I spent a sizeable chunk of my childhood as a chorister, singing four services a week at St Nicholas’ Cathedral in Newcastle.
It was an unusual experience, being a child behind the scenes of the Church of England. In my memory, they are years of the musty scent of sheet music, of the hidden spaces out of view in great churches, of the curl of incense up towards high arches, and of the gossip that small boys pick up going on around them in any institution.
We were dimly aware of the sluggish struggle of the Church to work out how a body of aged grandeur might counter contemporary decline. Even at a cathedral, evensong in the 1990s was at times attended by more members of the choir than of the congregation.
The principle was, of course, that our art was created in praise of God, so the presence or absence of a human audience was irrelevant.
Perhaps it is easy to accept such a concept as a child without much qualm. Looking back, I find myself in some awe at the capacity of our generous choir master and his assistant to persevere in what must have been extremely hard work, not least the cat-herding involved in managing two dozen unruly choirboys, to create something of beauty on the same basis.
It was certainly a great musical education. Those years left me with a love of church music which has outlasted my faith (and with an extensive note-for-note memory of many pieces, although the parts of them that no longer match my voice).
It has always intrigued me that we human beings are rational creatures, but are also so strongly subject to the power of our senses.
The theatre of a traditional church service is powerful and enduring for exactly this reason.
The logic and message contained in a sermon or in a reading from New or Old Testament is important – the latter is the core of the whole exercise, obviously – but there is a reason why they are not the sum total of a eucharist, evensong or mass.
Consider what it is that makes the idea of a church in this country. Everyone’s instinctive answer will vary, but I’d wager there are some common themes in many readers’ minds.
The architecture of power and glory, light and shadow. The massed monuments and memorials to those who have gone before. The smell which says a building is old but not abandoned, used but not properly aired each day. The itch of kneelers sewn by forgotten Mothers’ Union members, the way the spines of worn hymn books open to a few score of memorable classics. The first uncertain bars of a congregation communally honing in on the right notes. The familiar cadences and rhythms of liturgy. The sound of a choir, and the echo as its last notes ring against stone walls.
Some of this is tradition, happy accident made habit and then forged by time into instinctive culture. Some of it is deliberate theatre, a performance appealing to all of an audience’s senses to reinforce a message to its deepest and most moving effect. In total, it is a combination of the two.
We are creatures of fact and logic, of argument and reason. We discover, test and learn. We debate and teach. But that is not all that we are.
We can decide things on the basis of a written case. Indeed, we all do so, often.
But not all the time. That capacity for reason is built on a deeper foundation, laid down in our evolution long before our ancestors invented writing, or even perhaps before we discovered speech. At heart we are still, in some part, sensory decision makers – visual and auditory messages have an instant strength that the written word struggles to match.
We are oddly ashamed of that fact, as if admitting it would be a betrayal of our enlightened modern nature, but is not a bad thing. It just is – an inescapable fact of who we are and how we got here. After all, this aspect of human nature has helped us get this far, so the odds are it is contributing positively to how we decide to respond to the world around us.
If you doubt its power, wonder again at the existence of a church choir. Does it make a difference to those present if it sings or not?