (e.g. handling the collection, lining up for Communion), but it is not there to replace the effort of the congregation but to enable and enhance it. Mass is not a concert, and music should never be an excuse to stop people joining in.  I was delighted to discover that the Pope made the same point last year.

too much discipline here for a real congregation
What a choir can do

Deciding to concentrate on a choir instead of getting the people to sing is an easy trap for church musicians to fall into, because most musicians, even the non-professionals, are thinking all the time about how they can make the performance better, to do a better job at bringing the music to life, making it flower.  Using a choir instead of the congregation is a short cut.

a rare picture of a mixed choir

It’s quite difficult to find early pictures of choirs singing, because there are really only a few stock options, and in some ways it’s a relatively modern idea.  One version is the group of monks singing in community, and this is still the only model of church music which pleases some people.   Another is the single singer, often with instrument: the minstrel or the troubadour model originally, like the singer-songwriter of today.  We’ve all come across people like this singing at Mass, and it doesn’t work as a community effort.

Don’t leave it to the professionals

When we’re talking about Sunday Mass, we’re not talking about a congregation made up entirely of musicians.  Obviously any church on a Sunday is going to contain people who don’t know the music, who can’t sing in tune, who just want it to be over, who don’t feel like joining in, who can’t sing because the last time they sang that hymn was at a funeral, and the loss is still raw (and that’s even before you look at the congregation as well as the clergy).

Children can (will?) be restless and babies noisy (one old priest I knew always called that the ‘chorus of angels’).  People will take breaths in the middle of words;  they will sing passing notes that aren’t there in the text;  they know a different version of the tune (or the words – I often sing the wrong words in an older hymn because the text has been subtly altered and I’m singing from memory).  Often they don’t have a very big repertoire of hymns, so if you want to extend it, you will need to do it gently and encourage them.  As soon as they feel uncomfortable, they will simply stop singing.   They are frightened of getting something wrong and other people noticing, with a fear totally out of proportion to the likelihood of that happening.

So the music produced by a congregation is less polished and accomplished, but it’s their music, and they’re not doing it for any other audience than God.  I suspect at Mass on Sundays he’d rather hear them than a choir singing alone,  – just as you’d be disappointed if you went to your child’s school play and they had outsourced the singing to professionals.

…even if they came with a great set of instruments
Sing a new song

Having discussed the possible drawbacks of congregational singing, it’s only fair to say that it’s great to hear how well a congregation can sing if you give it the chance.  This is why we stress ‘singable’ (awful word) as the point of the music on the website, and why I try to give all my church music tunes which are easy to pick up.  Good unison is much more likely than bad harmony to allow people to feel secure enough to join in.  If your congregation consists of the same people singing the same words every day, you can decide to sing in Latin or anything else, but for most Anglophone people at church on a Sunday, it needs to be English.  If your congregation is, remarkably, exactly the same people turning up every week and they know the words, you can get them to sing chant; but for most congregations, chant will put them off, and they will leave the singing to the choir (and if you want to do chant well, weekly rehearsals are not usually enough).  Tunes were invented after chant, for a reason : they are easier for non-monks to pick up and join in.

New every Sunday?

I’m very aware that the psalm and response change every week, so accessibility is extremely important.  I’ve talked before about what makes a good psalm response.  I do ask quite a lot of my cantors, but the shape of the tune should be strong enough to help you to get back on the rails before the end of the stanza if the irregular words have thrown you off.  Then the congregation’s part is simpler, but still strong.   Only very rarely do I change the last line of a stanza, because the congregation really needs to recognise the lead-in (and of course, the cantor’s looking up, and if necessary waving at them, will also help).  Psalms do get repeated in the Lectionary (especially around Christmas and Easter), and this helps too, if it’s recent enough for the congregation to remember.  The Alleluia verse changes from week to week, but the Alleluia itself not so often (and they are modular, so you can decide just to keep to one, though I think it’s good to wake the congregation up and make them refocus every now and again).

