by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 27
May 2020
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11:33

When will churchgoers sing again?

It is the closest I come to a felt encounter with the divine
by Elizabeth Oldfield
Choir boys at Westminster School singing a hymn during a service at Westminster Cathedral. June 1947. Credit: Getty Images

Plans for the reopening of churches, along with many of our great institutions, remain hazy. It seems likely that services, as well as being masked, deep cleaned and socially distanced, will be devoid of song. The debate over whether singing could be possible behind masks, or if singers were far enough away still rages, but most cautious church leaders will opt to avoid the risk altogether.

Sensible, maybe, but also heartbreaking. Choirs up and down the country will be experiencing a similar grief. The news for close-knit communities, who have transitioned to digital rehearsals, that they can’t make music together for some time will be a blow. We’ve had enough pro-choir popular television for us all to know the arguments — singing together releases endorphins, builds social cohesion and is a tonic for our mental and physical health. Hundreds of thousands of non-church goers will feel the lack of it.

Singing in churches (and other places of worship), though related, is a slightly different case. It’s a space where all of those who, like me, demonstrate no special musical talent, can go and belt out a tune. Half the joy is the mix of tone-deaf Tony and Christie who is a west end-performer, whose voices would blend nowhere else. We’re singing together, but not for each other, but for someone or something beyond us. Side by side, not eye to eye, the sense of communion with the others in the space is a delightful by-product of trying to commune with God.

Singing in church, I have discovered, is one of the few places I feel my brain, body and spirit are integrated. Think tank work is pretty cerebral, and the temptation to slip into distanced analyst mode crops up in lots of areas of life. What does the research say? What is the evidence? Exercise helps me use my body as well as my brain, but I have to do something pretty intensive to switch off the mental chatter. Meditation, with which I persevere through gritted teeth, also helps to bring some balance. What lockdown has made clear though, is that nothing works like standing in rows with a ragtag group of people in south London and making a joyful noise. The intellectual, spiritual, emotional and bodily are all fed through the lyrics, tune and task of singing.

While one wing of the church might argue that the sacraments (communion, confession) are the “real” heart of the church service, and another that it’s the sermon, I’m realising that for me, the main point of going to a physical space on a Sunday is the singing. A moment of felt encounter with the divine is far more likely for me there than anywhere else. The fabulously named Archibald Davison, in his 1952 treatise on church music said Christians gathered in singing is “one of the thin places where the other world shows through”. Sadly, I don’t know when I’ll get to to do it again.

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Miriam Uí
Miriam Uí
2 years ago

I really feel your pain. Leading worship singing online is really not the same at all, when no one joins in….

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
2 years ago

Mystic Meg has more validity on the future than Certain imperial college scientists as seen on SARS2 Zika CJd Climate change fanatics. Not just MSM is a turn off but Science needs to be seen as a force for good not hijacked by the Wuhan “research”laboratory or failure of WHO and Bill Gates of hell to validate real deaths in Chinese cities

Peter KE
Peter KE
2 years ago

Let’s hope Donald Trump the USA President is given respect as a good leader. The scum of the deep state need to be dispatched along with the democrats party for all their misdeeds. The USA & UK need to take urgent action against their respective deep states. Good luck Boris Johnson.

Barry Faith
Barry Faith
2 years ago

A trend is a trend – – until it bends – – -.

Peter KE
Peter KE
2 years ago

Yes, let’s have some ordinary life. Dump the pseudo science and get back to our ordinary lives. The pseudo scientist ( professor & doctors they maybe) are pathetic.

Peter KE
Peter KE
2 years ago

Let us hope this nonsense ends soon, our churches should be open now.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
2 years ago

I want to shout (if not sing) an Hallelujah for this article. Thankyou.
1. My experience has been that singing during online services is possible and better than nothing. However you don’t get the full blessing of worshipping as part of a Christian gathering,but it can be very uplifting. Nonetheless I do hanker after the full works like you.
2. Singing has always been integral to Christian worship. The amazing reservoir of music available to the world today would be sadly depleted if it were not so.
3. Christians have got plenty to sing about not least the gift of the Holy Spirit whose coming we celebrate this Pentecost Sunday. We believe the Holy Spirit inspires our singing and through it enables us to experience the reality of God so that we know the joy,love and grace of His Presence.
4. From time to time God sends the Holy Spirit to revive and renew the Church in its life and mission to the world and this invariably includes a burst of new creativity in worship music. The hymns of Samuel Wesley in the 18th.century and the songs of Moody and Sankey in the 19th. century are examples of that. In our day wherever there are signs of revival and renewal fresh music and singing for worship blossoms. Some examples of this are written and performed by Hillsong, Elevation Worship and Belonging Co.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
2 years ago

Heffernan is quoted as saying “Take, for instance, the 2013 prediction by researchers at the Oxford Martin School that “by 2035, 35% of jobs will have been taken by machines”. ” The report from the Martin School linked to makes no such prediction, and indeed explicitly says “We make no attempt to estimate the number of jobs that will actually be automated, and focus on potential job automatability over some unspecified number of years. According to our estimates around 47 percent of total US employment is in the high risk category.”. In fact, what Heffernan attributed to the Martin School was a figure of 47%. So Heffernan badly misrepresented the Martin School, and this article misquotes her misquotation.

Sheryl Rhodes
Sheryl Rhodes
2 years ago

I have a real grief over the fact that singing, both in church and in any group setting, is going to be off the table for an indefinite period of time. Like you, I am moved by singing in church, sometimes to the point of tears. Singing is also my only social hobby; one I have been desperately cultivating over the past two years—turns out that it’s not easy for a modestly talented middle aged woman to find singing partners or casual choral groups. Singing harmony with others turns my whole body into some kind of tuning fork that hums with joy; I could do it for hours and never tire.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago

A very thoughtful and civilised article, thank you.

Though what is so fabulous about the name Archibald Davison? Am I missing something obvious….?

Emily Crews
Emily Crews
2 years ago

Thanks so much for your article. Greater advocacy’s required from the Church, which is, at present, not showing signs of sticking up for its choirs. My son was a Chorister until COVID panic remodelled our entire society. Nobody has asked us what we feel about risk, nobody has sought our views. We do zoom singing sessions, but that is not choir. A tradition is in danger of being lost, based on the flawed “science” behind the lockdown.

A note on the photograph: aside from the hairstyles, this could be a cathedral choir today. Those children work very very hard- we can’t drop this, picking it up a couple of years later, and expect it to be in the least bit as good. This lockdown is burning through everything we hold dear.

Richard Pinch
Richard Pinch
2 years ago

The author says “Heffernan was also spot-on to praise the superforecasters” and also “The false certainty about our ability to predict something as complex as human behaviour ““ … ““ certainly now looks tragic.” These statements don’t appear to be consistent.