It's a significant day for all of us, but especially for the choristers who have reached the age of 13. For them, this is not just the end of their chorister days. It is the end of their time in the Chorister School. Some will have been pupils for as many as five years or, or even more. So this rite of passage marks the end of their childhood. Next year, they will be in secondary schools, small fish in much bigger ponds. Life will be very different.
It's the biggest evensong of the year. Parents and families recognise the importance of today. Some choristers have had older brothers or sisters in the choir too, so we welcome back many old friends. They come together from all over the country. There are quips before the service about 'Sob Sunday' or 'Tissue Evensong' but we know that we are not joking about the emotions the day arouses. It feels like the breaking up of a tight-knit, intimate family. Never again will this particular group of talented youngsters and adults make music together as the 'foundation' of this great Cathedral. It echoes the emotions Malory says King Arthur had when his knights rode out on the quest for the Holy Grail and he knew he would never see them all together again sitting at that round table.
It’s Prayer Book evensong as we always do it on a Sunday. This year, I am in residence so I conduct the service. The psalms and readings are those appointed in the lectionary. But the Cathedral has evolved farewell traditions that have come to mean a great deal. The first hymn is a Durham favourite, John Mason's How shall I sing that Majesty? to the majestic tune Coe Fen. The canticle setting is the powerful Blair in B Minor. The anthem is C. H. H. Parry's 8-part Blest Pair of Sirens. In the intercessions we pray for our Cathedral musicians, the Chorister School and those who are leaving. The final hymn is always Lead kindly light (the theme of the Precentor’s fine sermon this morning).
After the blessing, the leavers come out to the Scott Screen at the entrance to the quire. At this step where I once admitted them to the foundation, I now 'read them out' at the end of their time. I stand before them with the Precentor, the Organist and the Head. This is the hard part. I say a few words of thanks and valediction and try not to catch the eyes of any of them in particular. Here's what I say.
It’s time to say goodbye to members of the choir who are leaving us: seven senior girl choristers, four senior boy choristers, three choral scholars, a lay clerk and our assistant organist. With so many departures you may wonder if anyone will be left behind to carry on!
I want to say to all our leavers: you have been an inspiration to us. In your music you have expressed our praise and gratitude, our sorrow and lament, our hopes, our longings, our joy. Our worship would not be what it is without you.
Durham Cathedral will always be a part of you, just as you will always be part of the Cathedral. You won’t forget the music, the worship, the building, this wonderful place. But I hope you’ll also remember the people you have met here, and who have become your friends.
You have given so much to Durham. But Durham has given a lot to you. So let it inspire you to serve God wherever life leads you. I’d like to think that that the memory can inspire and help you to make a difference in the world and touch the lives of others.
You leave with our affection, best wishes, and our prayers. It will always be good to see you when you come back to the Cathedral, as I hope you do often.
So thank you. Go with our blessing. Go with God.
The choir processes out singing Psalm 150, O praise God in his holiness. In the Chapter House there are presentations and applause, and then the singing of a final Psalm: 84, O how amiable are thy dwellings. We end with the prayer of dismissal I use with the choir each day after evensong. There is more applause, then hugs, photos and tears. Some linger around to reminisce; others want to make a quick getaway. It is not long before the first cars drive out of the College. I imagine the children looking back as they turn into the Bailey and pass the Cathedral for the last time. When we get back to the Deanery, we feel a bit forlorn.
I've sometimes wondered whether we should put the choristers, indeed all of us, through this public ordeal. That worry is soon answered. Of course we must thank them publicly for their huge commitment to the Cathedral, not simply as musicians but as our companions in worship, discovery, friendship and laughter. And of course there must be a proper leave-taking in which we all acknowledge that an unforgettable chapter in our lives has come to an end. Rites of separation are always painful, but there is tenderness in bitter-sweet goodbyes.
The ritual doesn't pretend that a chorister's career, or that of any cathedral musician, is easy. The exacting demands of cathedral life impose stresses and strains on all of us at times. Cathedrals have their shadow, like every human institution. But a good farewell ceremony is like a good funeral. It enables us to say thank you. It recognises the depth of our relationships. It gives us a structure in which to face our loss, and to grieve. It helps fix our memories so that we can tell our story about them one day. All of this has happened this afternoon. A lot of important emotional work has been done.
For me, it's toward the end of Blest Pair of Sirens that I feel the reality for myself. Parry's music falls and then rises again as Milton concludes his great poem on a note of exquisite longing: for a world in which lost harmonies are restored, and where the discord of our fractured lives is finally resolved. Who wouldn't be moved by those last lines, especially when they are sung on such a day as this?
O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heav'n, till God ere long
To His celestial concert us unite,
To live with Him, and sing in endless morn of light.
I won't pretend it has been the easiest of days. But cathedrals are good at holding together complex human experiences and offering them to God. For me, it's no doubt bound up with the knowledge that the next time we say farewells in the Cathedral, they will be my own. That too is a day that I am not wanting to arrive too quickly.