Growing accustomed to the tune…

The Mass parts have much more chance to bed in to people’s memories, so it is worth spending time on getting them right, maybe even running through one of them before Mass if you have the chance.  It is an advantage that the congregation mostly knows the words for the Mass parts;  and/or having a tune is a great help to settling the words in your head if they have been changed.  Deciding to sing the Latin (or Greek, for the Kyrie) version every week to avoid getting to grips with the (new) English version is actually selling your congregation short, as they will end up stumbling over the English words (even while speaking) for a long time when they visit other churches.  Singing the Our Father in Latin at the standard parish Sunday Mass means that small children can’t join in with the one prayer they may know by heart, and it really annoys some young adults too (one of them being my youngest daughter).  There is a case for not singing the Our Father at all (Jesus didn’t, so far as we know).  I’ve set it so that you can sing it if you want to, but I’d always keep an eye on how many people are actually joining in, because surely that’s the most important thing.

The other version of the church choir

The other obvious version of a group of singers in this context is the angels, who turn up either alone as messengers or in a group as a choir.   Traditionally, there are nine choirs of angels, though I have no information on whether they pool their auditions, and I have heroically refrained from discussing the way in which the Church has used church choirs throughout its history as a way to prevent women singing.  But I take great comfort from the fact that the main choirs in the Bible are angels, since they do not have gender, so women can sing with the angels as much as they like.  The angels are like the best sort of church choir : they strengthen the congregation and make it brave to join in.

And here is a lovely picture of these wonderful inclusive angels with possibly the first version of a singalong sheet.  Why are they holding up the music?  Because, at any Mass, what matters is that everyone can take part.

Sing all ye citizens; all you need is the words and a full heart

[Read this in Spanish]

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Jesus and women; or the Bible and Bechdel

Disclaimer

I should perhaps start by admitting that this blog is not about the psalms.  It grew out of something that occurred to me while I was away from my day job and away from my various psalm books.  I did have a New Testament though, and I wanted to work out an idea that it is Jesus who gives women a voice, because only when they are talking to him do their words get written down.  It’s not even strictly Bechdel, because I want to talk about Jesus’ conversations with women, but it is all about the representation of women and Bechdel was the quickest way to indicate the area of discussion.

The Bible and Bechdel

Ruth is famously the only book of the Bible that comfortably passes the Bechdel test. Others have tried to find instances of two women talking, but not about a man, in other books of the Bible, but it’s often a considerable strain and leads to arguments about different interpretations of the test. We can all agree however that there are very few instances of women talking at all in the Bible, let alone named women, and this is, of course, because of the culture and time in which the Bible came to take shape.

woman with finger over mouth
The preferred stance of women in the Bible

There are a few conversations involving women that do not include Jesus, but they don’t pass the Bechdel test either : Peter and the maidservant, Herodias and her daughter, Mary and the angel at the Annunciation, another Mary and the angel(s) at the tomb.  Mary and Elizabeth just squeezes in as a Bechdel because the babies aren’t born yet.

Jesus’ interaction with women

Sadly, the New Testament isn’t much better than the Old.  Most women aren’t named, and they rarely speak, let alone to another woman and about something other than a man.  The portrayal and evaluation of women are of their time and consequently shockingly limited.  However, one area where there is considerable and significant difference is when you look at the narratives of Jesus’ direct relations with women, and also when you analyse his own speech.  I think this is particularly significant because the Gospel writers would have been very careful about the words reported as coming from Jesus.  There were usually several witnesses; Jesus’ own words were seen as important.

When you look at the proportion of narrative to direct speech in the Gospels, Jesus’ words seem even more precious.  He didn’t leave letters like St Paul, whose own voice, even in translation,  is so recognisable and familiar; he didn’t write any of the accounts of his life;  all we have are some stories, some teaching, and snatches of conversation with the people he met, remembered and set down much later by other people.  When you look at the variation between these words in the Gospels, frankly I think it’s surprising that they are so consistent.  They are all we have.

