Singing the Word 2020
A Course in how Plainsong can inspire worship, held in collaboration with St George’s Anglican Church, Paris
Fr Peter came to us with his extensive experience of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, West Yorkshire, where he had been Precentor. Not only did he prove to be a very friendly and approachable Course Director, but someone who possessed an enormous breadth of knowledge about Plainsong and how it can best be used in the Liturgy. His splendid singing voice and encouraging manner meant that all the participants, including those who wouldn’t usually count themselves as ‘singers’, ended up reading and chanting with a will from the sheets he distributed. Fr Peter very generously praised all our efforts, some of which, it has to be said, were more musical than others!
But that wasn’t a problem, as the Course stimulated us to think about what lay behind the phenomenon of Plainsong, which Fr Peter described as “articulated speech”, rather than “music”. We discovered that the physical effort required to chant together well helps open us up to God and to one another. A revelation was the way in which the chanting of Sacred Scripture allows the participants to “get behind” the text of the Psalms and Antiphons used and to achieve a closer encounter with the meaning of the words. After all, the Psalter was the foundation of Christian worship in the early Church. “The chant”, said Fr Peter, “is a passionate thing: it opens the scriptural text to us.” Certainly, in a text such as that where Jesus talks about going up to Jerusalem to accomplish his Passion, we found that the Plainsong remarkably intensified the drama of the narrative, at such places as “And after they have flogged him, they will kill him”.
The influence of leading Plainsong expert, Dr Mary Berry (who died in 2008), was clear at a number of points. We were reminded that one of the most striking of her comments was that Jesus and his disciples may very well have chanted the Lord’s Prayer in much the same way as we did. It was a link with our Christian heritage, given that getting to know Scripture through the discipline required for regular chanting can offset that loss of an intimate knowledge of Scripture that characterises contemporary Western society. Our ignorance is challenged by the biblical text which is living, in the sense that, when chanting, we both attend to the text and receive something from it.
We were introduced to chanting in both Latin and English, and the merits of both were discussed, but our Course Director reminded us that using English by no means detracted from the impact of the whole. We learned the various “moods” or characters of the different Modes that can be used – from intimate, by way of intense, to downright joyful! One of the more striking features of the day was our realisation that chanting is far from an exercise in operatic singing; in fact, the energy conveyed by the text is achieved, rather, by a simplicity of approach which articulates the text and communicates its meaning.
We finished by preparing and chanting the Vigil of the Resurrection, as used by the Community at Mirfield each evening during the year. It included a chant of the Eastern Church in three parts and in speech rhythm (at which point we almost sounded like Orthodox monks and nuns!) and the whole of Psalm 118, during which our Director sang alternate verses with us, the ‘choir’. We learned that, at the halfway stage in each verse, the natural pause is designed to enable us to “listen to the angels singing”; completing the verse is simply “stepping onto their song and joining them”. In other words, we are “participating in something bigger” that’s going on – taking part on Earth in the worship of Heaven.
Two final lessons gleaned from this remarkable day spent together were that, first, in chanting together, we could begin to make the rhythm of the Liturgy our own, absorbing where and how the various elements fit together. And then, we began to apprehend that it is in chanting corporately that we can learn “in our flesh” what the mystical unity of the Body of Christ is. Our chanting was certainly not perfect, but, as Fr Peter reminded us: “Perfection is for Heaven. We near it as we get to know one another through our chanting together”. A memorable day indeed.