Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Clerical life: Singing together is one of the most profoundly human things we do

When the singing stopped during the pandemic, we suddenly started appreciating what we were missing
November 1, 2023

Once upon a time David Hoyle was a boy chorister at the parish church of St John the Evangelist, Blackpool. This David Hoyle isn’t the present dean of Westminster, but the other—the legendary performance artist. In those days, St John’s was the civic church of Blackpool: Protestant but traditional, with a robed choir. The vicar was Hugo Ferdinand de Waal, later principal of Ridley Hall and bishop of Thetford, whom I once heard described unkindly as “the dullest bishop in East Anglia.” He can’t have been that dull, since he was responsible for the Entertainers’ Service where all the great names in music hall and stand-up were honoured. “Did they sing for you?” I asked. “No. We sang for them.” For the children, it was utterly thrilling. “Ken Dodd is here!” 

I know this story because David told it to me. He’s never forgotten Hugo de Waal’s kindness, nor the excitement of the Entertainers’ Service. I reaped the benefit when David asked me a few years ago to write and record some audio pieces to be played towards the end of his show at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern. That was what got me back into writing. 

For most of the 20th century, there was a choir in every church. In the villages you could, if you liked, sing with the parish church in the morning and the Baptists in the afternoon. 

Then, about 20 years ago, choirs dwindled. This wasn’t helped locally by an incumbent who wanted a worship band composed entirely of born-again Christians. The churches switched from Hymns Ancient and Yet More Ancient (as it’s known) to Songs of Fellowship, which I think I can say without caveat is the worst hymnbook I’ve ever encountered. To do it justice, the intention is that nobody will actually use the book: the lyrics will be projected onto a screen. But we did use the book. No music. Tiny print. And with songs like “The Fruity Song” and “Lord You Put a Tongue in My Mouth”.

When the singing stopped during the pandemic, it seemed as though we suddenly started appreciating what we were missing. I thought of the rainy evening in 2002 when I was sent to preach to a tiny congregation of elderly Methodists and found that they filled the building with spontaneous four-part harmonies. I thought of schoolchildren belting out harvest songs and Christmas carols. Fast forward to now, and our parish assistant asked everyone to make an embroidered or appliquéd square for a wall-hanging to tell a story about the pandemic. There were three sections: what we endured, what we were grateful for and what we hoped for the future. Mine was for the third part and showed a choir. They were wild, brightly coloured singers in fancy hats, crowded onto eight inches of muslin.

Singing together is good for you. But it’s also one of the most profoundly human things we do, and we seem to do it less and less. During that time, when the only singing we had was our curate, Miles, carolling from the top of the church tower on Ascension Day, I set my heart on a new parish choir and a new community choir to go with it. We applied for funding. There were hiccups and grumbles. Not everyone in the congregation liked it at first. But the proof of  the pudding was in the eating: more people come to church on our three choral Sundays every month than on the Vernacular Music Sunday when our band (two guitars and a piano) plays old-fashioned Revival hymns and gospel music. Songs of Fellowship has vanished without a trace and without a faculty.

Best of all, there’s a growing group of trebles. We pay them 50p for every choir practice and service, and we give them pizza. Singing has to compete with all the other things a child might be doing on a Wednesday evening or a Sunday morning, so it has to be fun. And yet it seems to me that one of the things that the children enjoy most is the knowledge that their singing is important to the worship of the Church. 

I like to drop by their practice on a Wednesday evening. There’s absolute concentration as they stand around the piano, some of them barely able to see over it. There’s serious senior chorister S, and tiny O, and A, who as an infant screamed for 40 minutes solid at his baptism. There’s J, who wears pink and purple and rainbows and glitter—and pretends not to pay attention, but sings everything note-perfect on the drive home. Maybe we’re raising up another David Hoyle. Vauxhall or Westminster? Either would be good. I hope that when I die the whole village will be singing.