Women talking to Jesus

When you consider the people Jesus talks to, remembering the culture of his day, it’s striking how many of them are women, and it’s very striking how often their words also are reported.  Women’s words are rarely preserved (I’ve written about this before), but when they are talking with the Lord,  the halo around his words sheds light also on theirs, and they are noted and remembered.  It is indubitably true that there are far more male encounters with Jesus described in the Gospels, but when a women actually reaches Jesus and talks to him, he always deals with her as though her gender is not a big issue.

The woman with a haemorrhage

The classic example of this is the woman with a haemorrhage, the first woman to speak at all in Matthew’s Gospel (even if it’s to herself, Mtt 9).  Her illness makes her ritually toxic, and her life has been miserable for twelve years, avoiding others and being shunned by them.  We should have had her story at the beginning of July (13th Sunday B), but it’s an optional part of the Gospel and often left out in the reading (possibly still makes people a bit uncomfortable?  It was years before I realised what it actually meant, I thought it was an unhealed wound), so I shall briefly recap.  She has been bleeding for twelve years, has spent all her money on doctors and has only got worse.  She has heard about Jesus, and manages to get near enough in the crowd to touch his cloak.  That is all she wants, ‘for she said to herself, ‘If I only touch his garment, I shall be made well’ ‘ (Mtt 9 21).

There are more details in Mark.  The woman instantly knows that she is better as soon as she has touched Jesus’ robe.  Jesus knows something has happened, turns around in the crowd and asks,’Who has touched my clothes?’  The disciples make fun of him: ‘You see how the crowd is pressing upon you, and yet you ask?’  So Jesus looks around to see who did it.  The poor woman, with great courage, comes towards Jesus ‘in fear and trembling’ and falls at his feet and tells him ‘the whole truth’ (but Mark is, as always, in a hurry, so he doesn’t repeat what we know already).  Jesus says to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace and be cured of your affliction’ (Mark 5, cf also Luke 8).  No criticism, no revulsion, no complaints, just a simple statement and a loving envoi.  Apart from the word ‘daughter’, Jesus could have been talking to anybody.

Jesus standing, woman touching robe
a very early illustration of the story
Talking to women (shock horror)

This seems to be deliberate.  Jesus doesn’t make a big deal of talking to women, even though it makes some of the apostles uncomfortable (‘Send her away, for she is crying after us’ Matthew 15 23,  ‘They marvelled that he was talking with a woman’ John 4 27). He talks to anyone in front of him, male or female, child or adult, important or not, and he does it in the same way, which is also striking. He is simple and direct.  He speaks with authority (notice how many people address him with an honorific (‘Lord’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Sir’) once the conversation is under way, but he is never patronising or dismissive to an individual, except once to Peter (‘Get behind me, Satan’ Mtt 16 23).

The woman taken in adultery
sculpture of woman surrounded by stone-throwing hands
Just before Jesus steps in

The woman taken in adultery  (John 8) is talked about by all the other people present, but only Jesus speaks to her, once he is alone with her.  And he does not say much, but it’s almost as though he is inviting her to common ground with him: ‘Woman, where are they?’ (How would she know, or even care?  Is this even said with a smile?) ‘Has no one condemned you?’ And she answers, ‘No one, Lord,’ with a surprising amount of poise and dignity for someone who has just been within inches of a nasty and painful death.  Jesus gives her back her dignity by simply talking to her as a human being and asking a question she can answer.  Then he saves her, by forgiving her and setting her free :’Neither do I condemn you; go and do not sin again’.

