Mike Leigh is a former student of the College of the Resurrection and now serving in the North Scarborough Group Ministry and is Area Dean of Scarborough. This reflection on his summer sabbatical was originally published in the Community of the Resurrection Magazine (CR Quarterly).
“Congregational singing….has the power to create community, form and transform the heart and mind, and transport a person completely into a spiritual dimension unlike any other.” - DJ Bull
I’ve always said that it was singing that kept me in the church. I remember that I never really liked Sunday School as a child and the only way out I knew of was to join the choir! I distinctly remember when I was 7 years old we had a visit from the choir master to our school and he talked about needing new boys to join the church choir, so I went home and pestered my mum relentlessly until she gave in and sure enough, I was admitted to the church choir.
I loved the choir; it was my highlight of the week and the thing I enjoyed more than anything. The thing I found though, was that it was not the type of music we sang nor the quality of the sermons that I sat through (surprise surprise) that I loved, but it was the sense of belonging that I found which drew me in. We were a group of children bound to each other, yes, through the singing of Anglican chant and the wearing of cassocks and ruffs (not too dissimilar to my experience of being a clergyman in the Church of England, I have to say!) but we were also bound by the times when we passed jokes and mints along the choir stalls during particularly boring sermons, or played football after rehearsals, or shared sweets bought at the corner shop after a wedding. I loved the choir because it was my community and it was there that I was most at home.
Community has always been something that human beings have longed for, we are created to live in community and we need to find places to meet and share our lives with others. It doesn’t surprise me that in this age where families are more displaced and traditional community activities like social clubs, music societies and churches are declining, we see other things emerging (very often online like Snapchat or Facebook ) to fill the gaps.
It interests me then that in this world of changing community we discover that one area of growth is in community choirs. Gareth Malone is famed for resurrecting community singing but I am glad to say that this has been happening for a lot longer than the BBC like to think and in an ever changing world of community, it is wonderful to discover that people still want to sing together. For a long time we have known that singing is good for our health and that it has the ability to draw us together and create community. Why? Because as human beings we have always sung and a quick look at other cultures reminds us that for many people today, singing is simply part of what it means to be part of a tribe or a nation or a race.
I remember visiting a remote village in Tanzania many years ago. As we approached, the sound of singing could be heard from very far away – it wasn’t a choir, it was simply the people of the village welcoming us into their community. The time we spent in that village was filled with a soundtrack of song that not only bound the village together with each other, but also spoke of their hospitality and welcome to us – it was for me a very human experience.
I have been singing all my life; following my time in parish church choirs I have been lucky enough to be able to sing in cathedral choirs, choral societies and opera companies, but it has always been my concern that in western culture, music has become more about performance and perfection and less about community. This has led to the belief that some people can sing and some people can’t. My ministry has therefore been one of encouraging everyone to sing and I have always tried to find ways to use singing with everyone rather than a few who have “good” voices.
For many years I have championed the use of simple unaccompanied songs both within liturgical settings and in other areas of ministry (think of the songs of South Africa or the Taizé community and you will know what I mean). There are many great songs from around the world which are good to sing and encourage all to participate – we call this “natural voice singing” or “paper-less song” – as it requires no paper for words or music or instruments and so it is a natural way to sing together.
I recently came across two different networks whilst on my sabbatical, one called the Natural Voice Network which is a UK based organisation that links community song leaders around the country using this type of music. They say, “We are a network of people who work with voice and song, and who believe that singing is everyone’s birthright, regardless of musical experience or ability”. The other is Music that Makes Community, a non-profit organization in the USA that works with ecumenical communities and leaders to empower and liberate a spiritual life through singing.
These two networks have a common thread to use simple, unaccompanied singing as a means to bring people together and create caring, loving and compassionate communities. Music that Makes Community, however, took this one step further and rather than simply making music, they intentionally used song to create a sacred space; a place to encounter the living God, and this was what interested me the most.
I have always been in churches where music is only a part of what we do. Alongside music we have words and liturgy, the preaching, the sharing of peace, the offering of prayer and the partaking of communion etc. Music in my church is something that flows through the liturgy and holds the liturgy together, but it is still something that is incorporated into the bigger picture which is the liturgy itself. Other styles of worship around the world also use music in a similar way; the Mennonite church or the Church of Christ in the USA have a great emphasis on song but I am yet to find a Christian community that is solely based on song. The Taizé community in France is probably the closest I can think of, but even there it is a balance between word, song and silence.
My time with Music that Makes Community led me to ask a very important question: can we create a Christian community based on song? In other words, can we create a church that meets just to sing, and through the communal activity of singing together, experience the living God in deep and profound ways? This question takes us deeper, to a place where singing is the foundation of the community and leads us to a sacramental encounter with the living God.
To explore this further I have been gathering a few people just to sing together and see what happens, and we meet regularly now in a group called “Singing for the Soul”.
- We meet to sing a variety of unaccompanied songs (some things familiar, others new).
- We are attentive to each other, so the songs are a means to gather us, bind us and allow us to be open to each other and to God.
- We learn to focus on the quality of our listening to each other rather than musical perfection.
- We are attentive to scripture and prayer and creative in how we use singing to include both of these things, listening to how God is speaking to us through that.
- We often talk about the origin of the songs and what that might teach us about how that connects us to a wider world and the issues they reflect.
- We ask questions like “what did you notice when we sang that song?” or “I wonder what is most important about that song for us today?”
One of the most poignant songs we sing is a simple song I picked up in the USA by Amy McCreath called “What we need is here”. We teach this song in 3 parts and after we have learnt the song, we invite everyone to walk around the room and sing to each other. What a message that is, “What we need is here” - God is here and we are here, and that is enough.
What we discover when we sing together is that we are far more engaged with each other than when we are in church on a Sunday morning and we are also much more sensitive to each other’s needs and concerns. We also discover that we are more spiritually connected and often folk will say that it has been a deeply moving and emotional time.
So far, we haven’t shared in Holy Communion together but for me this is the logical next step, to be a singing sacramental community. I don’t know what that will look like yet but it will be fun to work this out within our gatherings.
My hope is that in creating these communities of song we are getting closer to the kind of community Jesus was seeking for his followers, and in an ever changing and challenging world, where the very essence of what it means to be community is being challenged by politicians and society, the church needs to reflect on how we bring people together and create loving and compassionate communities that can speak peace into our world. Singing is one opportunity, I believe, to try something a little bit different and encourage faith, hope and love to thrive in us today.
"We believe that the holy act of singing together shapes faith, heals brokenness, transforms lives, and renews peace." - The Hymn Society of the United States and Canada Mission Statement