Today we celebrate the achievements of our young people from the diocese who have prepared for and then succeeded in their tests in the Royal School of Church Music’s award schemes. Living up to the RSCM’s motto of, ‘I will sing with the spirit and the understanding also’, the scheme not only focuses the young choristers on their musical abilities but quite properly these programmes seek to place that music into the context of the church’s worship as well as helping them understand the commitment that is needed to be a member of a choir.
With the Spirit - Spirited, in all the senses of that word, is what provides the backbone of our worship in our cathedrals and in our parish churches. Part of our national heritage musically, is the English Choral Tradition, of which the Church of England is a prominent custodian. The tradition of fine choral music praising God has been at the heart of Anglicanism and our cathedrals, collegiate churches and larger parish churches keep this fine tradition central to our church’s worship. It is also a vehicle for so much excellent work with young people in their formative years and it demonstrates the importance of belonging, of commitment, of responsibility, of hard work, of team work and it fosters confidence, the valuing and honing of skills, a love of music and, though the regular participation in performing in church, the firm foundations of faith.
At this point in the Church’s year we are continuing to celebrate the raising of Jesus from the dead on Easter Day, we have been singing, and continue to sing our Alleluias, and on Thursday we thought about the Ascension of Jesus into heaven and next week, as our anthem this afternoon was in anticipation of, we will celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of the Christian church as God’s mission to the world. All of these feasts and festivals have their musical repertoire and our choirs help us, and it helps them, enter in to the mystery of God’s loving purposes. For those of us who attend worship week by week, or indeed for some of us here in this place, day by day, we are immensely grateful to our musicians for all that they bring to us and how for us our worship is enabled and beautified by their skill and hard work. Our spirits are often lifted beyond words and meaning to become a spiritual encounter with our Lord himself.
We are blessed here in the Cathedral with a choral foundation going back centuries. If you go on our choir’s own website you will see there the names of Lay Vicars Choral and choristers stretching back in to history who have blessed this place with their talent. Tradition here is important and the very fabric of this place not only echoes with their voices but they have left an indelible mark on it. Not least out in the Close is Vicars’ Close with some of the finest building that you will see in a small courtyard where they used to live.
In Number 6 Vicars’ Close and then in Number 7 there lived a man who was a Lay Vicar Choral here for 48 years. Predecessor to Mr Shakeshaft the present occupant of the Vicarage of Pipa Parva , John Saville arrived here in Lichfield in 1755 and died in August 1803 at the age of 67. Like Mr Shakeshaft he sang Alto but he was also able to sing the tenor part also. On the day he died he had sung two services here in the Cathedral quire. He was buried we believe in a vault in the churchyard to the south of the nave. His memorial is in the south transept and on it you will read words written by the so called ‘Swan of Lichfield’, Anna Seward, who was daughter of one of the Canons here and resident in the Palace where our present Choristers go to school.
John Saville was clearly a man of immense talent and some stature – an obituary, again penned by Anna Seward, published in The Gentleman’s Magazine read
This melancholy announcement of the loss of an excellent man, very generally known and where known always beloved will excite the sympathy of Genius and the tear of friendship. Pre-eminent were his abilities as a vocal performer from the rare union of feeling with science, of expression with skill.
His music, his learning and his skill stretched beyond Lichfield and was highly acclaimed, but the bedrock of his life was the singing of the services in this Cathedral.
Our time here in church, whether it be here in the Cathedral or in our parish churches, is the bedrock in our lives in a time which seems to lack firm foundations upon which to build. What we find in worship is sustenance and an opportunity to grow in love and in human stature as well as in devotion to Our Lord. Singing with the spirit and the understanding also, whether we be virtuoso singers like John Saville or just able to carry vaguely or even imperfectly a tune, helps us make a very different music with the whole of our lives. The final two lines on the epitaph on memorial to John Seville penned by Anna Seward reads
Sleep then, pale mortal frame, in yon low shrine, “Till Angels wake thee with a note like thine”it speaks of a hope of resurrection that rests upon the beauty of the love of God.
Thank you to those of you here who make music in our churches and here in this Cathedral. Thank you for allowing us to benefit from your God given talent, your hard work and your commitment. Thank you for your ministry to the people of God and as you minister to us through music and also in your reverence and in your commitment to the high standards of our worship in how you conduct yourselves be assured of our prayers day by day for you. May God bless you as you sing his praises with not only the spirit but with the understanding also.
Information regarding John Saville is taken from a more extensive study of his time at Lichfield by Michael Guest, published at http://lichfieldcathedralchoir.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/john-saville-1736-1803-eighteenth.html.