The Neglect of Church Choirs

By Calum Carswell

We live in a society where the secular choral scene is flourishing. The likes of Gareth Malone are pioneering choirs, stirring up excitement and passion in people and opening up singing to a whole range of people who didn’t think they were capable of it. If this is going on then why can I not recall the last time I heard a choir in my own church? In fact as I think about it, why can’t I recall if we even still have a choir? As an Anglican I realise that what I have to say will be geared towards the Anglican tradition, but having worked with choirs in other Christian backgrounds I see a lot of overlap particularly in the Evangelical traditions.

The odd thing about choirs is that they stem back a long way: we read of music being sung in the Old Testament within temple worship. Even as we look towards early Christianity, Hilary of Poitiers (315 – 367 AD) talks about the Christians worshiping in group song. If we look at the church in England we see singing taking a key role, with a strong choral tradition: choirs have been documented back to around 1100 AD and remained strong until the last few decades when there has been considerable decline.

If we’re looking at choirs, we also need to understand why we sing at all in church. Genesis 1:27 tells us about how God made us in his own image, but what’s amazing is that in the 26 verses preceding this the only thing we’re told about God is that he creates. This means we are by our image creators, which makes us all creative. If we are to engage with people in our congregational worship then we need to engage with their creative natures. We see that having worship based on singing is a lot more practical than a service based on something else creative–say, for instance, knitting–which trust me can be a pretty dire service. We can see that singing creates community; at a football game you don’t see the fans breaking out into interpretive dance, and you don’t see friends going house to house reciting poetry at Christmas asking for mince pies. Rather, we see chants breaking out as fans sing alongside their fellow fans, and carols being sung by friends in the snow. This isn’t to say that dance or poetry aren’t expressions of our creativity; it’s to say that singing creates and cements community. This is why singing has always been an integral part of Christian congregational worship.

Now as we look towards choirs we need to view their role as two-fold. Firstly they are there to enable the congregation to worship. Secondly, it allows the people in the choir to worship. Through the act of serving, the community created by singing and through the creative act of sung worship, the choir is led to a place of worship. However it is the choir’s primary role to enable the congregation to worship, which it does in a number of ways. It leads the congregation in a musically interesting act of sung worship. As well as this it can allow a congregation to benefit from worship through listening–this is typically done with an anthem. There is always a danger with this that the congregation becomes an audience, but as long as this is taken into consideration then an anthem can point beyond the choir and towards God with the aesthetic beauty of the music.

I can imagine that a question that is in at least some of your minds is ‘if they’re so useful then why are we not still using them?’ To explain this I want to use a hypothetical church; let’s call it St Trendy (if that’s the name of your church I am truly sorry). First we can imagine the church to have about 200 in the congregation with a choir of 20 with a choirmaster. After a number of years the vicar at St Trendy comes to the conclusion that it is time to try and make the music at the church more relevant to young people. To do this they decide to introduce modern worship songs and phase out using hymns. This causes two main problems for the choir: firstly they are faced with syncopation which they find challenging, but more importantly their role is diminished from singing four part harmonies rich in musicality, to singing unison which is considered boring to them. The ultimate feeling of the choir is that it is out of place with these new worship songs. The vicar then decides to get the young people involved in the music itself by asking them to start a worship band, the idea being to include the choir by having them lead the music side by side. When they arrive at the rehearsal the choir finds that the band is leading from chord charts meaning it is impossible for them to follow along with what is going on. As a result not only do the choir feel ostracised, but they sound terrible and out of place next to the worship band. This leads to the vicar asking the choir to take a back seat which ultimately leads to the choir feeling rejected and eventually disbanding as they are no longer wanted. This analogy demonstrates a culmination of key reasons why choirs were being sidelined in favour of more modern bands and music.

If I were to breakdown what worries me about choirs, it ultimately comes down to these two points. First, they have so much to offer the church: they aid worship. We haven’t used them for almost a thousand years in England just because we felt like it, we used them because they are beneficial. In the secular sphere choirs are being pioneered because it engages with people and builds community, so why don’t we use them more? Yes I know that people will argue they are outdated and only used for tradition’s sake, but to argue this is equivalent to saying that Shakespeare’s work is old and therefore only used for tradition’s sake. I believe that it entirely misses the point that such work still maintains a strong purpose: in fact I would go as far as saying it has developed in the same way a vintage wine does. Choirs have similarly developed and grown; the way we use choirs today is vastly different to their historical use and this needs to keep happening. Society, culture and music change. If choirs don’t change and adapt then they will become archaic, outdated and used for tradition’s sake which squanders what they can do.

This leads to my second point which is that we need to be having the conversation of ‘how best to use our choirs?’ However, this question is being stifled by the question people seem determined to ask of ‘do we need our choirs?’ Right now if you are in a modern evangelical church and you run a choir then I would probably bet that you’ve been questioned on whether or not that choir should even exist. This needs to change. For all the reasons I’ve stated we need to nurture the choirs we have and be starting new ones where there aren’t any. I fail to see why we should limit this surge in choirs to the secular realm.

In this short article I cannot start to answer what role a choir should play but I can say that as a church we need to stop pushing choirs to the sidelines and acting as if they are simply an archaic tradition that is being replaced by the worship band. Yes their role is changing, accepting this is vital, but we need the attitude within the church to shift to accept that choirs play a key role. Let’s start the conversation on how better to involve the choir and how we can deepen the engagement of our churches in the worship of our God through them. And let’s start it now.


3 thoughts on “The Neglect of Church Choirs

  1. We have a faithful mixed choir; the members are jolly good at singing in unison, and are beginning to learn how to sing in 2/3/4-part harmonies. They are thrilled with the effect of their efforts, and the impact it has on their worship and the worship of the congregation. It starts with note-bashing… but the end result is lovely.

  2. I think the sentence ‘After a number of years the vicar at St Trendy comes to the conclusion that it is time to try and make the music at the church more relevant to young people’ begs the question of why the vicar’s come to that conclusion. Choirs who truly value excellence in the music they sing and the words they sing (indeed impose on the congregation to sing if a Director of Music chooses the hymns) aren’t replaced by bands. Excellence, it seems to me, is an attractive thing which young people love.

    It’s a great pity that some DoMs and singers seem to accept mediocrity, or, even worse, revel in their own intransigence when it comes to dealing with others in a parish, and thus are their own worst enemies. No wonder a praise band often becomes a more palatable option to clergy and congregation alike. ‘… we need to stop pushing choirs to the sidelines’ is only part of the story. ‘Choirs themselves need to lift their game …’ needs to be explored as well.

  3. I strongly support what has been said on this subject. A chorister since 1954, I have over most of the last twenty or more years been waiting for things to improve. Hopefully, things at my local church are appearing much more promising and there is a new vigour about our music. No longer am I constantly muttering ” How long, Oh Lord, how long !

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