From the New Director
There are rare moments in life when we are privileged to see the world not merely as it is, but as it could be.
One such was a rainy Sunday morning a few months ago, when I was able to attend Mass in a parish I hadn’t visited before. By the time Mass began the church was packed full, with close to three hundred people present, including many families with children (fifty of the younger ones went out to the Sunday School during the Liturgy of the Word). A team of about eight boys processed with the priest to the altar, carrying candles and incense.
During the Introit, as at the Offertory and Communion, the small choir chanted the Proper texts of the day in English using Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers with light organ accompaniment. The music for the antiphon was provided to the congregation so that they could join in, but there was also time at each of these points to sing good, time-honoured hymns. As Mass continued, the priest sang his words to the tunes in the Roman Missal, and the congregation responded confidently. The Ordinary of the Mass was sung in Latin chant: Mass XI (Orbis factor) rather than the more widely-known Missa de Angelis. The strength of the congregational singing suggested deep familiarity with the Gregorian melodies, and this was demonstrated in stunning fashion at the Alleluia, where the whole congregation joined the choir in singing one of the authentic Gregorian Alleluia tones, complete with its melismatic jubilus.
Considered from an artistic point of view, the Mass demonstrated a pleasing aesthetic unity: a happy marriage of English and Latin chants and with some familiar hymns interspersed. In other words, the music served the liturgy, and was for the most part an integral part of it, so that the aesthetic experience was also a liturgical experience. The essential key to achieving this was the priest singing of his parts: the sung dialogue between priest and congregation impressing silently upon us that music was the medium by which the words of the liturgy became the praise of Almighty God.
Where, you might wonder, was this remarkable parish, this model of good liturgical praxis? This was a typical Sunday at St Mary and St Ethelburga, Barking.
At first sight Barking might seem like an unlikely venue for the scene I have described. The church is a modest brick building constructed in the 1970’s, with pews on three sides of the altar and a leaky roof. The congregation I saw was as diverse as any in the country; people who might be described as ‘White, British’ were certainly a minority, and the parish could hardly be described as wealthy. The choir consisted of a handful of faithful volunteers, led by an organist who helps out playing sacred music on Sunday mornings even though his real métier is jazz piano on Saturday nights. Perhaps the only indisputably excellent feature of the church is its small pipe organ, a chamber instrument with a lovely tone which was donated to the church some years ago.
If you are familiar with English parish life you will already realise—it could hardly be otherwise—that the liturgical achievements of the parish are largely due to the tireless work over many years of the parish priest, Fr William Young. Possessed of few resources and largely self-taught, he has nevertheless achieved a genuine realisation of the spirit of the liturgy in his parish; a celebration that is at once genuinely inclusive, culturally rooted and faithful to the practice of the Church.
If this can be achieved in Barking, it is hard to see why it cannot be achieved everywhere. Many of this country’s parishes have considerably greater material resources and the potential to achieve very much more. Yet in practice too many liturgical celebrations are marred by uninteresting music of secular inspiration with little relation to the liturgy. Good music can lift up souls to God, but a bad aesthetic experience tends to reinforce an atmosphere in which prayer and reverence seem out of place.
Barking has been able to achieve something better—something with aesthetic integrity—because its liturgical music makes clear reference to the authentic structure of the rite. This structure is most clearly defined by the repertoire of Gregorian chant. Resources do not at present permit fine renditions of the Gregorian propers and so simpler solutions have had to be found; yet since these make reference to the Gregorian tradition they participate to some extent in its spirit and are therefore satisfactory substitutes.
It is therefore clear that the Gregorian tradition is ultimately the key to the aesthetic, cultural and religious success of the liturgy in this parish, and if other parishes do not match this standard the most obvious reason is lack of knowledge of that tradition. Here of course the importance of the ongoing work of the Schola Gregoriana of Cambridge becomes clear. The gap between the ordinary realities of parish life and the kind of ideal celebration of the liturgy, in Latin and with chant, that is so familiar to us from Schola weekends, might seem immense to the casual observer. Yet in fact there is no contradiction: the one serves as a model to guide the other; the demands made of the participants differ only in degree, not in kind. In promoting the Gregorian tradition in all its richness, we are helping to make possible its ordinary, even unremarkable presence in parish life, where its liturgical function is every bit as important as in the great monasteries where popular imagination typically locates it.
When Mary Berry founded the Schola in 1975 her primary motivation was the preservation of a great cultural treasure that seemed about to be entirely lost. Since then, and in no small part due to her efforts, much has been preserved, and in many places there are signs of revival. Yet the work of Schola is far from over. Today there is increasing receptivity to the chant, but more than one generation has grown up with little experience of it in its proper liturgical context; a far cry from those who remember being drilled in chant by nuns in their pre-conciliar schooldays. Our great challenge is to pass on this great tradition from generation to generation. This cannot be done quickly; results will be achieved person by person, parish by parish. But there is every reason to believe that if we persevere our efforts will be richly rewarded.
The Schola’s vision for the promotion of the chant has always been a holistic one. Education and training remains one of the Schola’s key priorities, and is an area which I am keen to develop; our recent weekend at Downside saw some developments in this regard with more study sessions, and we have also held two day in London this year which combined a liturgy with an extended rehearsal.
Recordings and concert performances are also important as a way to bring the chant to new audiences. At the start of September our team of professional cantors will give a concert at Quarr Abbey, and in November we will field a choir to sing Dupré’s Vespers, which the Schola recorded many years ago. The worsening economics of recording may prevent us from undertaking a major project for some time, but in this area too we must look for new opportunities. The Schola also takes a close interest in promoting and disseminating scholarship and in providing resources for singers and choir directors, and I hope that the coming years will see some significant developments in this regard.
I am becoming ever more aware as I begin my time as Director that there is very much more to be done than I can possibly do myself, and that the talents, resources, contacts and experiences of all the associates are essential to our mission. If there is any way in which you can help, please do not wait to be asked! Our most pressing task is to recruit a new generation of associates: this is essential to our mission, if we are to pass on the tradition with which we have been entrusted, and something with which everyone can help. In order to achieve this we will need to overhaul our website and our internet presence, for which skills in media and graphic design are especially needed. We also need to increase our fundraising efforts, not merely to ensure our long-term financial viability but also so as to be able to offer a greater number of bursaries to students and clergy, and to undertake major projects such as publications and recordings.
Jeremy speaks movingly in his letter of the responsibility which Mary entrusted him, to carry on the work which she had begun. He has indeed made an outstanding contribution in recent years, with a tremendous commitment of his time and talents. But in truth the responsibility to carry on the Schola’s work is one which belongs to all of us who at various times over the years were privileged to study, sing and pray with Mary. She has surely gone to her reward; we must still try to merit ours. Please pray for me as I take up my turn at this task.