Redeeming Cathedral Music for the Gospel

WEDNESDAY, 1 FEBRUARY 2012 – by George Parsons

Redeeming Cathedral Music for the Gospel

We have started a regular choir at Christ Church Fulwood. In my heart as the conductor of that choir is a longing that it might serve as a way of redeeming so called ‘Cathedral Music’ repertory for the gospel.

What do I mean?

I grew up as a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge and have worked as an organist at Chapels and Cathedrals in Wells and Oxford. Cathedral Music is in my blood. Yet my experiences in these places have, spiritually speaking, been often quite dry. The focus has been on the beauty and perfection of the music-making without a due consideration of the truth of the gospel message being conveyed. This often showed itself in a lack of prayerful concern that God might use the music sung to reach and touch people with the words, and a lack of prayerful dependence on God on the part of the musicians involved.

In this context I have thinking about the apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:58:

Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.

The context of 1 Corinthians 15 is the reality of the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. The chapter asserts that the Resurrection is true, real, historical. Paul’s argument at the end of it is thus: ‘because the Resurrection really happened, stand firm. Let nothing move you.’ That is – stand firm on the gospel. Hold onto the gospel because the Resurrection guarantees its truth and therefore vindicates its claims. Christ really is coming back to judge; His death really has paid for your sins; death really has been destroyed and the new heavens and new earth really will one day be ushered in. The Resurrection has started the timer ticking and the wheels turning for the final day of Judgement, the recreation of all things, and the eternal life of the people of God in real physical bodies.

The Resurrection plants the seed that will one day explode into a new Universe.

So we must hold onto the gospel! And for our new choir, that is the first absolute. We will hold onto the gospel by singing about it unashamedly. That’s where the Cathedral Music repertory comes in. For history has left us with a rich seam of choral music that faithfully and clearly sets the Bible’s texts. God’s kindness to us as a country has given us a prayer book that is rich in Biblical reference, clear in Christ-centred gospel proclamation. It is for the services in this prayer book that much of this choral repertory has been written. It is this repertory that I which to ‘plunder’ for Christ’s sake, to redeem for the gospel, praying that God would use the anthems and choral pieces we sing to encourage, comfort and challenge those who hear them and to build them up in their faith.

Now here’s the rub: Christ Church Fulwood is a church with much contemporary music going on. So our intention is to allow traditional choral music to be heard side by side with modern worship songs. It might seem stylistically odd to allow Tallis and Howells to co-exist in the same service with songs by Nathan Fellingham and Stuart Townend, but God has no stylistic favourites. He does not honour music because it is contemporary, or because it is traditional. He is no more bound to use an a cappella anthem to glorify Himself than a worship song written by Graham Kendrick. He is no man’s debtor. But He will honour and use the gospel wherever it is taught, and whatever musical ‘clothes’ it comes in. That is not to say that musical style is irrelevant or unimportant, only that in God’s hands it is a tool that serves a higher end.

John Wesley, a short time after his conversion, found he lacked joy in his new faith in Christ. Troubled, he attended evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral and heard an anthem by Purcell that included the words of Psalm 130:7 – ‘O Israel put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption.’ The anthem encouraged Wesley to keep trusting God and he went on to be used by God more than perhaps any other man since the Apostle Paul. Now, we may not have the next John Wesley attending Christ Church when we roll out our first anthem at Fulwood next Sunday evening, but if God uses our singing to keep a troubled and doubting believer trusting Him I will be really pleased. For then our singing will bear ‘resurrection fruit’ – fruit that will last into eternity and show that our musical labours in Christ at Fulwood will truly not have been in vain.…


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