The way Jesus talks

The simplicity of Jesus’ tone is characteristic, and probably one of the things that made the apostles uncomfortable.  He talks to women as though they were just other people (still not as common as it should be).  When he mentions families or groups, he uses inclusive language,’mothers’ as well as ‘fathers’, ‘daughters’ as well as ‘sons’ (Mtt 10 35ff), and he often gives two or more parables at once, with one drawing on women’s experience (the yeast, the salt, lighting a lamp, hunting for a dropped coin etc).  He’s not talking just to the men in his audience.  ‘Two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left’ (Mtt 24 40).  Most unusually for his day, Jesus is naturally inclusive, in language and behaviour.  Repeatedly he says ‘fathers and mothers’, ‘brothers and sisters’.  Most attractively, he does not see this as a remarkable concession.

Mary and Martha, but two separate events

He is happy to engage even with a woman heckler (Luke 11 27); when others around him treat women dismissively, Jesus stands up for them.  In Bethany he tells Martha that Mary is allowed to sit and listen to his teaching ( just as the disciples are), and I can’t help thinking that this was aimed at the disciples at least as much as at Martha.  When the women who pour oil on his head (or his feet) are condemned by the people sitting with Jesus, he tells them to leave the anointer alone (Mk 14 6 (head), Mtt 26 10 (head)).  In Luke’s account (Lk 7 (feet)), Jesus is the only person to speak to the woman herself, though there are many others there; and he does it twice, very deliberately.

scene where woman anoints Jesus' feet
the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with (unusually) another woman at the table
Women are people too

He is aware of the realities of women’s lives (grinding grain, setting lamps, looking after children) and appreciates their vulnerability (‘Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck in those days!’ Lk 21 23), grieving even for those women who grieve for him on his way to be crucified (Lk 23 28).   He uses a woman in labour as an image to describe how the apostles will move from sorrow to joy (Jn 16 21), an interesting choice of metaphor for an all-male group.  He defends widows and women unwillingly divorced;  we can even see him as a #MeToo pioneer: ‘every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Mtt 5 28).

Longer conversations
Jesus talking with woman at the well
Note how the woman at the well is standing and talking, not crouching as so often

We have two or three precious slightly longer conversations with Jesus: the woman at the well (Jn 4), the Canaanite woman (Mtt 15), two separate conversations with Martha and Mary after Lazarus’ death (Jn 11).  In every case, Jesus takes his interlocutor seriously and they have a real discussion (even though the Canaanite woman has to work for it). The woman at the well is a fascinating example, as she starts almost hostile but ends up as the evangeliser of the whole village, with Jesus’ full support.

Woman addressing Jesus
Conversation in progress
Women in bulk

It is often difficult to be sure of the identity of the various women in the Gospel narrative. Several of them share names, and they are clearly seen by the various evangelists mostly in the lump, as it were.   The Alleluia verse for St Mary MacKillop (last week) summed this up beautifully: ‘Many women were there by the cross, watching from a distance, the same women who had followed Jesus and looked after him’. A variant of that verse is in every Gospel, and conveys more information than the writers meant, I suspect.  These women emerge from the mass when they speak to Jesus, but flow back into it when out of his presence.  He gives them a voice that can be heard and that gets written into the narrative.

Women as witnesses to the Gospel

The angels at the tomb talk to the women in the simple direct way that Jesus does.  They have information to pass on, and they do so.  A whole group of women goes back and faithfully passes on the message of the Resurrection to ‘the eleven and to all the rest’.  But here we hit a snag : ‘But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense’ (Lk 24 11).  Jesus has to appear to the apostles themselves later,  ‘and he upbraided them for their hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen’ (Mk 16 14).  The women do not speak nonsense.  They are faithful messengers.  Jesus is happy to give them the message to pass on.  The problem lies in the ears of those who do not want to listen, like the unjust judge in the parable in Luke 18.  Jesus encourages us not to lose heart.  Who is the person who has to keep on asking and not give up?  It’s a widow, the archetype in the Bible for female powerlessness; but Jesus defends and encourages her persistence.  And she wins her case.

woman petitioner with judge
The Lord’s advice : just keep on asking