Extract from a sermon preached by Dr Christopher McElroy at Choral Evensong in Liverpool Anglican Cathedral to celebrate the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
We know from recent surveys that cathedral worship in this country is increasing in popularity. There are many reasons for this, but one I would highlight is the ministry of cathedral choirs and the singing of choral music in worship. The purpose of this choral music in the liturgy is primarily to give glory to God. The great composer JS Bach used to sign his manuscripts 'Soli Deo Gloria' – To the glory of God alone. By giving of our time and talent to offer such music in worship we glorify our creator in a similar way that the art and architecture of this great cathedral does.
But there is also a human element to choral music in worship. As a cathedral director of music, I am often stopped after a service by members of the congregation or by a choir parent and told "the music today was beautiful", "the choir's singing touched my soul" or "that motet really moved me". These comments highlight that such music affects movement within us. Not merely a feeling or psychological response, but a transport of the soul, a becoming drawn under the spell of the incarnate Word which compellingly absorbs our senses, mind and imagination.
Music can touch us in ways that words simply cannot. I'm sure you can recall a moment when a piece of music has struck you, stopped you in your steps, tugged at your heart. There will be pieces of music which are special to you because they represent an important occasion or memory.
We are each called to journey into the divine. The music that we hear in our cathedrals is an opening, not a closing, a revealing rather than a concealing, of depths that emerge gradually and not instantaneously. As the scriptures tell us, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them" (John 6: 44). Beautiful choral music is not something which simply pleases our senses; it is first and foremost a form of revelation, an encounter between God and his Church through Jesus Christ. This beauty serves to illuminate God's goodness and truth into our world.
Music has a particularly privileged evangelical role in our modern society. Authority and facts are old news; relativism and the turn to self are all. Sacred music from the Church's treasury is, however, arguably more popular today than it has ever been. Gregorian chant sells CDs in the millions, people flock to concert halls to hear religious works and vathedral choirs perform the widest variety of repertoire of any point in their histories.
One thing that the architecture of cathedrals, the beautiful art contained within them, the majestic organ and the singing of the choir have in common is that they need to be experienced. I can only give you the smallest flavour when describing them. Experiencing such music and liturgy in a cathedral tells its own story. The purpose of telling stories is to engage people, to move them, to touch them. Choral music in the liturgy is one element of the imaginative retelling of the Christian story and thus a gateway to revelation in itself.
Each time we hear the choir in a cathedral, each time we take part in worship, we experience the story, the piece of music differently. Each experience draws new light on our relationship with God. Over time we enter deeper into that relationship and become immersed in our Godly encounter. Music allows us to ascend to God, a movement, a path to God (more than understanding, knowing, doing) but also a means by which God is able to relate to humanity.
We read and hear the scriptures to encounter the reality of God and to be changed into a lover of God, not merely to become learned in words and phrases. Likewise with choral music in the liturgy. The liturgy that we celebrate today is but a rehearsal for the great heavenly banquet when we will join our voices together with the angels and saints in the song of the Lamb. As we now participate in this earthly liturgy, let us allow the music to engage us, to move us, to transform us, and to lead us into a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.