Choir for the Non-Singer

. . . to borrow rather liberally from John Spong’s 2007 book title.

Wilson: “Mind listening while I ruminate?”
Tim: “No, just do it over there in the bushes.”
(Home Improvement, 1994)

main-qimg-7a562edd217b0d55008b1334cd4c4a64So this feels a bit like being a next-door neighbour to something; but looking over the fence at it. Not so very different from the (borrowed) passion many of us feel as we watch the ongoing melodrama staged for our entertainment (I’m sure!) south of the border. Opinion forms, but entitlement to speak it, to judge it, is always a bit iffy. So with that fuzzy disclaimer out of the way. . . I’ll channel my inner Wilson in this effort at Church Improvement.

Living adjacent to church music for the better part of three decades, it’s impossible to remain distanced from, unmoved by the choristry. On reflection, pie charting life so far — the usual ‘work, home, leisure’ wedges — would see this element, music, inform any and all ‘slices’. Where and how we vacation, where we choose to live, circles of friends who surround us, and the myriad dramas and melodramas played out before us for three decades bear witness.

Peering over the fence affords a certain perspective, the detachment allowed the observer; but not so available to the participants themselves. Couple this ‘arm’s length’ point of view with a penchant for identifying patterns, dynamics, and a passion for making sense of human behaviour. . . and a ‘diagnosis’ begins to take shape.

Communities, by their nature are a melange. A mix of personalities, agendas, motivations for membership, loyalties, needs . . . you name it. Moving to a town, no one really expects homogeneity, a seamless blend of sameness and agreement. Generally we find a way to coexist, to assimilate, to accommodate. Compromising where we have to; establishing boundaries to maintain our individuality where we can. We find our place in the grand scheme.

And choirs, to this outsider, seem to be no different. The hierarchy is clear. The roles are defined. The mayor, the neighbourhoods, the prominent citizens, the foot soldiers; conductor, vocal registers, leads, and. . . the alto line. Turf wars surface, bylaws are transgressed, egos tweaked — but the ‘village’ somehow survives, finds its balance again and settles into place, homeostasis restored.

Now consider for the moment, as a point of comparison, the scenario recently played and playing out in a political forum not so very far away. For two and a half centuries, the ‘peaceful transition of power’ has characterized the US and its installation of a new (or reprised) administration — until now. While the rest of the world has acknowledged a 46th president, functionally half (or close enough) continue to pay homage to number 45. The resulting chaos has impeded what should have been a perfunctory hand off and preparation for the next era. Confusion and a wholly unnecessary seismic rift has widened, perhaps defining and highlighting an essential schism that has always been resident — but ‘managed’. Too many cooks (by one) do spoil the broth.

And so to the clerical equivalent. The relationship between clergy and musician is complex — and has been ever thus. An overlapping, coordinated, consultative marriage may produce the satisfying result that has typified the western church for far longer than the aforementioned republic to the south. Sacred music has been fostered, sheltered, and championed with a mutual enhancement and appeal that has kept many of us ‘Wilsons’ connected and ‘in the pews’. All good — until it isn’t.

The church appears to share a few things with its current political dopplegänger — at least where the more dysfunctional examples are concerned: autocracy and a marginalizing of the ‘will of the people’ amongst the most evident. Particularly in times of transition, attempts at seizing the decision-making reins fuel divisiveness, promote a ‘choosing up of sides’ with all the expectations of stated fealty. Ultimately this creates a fault that, at best, destabilizes, dilutes the institution; at worst, destroys it. A resistance to ‘trusting the process’, relying on lay expertise that has well-served the institution is supplanted by a clerical compulsion to control and direct — to its peril!

One final constitutional parallel, this time with a monarchal flavour. Could we, just for the sake of metaphor of course, examine the role of, say a Queen Elizabeth. A symbol of an institution, guardian of ceremony and tradition, the nominal head of the church — but one that is obligated to otherwise ‘stand back and stand by’ — to horribly mix metaphoric content. Clergy have long since come out from behind the curtain. No longer are they perceived as the ‘wizards’ (pointy hats aside) that embody a direct conduit to a deity; the intermediary without whom the parishioner’s prayer is not heard. Martin Luther pretty much put pay to that.

Clearly, there continues to be a role: custodians of ritual. The day-to-day governance, the matters of ‘state’ are overseen by a corporation and counsel, by representatives of the people, and by ‘managers’ selected for their skill set and expertise. Perhaps it’s best to concede, to confine function to consultation and support, leaving music to the musicians. Perhaps autocracy has hit its best before.

How it feels on the other side of the fence.

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