Sermon given at Evensong with Valediction of Choristers 14th July 2013
14 July 2013 at 15:00 pm
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
Sir Hubert Parry’s setting of John Milton’s early poem At a Solemn Music, sung as our anthem this afternoon, was among the music chosen by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for their wedding here in the Abbey. We continue to pray for them as the birth of their baby approaches. Now the same poem, the same anthem, helps us as we say farewell and God speed to seven boys and their families who have been an integral and, more recently, a leading part of Westminster Abbey Choir, to reflect on the ministry of the Choir and the part played in that ministry by the Choristers.
Milton describes Voice and Verse as a ‘blest pair of sirens.’ Milton takes an ancient image and turns it upside down. For, the sirens in Greek mythology were by no means blest. Rather their fated task was to destroy ships, dragging them on to hazardous rocks by singing so beautifully that sailors were drawn to them and must sail towards them, ignoring the risks, unable to resist their fatal allure. ‘Siren voices’ has become in the modern world something of a cliché. A recent article in a newspaper was headlined ‘Labour must ignore the siren voices of the futile Left.’ I simply draw attention to the use of words and intend neither to applaud nor deplore the sentiments expressed. Siren voices lead to destruction.
But Milton’s is a blest pair of sirens, leading not to destruction but to the glory of heaven. Voice and Verse he invites ‘to present to our high-raised fantasy that undisturbed song of pure consent, aye sung before the sapphire-coloured throne of God.’ In other words, the voices of the singers and the words they sing are to combine, with the direct purpose of transporting the listener to heaven and enabling us to hear what God himself hears in the constant glorious worship offered him.
‘Where the bright seraphim in burning row
Their loud uplifted angel-trumpets blow,
And the cherubic host in thousand choirs
Touch their immortal harps of golden wires,’
The purpose is that ‘we on earth may rightly answer that melodious noise.’
Despite our human weakness, our fallibility, the blest pair of sirens will lure us to heaven: will enable us to join our humble voices, perfected, to the melody of heaven.
Milton finishes with a prayer:
‘O may we soon again renew that song,
And keep in tune with Heaven, till God ere long
To his celestial consort us unite,
To live with him, and sing in endless morn of light.’
He prays, May we ourselves become part of the heavenly choir, ‘his celestial consort’, and live with God and sing his praise ‘in endless morn of light.’
So, if all goes well, if it works as intended, if our minds and hearts are open to the moment, to the possibility of a transcendent experience, the poem and anthem itself lift us out of the mundane concerns of this life and of the secular world around us into the experience of heaven, into the presence of God, to join in the worship of the angels and archangels and of the whole company of heaven. Our heart sings Holy, Holy, Holy! even though our voice be silent. And for the chorister, whose voice is raised, the sense of the power and beauty and astonishing love of God, even though it may be a little obscured by the depth of concentration required to sing at this level, is surely the more intense.
Here at the Abbey, as in Cathedrals and other churches which maintain in the twenty-first century the incomparable English choral tradition, the repertoire of music sung by the choir is larger and wider than ever in history. Yesterday afternoon the choir sang a Magnificat and Nunc dimittis by the seventeenth-century German composer Heinrich Schütz, as well as the marvellous setting of Psalm 63 by the Abbey’s own seventeenth-century organist Henry Purcell. On Friday a Magnificat by the sixteenth-century Italian composer Luca Marenzio was followed by a Nunc dimittis also in Latin by the early twentieth-century English composer Gustav Holst. On both occasions the Introit was a composition by a composer born in the twenty-first century and written this year, one of our leaving Choristers, Seung-Youn Han. Earlier in the week we enjoyed great music by Byrd and Howells, Rachmaninoff, Tomkins, Stanford and Finzi, Leighton, Dyson, Palestrina and Crivelli: the centuries working together, the original languages used; all creating a magnificent harmony out of rich diversity.
The prophet Isaiah described his vision of heaven. ‘I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke.’
In Revelation, the last book in the Bible, we find a similar account of heavenly worship, ‘I looked, and, behold, a door was opened in heaven… Behold, a throne was set in heaven, and one sat on the throne… The four and twenty elders fall down before him that sat on the throne, and worship him that liveth for ever and ever, and cast their crowns before the throne, saying, Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honour and power: for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.’
In the epistle to the Hebrews, we are invited to the very throne of grace in heaven. ‘Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession… Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’
So, the worship we offer God here on earth connects us directly with the eternal worship of God in heaven. And the great music of the Church plays a vital part in the beauty and dignity of the worship and its power to move us, to transform us, to transport us to heaven.
I know the congregation will not object if I now address myself directly to the Choristers and especially to those who are this afternoon, after formative years here, leaving the Abbey choir as young teenagers to be educated and gain experience elsewhere.
George, Seung-Youn, Siu Oh, Omar, Andrew, Ben and Bede, you have helped countless congregations over the last few years, and the clergy and people of the Abbey, gain a glimpse of heaven, share in the worship of heaven. Though you will remain part of the Abbey and the Abbey will always be part of you, you finish your service as a Chorister with our thanks and our blessing and you leave us now. There will be many other moments like this in your life. But always remember that the little partings and losses of this life, moments of transition like today, all lead us toward that great moment when we shall leave this earthly life and be transported, by God’s grace and through his great love for us, to the joy and glory of heaven. That day may seem now very far off – I hope it is – but it will come. Our whole life is to be a preparation for that transition. Be sure not to lose for yourselves what you have given to others. Stay close to almighty God, who loves you, and he will bring you to himself.
Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven, to enter into that gate and dwell in that house, where there shall be no darkness nor dazzling, but one equal light; no noise nor silence, but one equal music; no fears nor hopes, but one equal possession; no ends nor beginnings, but one equal eternity; in the habitations of thy glory and dominion, world without end.
These words of John Donne you have often sung to music by William Harris. May they be your prayer! May be they be our prayer too!