As a boy growing up in the parish of Holy Trinity, Thornhill, there was a rule that you had to be 10 years old before you could join the junior choir. In those days, the choir filled the entire chancel at the 9 a.m. service, and those of us on the cusp of double digits longed to be there with the older kids. I vividly remember the year I was finally allowed to join the choir. It was just in time to sing for the wedding of our assistant curate, a dynamic, guitar-strumming young cleric by the name of Philip Poole, and his bride, Karen!
It is no exaggeration to say that my participation in that junior choir helped to form me as a Christian. The stories and symbols of scripture, embedded in various hymns and anthems, allowed the message to come alive for me in different ways than when they were simply read. Over time, I absorbed the familiar phrases and images of the Bible through music, and these have stayed with me. (To this day, I cannot read Psalm 30 – “I will magnify thee, O Lord” – without hearing the arrangement to that psalm that I learned when I was about 11!) St. Augustine famously said, “Those who sing pray twice,” meaning that singing adds to our praise and worship of God. I think there is great truth here.
Unfortunately, there are fewer opportunities for young people to sing in church these days. There are still some parishes with junior choirs, and others that welcome young voices into the adult choir, but many of our young people do not know what it’s like to sing, apart from putting on headphones and humming along to their favourite playlist on their phones.
So, I was delighted this summer to receive an invitation to visit with young Anglicans who sing together every summer and have fun doing it. The Toronto Diocesan Choir School for Girls has been running for over 35 years. Each summer, between 40-50 girls gather at Trafalgar Castle School in Whitby for two weeks of singing and fun. On the Sundays of camp, the girls sing for the morning Eucharist and Evensong in different parishes across the diocese, and the final Evensong is always at the cathedral. In addition to singing, the girls participate in sports, arts and crafts, a movie night and a beach day. On the final Friday night, the girls put on a “Music and Mayhem” theatrical night for parents and friends.
When I visited the camp in August, I was delighted to see the girls having so much fun. At the end of the Eucharist, they all darted back to their rooms to dress up as various Biblical figures, and then raced back so that I could try to guess who they each were. Even though the girls come from different parishes across our diocese (and beyond), there is a strong bond that has developed between them. For each of them, whether they are eight or 18, church music is helping to nurture their Christian faith. I strongly commend this camp to the young women of our diocese, and I am grateful to Fr. Philip Hobson, who has served as chaplain to the camp for many years.
In my travels around York-Scarborough over the past nine months, I have come to discover the wonderful diversity of music in our parishes. In some places, there are professional choirs, while others have no choir at all. Some parishes enjoy traditional Anglican hymnody, while others raise the roof with a rock Eucharist, Jazz Vespers or a praise band. In a recent parish visit, a man told me that he loved sacred music, but couldn’t sing. I reminded him of that lovely old African proverb: “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.”
Whatever our ability or musical preference, we are called to reclaim our voices, and offer to God the gift of praise in song. The 20th century Methodist hymn-writer Fred Pratt Green captured well the importance of music in our life of faith:
“When in our music God is glorified,
and adoration leaves no room for pride,
it is as though the whole creation cried,
So, get out there and sing to the Lord a new song!