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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Out of the Mouths...: tea with the choristers

One of the enjoyable aspects of Cathedral life is getting to know the choristers. They are not only hugely talented but also a wonderful fount of bright conversation, irony and wit, shrewd observation and often, surprising insight.  They are great company.

For the last 10 years I have invited choristers to come round to the Deanery in their year-groups for tea (well, fruit juice), cakes and conversation. The aim is to talk in a relaxed way about Christian faith and life so that they can begin to get a sense of what the worship of a great cathedral is for. Of course others are doing this too. Exploring faith is encouraged in the Chorister School alongside formal RE. My canon colleagues prepare them for confirmation when the time comes. The Organist is assiduous in explaining the meaning and background of the texts choristers sing daily at the services, and through his own example of discipleship models the service of the church as a true vocation.
So I cultivate an off-beat homespun approach to chorister ‘formation’. I’m keen to encourage them to peer behind a dean’s liturgical persona and glimpse the lived Christian experience. That sounds rather grand.  It isn’t meant to. Some years I’ve asked them to choose a favourite hymn and talk about it. We’ve looked at the Psalms, so central to their evensongs. We’ve thought about the biblical readings at services, what they readily respond to and what they find hard. We’ve explored prayer and how to practise it. I’ve emptied wardrobes to explain why we dress up for the liturgy. We’ve studied the Deanery wall paintings and their themes of Annunciation, Nativity and Resurrection. In their final year, we’ve looked at what they have enjoyed about being choristers, and what not. The interaction is always lively, always great fun. I learn a lot and we often go way past the time set. The gap students who chaperone these visits like joining in too.
This year I am risking a ‘client-led’ approach by inviting them to write down a couple of questions they would like to ask about any aspect of faith, the Bible, the Cathedral and its worship and music – anything that puzzles or intrigues them. Recently we’ve had: ‘Who made God?’ ‘Is being a chorister becoming out of date?’ ‘Is there any pattern to the way we read the Bible in services?’ ‘What’s the difference between the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches?’ ‘What are icons and how are they used?’ ‘How deep are the Cathedral foundations?’ ‘How will the world end?’ And more personally, ‘How did you decide to be a priest?’ and ‘Have you ever thought that being a dean is a waste of time?’

In a Socratic way (you might say), I’ve tried to get the group to explore these questions rather than merely give answers. Sometimes there’s information to convey (doing this with a light touch when it came to explaining in one minute the events of 1054 and 1517 was a tall order). Often we stray wide of the mark, often we find we’re plumbing real depths. There’s plenty of liveliness and laughter but serious reflection too. I am constantly amazed by how thoughtful and articulate these boys and girls are, not just the 12 and 13 year-olds, but also those who are much younger.
What do I hope for? I’m realistic. The children won’t remember much of what we talked about. But I hope they recall in years to come long after chorister days are over, that the Cathedral wasn’t simply interested in their musical development and their formal education in the school. I want them to know that we cared about them as human beings and as young Christians.  I want them to recall that we valued them as members of our community. I want them to feel that the clergy were not remote Olympian figures who glided grandly round the cathedral, but were human beings on the same journey of faith as them– just that bit further on. I want them to remember Durham Cathedral as a warm, humane, caring, welcoming and good place. I’m glad to be playing a small part in this great project of contributing the shaping of these young lives.

And when the time comes to say goodbye to Durham (DV not just yet….), I know I am going to miss the choristers.  Here’s a big thank you to them all.

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