Behold, I Tell You a Mystery

A couple of months ago, I sang in a community chorus presentation of John Rutter’s Requiem. Like the Deutches Requiem of Brahms, Rutter didn’t stick strictly to the liturgical outline or texts of a particular tradition, but largely cobbled together his own series of movements for the work, from the pre-conciliar Roman rite and the Book of Common Prayer (1662).

This was the fifth time in my musical life that I’ve performed this piece, and one thing that has consistently struck me as odd is that Rutter—a man who’s made his livelihood in the world of choral music—did not set the In Paradisum, a text featuring a choir of angels. He doesn’t set the Dies Irae either, which has led me to wonder—since Rutter has publicly acknowledged his atheism and atheistic upbringing—if those texts that necessitate a stronger use of the religious imagination would be avoided by a post-Enlightenment/rational humanist composer. (The big caveat, of course, being his evocative setting of the twenty-third psalm in the work.)

This all was very much on my mind when I encountered the March article in Baptist News about the mysterious disconnect between the ongoing—and increasing—popularity of choral singing in the U.S. alongside a statistical decline in church choirs. (The Baptist News article drew upon a lengthier, more in-depth report from Chorus America on the various impacts and benefits of lifelong singing.)

Part of this decrease in church choirs—but only part of the decrease—can be explained by the overall decrease in churches and church attendance, perhaps even by the decrease in the general population belonging to any type of social organization or club. Another substantive contributor is the widespread rise of praise band ministries in white evangelical Protestant churches as normative. This may be why Roman Catholic churches, along with Black Protestant churches, rank highest in having choirs. Yet there is still a mysterious disconnect.

Some of my musical colleagues whose ministry includes the recruitment, formation, rehearsal, and overall guidance of choirs have spoken about the difficulty of getting volunteer singers to make and maintain an ongoing commitment. (Though the Chorus America study found that people who commit to choirs also commit more readily to other volunteer roles.) It’s no secret that our day-to-day lives (even pre-pandemic) place enormous demands on time, and household schedules frequently have a daunting complexity to them. I’ll admit that I’ve wondered from time to time what would happen if other liturgical ministries—lector, eucharistic minister—had the commitment of an hour or two per week of rehearsal or preparation time.

Beyond some of the nuts ‘n’ bolts issues like time and scheduling, I have found myself looking to less tangible things, especially the effects of the surrounding culture. TV and other media certainly have promoted the literal idolization of solo singers and—in the best U.S. fashion—have pitted them in competition against each other. Two things that run 180 degrees counter to the group cooperation a church choir demands. Individuals also increasingly come to the conclusion that if they don’t have a voice of idolization caliber, then they have nothing to contribute (including singing in the pews on Sunday). We also have become a culture that consumes music much more often and readily than we make it—I’d suspect that even the 54 million chorus singers mentioned in the study spend more time in passive consumption of music (from public spaces to hours with earbuds in) than they do in the making of music. As far back as the late 80s, after dinner with choir members and their three kids (all five in the household sang in my choirs), I suggested we gather at the piano and sing a few songs together. They looked at me as though I’d said we all should ride our bicycles through the car wash.

The Baptist News article also mentions the visual element that choirs provide, in being a visible (as well as sonic) sign of the unities that should characterize Christian life overall. In addition to being an ongoing visible sign of unity, choirs can also be a sonic foretaste (“Metaphors are for mixing.” Robert Hovda) of the heavenly choirs to come, and our own full, conscious, active, and eternal participation in them. I fear that for many of the faithful, as for Mr. Rutter, the choral aspect of the afterlife isn’t engaging their imaginations. While the imagination may still engage in sensate understandings of heaven, it is often as the fulfillment of earthly personal tastes.

When Shakespeare wrote of “bare, ruined choirs” he was likely thinking of churches emptied and destroyed by Henry VIII. There is a current likelihood that a monarchy of a different kind may be at work today, setting about the same task at a slower pace. Ironically, while those around us still continue to sing as choirs, in our own houses there may be greater risk of them becoming bare and ruined.