Evensong marking the 20th anniversary of the Girl Choristers

June 2, 2019

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Preached by The Very Revd Catherine Ogle, Dean of Winchester using 1 Samuel 2:1 – 10 and Luke 1: 39 – 45 at Evensong marking the 20th anniversary of the Girl Choristers on Sunday 2nd June 2019, the Seventh Sunday of Easter.

Twenty years ago here in this cathedral, history was made by 17 girls singing choral evensong.  Led by Sarah Baldock, their voices joined for the first time in the cathedral’s 900 year history the singing of the ancient daily offices.  Other cathedrals had already welcomed girl choristers, but Winchester was arguably the most high profile choir to make the change. David Hill, the cathedral organist welcomed the girls with enthusiasm, saying at the time: ‘We knew within minutes how good this was going to be.  I’m really thrilled that this is up and running.’

Well, for the last 20 years we have enjoyed the benefits of having girl choristers, trained female voices, part of the cathedral choir and part of the life of the cathedral.  The Chapter, clergy, musicians, congregations, visitors and The Friends of the Cathedral continue to be thrilled that the choir, now well established, achieves such a consistently high standard.  Over the last 20 years, singing here, and in other cathedrals and churches and concert venues in this country and overseas, they have brought huge credit to the cathedral and to its musical reputation, alongside the boys and the gentlemen of the choir.  We owe a great debt of gratitude to the girls who have sung over the last 20 years, those who have trained and supported them, and of course, their parents and families.  There is a particular place in heaven, I feel, for choir families who, for a while, wrap their lives around church calendar and cathedral commitments. We will raise a glass to you later.

Of course, back in the 90s when the establishing of a girls choir was first explored, the prospect wasn’t necessarily met with enthusiasm from everyone.  Indeed there was organised opposition.  Some feared that it spelt the beginning of the end to the traditional cathedral choir.  However Dean Michael Till said that the cathedral was intending to do two things at the same time: open the opportunities of chorister training and experience to girls, along with its life-long benefits, whilst also maintaining and cherishing the traditional boys’ choir.  That intention continues to be honoured, and, I hope that we will all feel, the outcome has been hugely beneficial for all of us.

For me, reflecting on this significant anniversary, there’s a particular joy hearing the beautiful trained voices of the girls sing the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, the Evensong canticle.  Taken from Luke’s gospel, this is the joyful and revolutionary song of reversals, sung by a young pregnant woman who is overwhelmed by Gods promises and by Gods activity in the world, and in her own being.  God’s promises for the world are being fulfilled in and through her.  Everything is changing.  All things are becoming possible, the hungry will be fed, and the down-trodden will be lifted up.

This great and joyful song comes just after the passage that (Sarah) read/we heard read this afternoon, when Mary, the young mother-to-be, goes to stay with her much older cousin, Elizabeth, also carrying a child in her womb, who will be John the Baptist.  The two women support and encourage one another, recognising their holy work of bringing about the fulfilment of Gods promises in the birth of their children.

In the writing of his gospel Luke places hymns of praise in the mouths of the people involved in the stories of Christ’s birth, into the mouths of Mary, Zechariah and Simeon and these songs are an echo both of the songs of the angels and of their forebears.  I’m sure that when you heard our first reading, Hannah’s song from the ancient history of Samuel, you recognised the allusions and the reversals that we see emerge later in the Magnificat.  Mary is rejoicing from within her heritage of faith. The births of John and Jesus are going to fulfil ancient longings for the down-trodden and oppressed.  And for the great Magnificat to be placed into the mouth of a young Jewish girl, without education, with very few rights is a great reversal in itself.  These words expressing hope and change and renewal have inspired generations to act for change and for justice ever since.

A girls’ choir then is always a wonderful thing, as like Mary and Elizabeth they support and encourage one another to create something fine and good and joyful.  (I notice in the press release about today former chorister Sophie Burford said, we shared laughter and tears together and I feel this helped shape us into the women we are.’) A cathedral choir can be even more significant, as girls experience musical energy, thrilling performance, concentration and discipline and the lifelong benefits of this training.  As someone else has said, ‘You learn to love this music and it will not let you go’.[1]  And more than this, girls’ choirs in churches and cathedrals bring female voices, made in Gods image, to join with boys and men in the worship of God on earth and in heaven.

Our choirs sing music written in the past, sung in the present and calling the communities who hear it into a new future.[2]

In these days of Ascensiontide, as we celebrate our risen saviour ascended into the heavens, so we thank God for the music that lifts our spirits, stretches hearts and minds into new possibilities, and gives us a foretaste of heaven.  Amen.

 

[1] From a sermon by Lucy Winkett

[2] I am indebted to the sermon above for these thoughts about the eschatological function of music.