Though my diocesan cathedral in Chelmsford is a bit of a trek for me, I’m privileged in London to be within easy travel distance of both St Paul’s Cathedral and Southwark Cathedral.
Yesterday, partly out of curiosity and partly out of a desire to attend a service that I couldn’t mess up by playing the organ in the wrong place, I attended the Chrism Mass (actually called “The Renewal of Ordination Vows and the Blessing of the Oils” on the order of service) at Southwark Cathedral. In the Church of England, this is the service at which Chrism oils are blessed and at which clergy renew their ordination vows. It was a good service, and I’m glad that I went. The Mass setting by Langlais was perhaps a tad inaccessible, but if you can’t sing Latin and some crunchy harmonies when you’ve got several hundred clergy who all know what the words mean, when can you sing them? Certainly there were bowed heads when the Sanctus came around, so I’m sure the vast majority knew what was going on.
Accessibility was also my concern with the Psalm. The choir sang their verses of Psalm 23 beautifully enough that, at first, I wondered whether my previous disdain for responsorial psalmody might be unjustified. I don’t know whose setting it was; it isn’t the one in the only book of responsorial psalmody I own, and by the time I’ve looked it up anywhere else I’ll probably have forgotten it. It was simple, the text was clear, and when the choir broke into four-part harmony for the last four lines it was simply sublime; I think it was some of the best choral singing I heard during the service.
Why, then, interrupt this with a congregational response? The response itself was interesting enough, but I struggled to remember it correctly after hearing it twice and singing it once. Perhaps I’m just getting too dependent on having dots in front of me! But switching from unmetered chant to a metrical response without some sort of indication of tempo is hard in a small congregation and even harder in a large one. I felt like an unwieldy, oversized ox in a specialist china shop for dolls. I value congregational participation in the psalms, but given the nature of most of the congregation — ordained clergy and the odd “church geek” layperson such as myself — I think that just the chant without any congregational singing might well have been participatory enough. It would have been better had the response had some sort of metrical introduction, but even that might not be heard clearly in an echo-y cathedral with an organ. I was too far away to see the musical director well enough to follow any directions given to the choir.
(The psalm was also labeled as Psalm 133 — a wonderful psalm to use at a Chrism Mass, given the focus on unity and the imagery of oil — but the psalm they sang was definitely Psalm 23. I can only attribute this to a clerical error!)
By contrast, I absolutely loved the hymnody; there is something about singing hymns with several hundred other people singing their hearts out that is just too good for words. I was disappointed we didn’t make it to the end of “Lift high the cross” (which I’ve sung so seldom I didn’t actually remember the tune) and none of the hymns were real favourites of mine, but there was none of the lumbering uncertainty I felt during the psalm. Ordinarily I prefer good metrical hymnody in full parish churches to cathedrals, for some of the same acoustic, aesthetic reasons I didn’t like the psalm response: in a big echo-y space, chances are you’ve got to go slowly enough to spoil the line, and if the place isn’t absolutely rammed (and even sometimes when it is) people tend to sing quietly under their breath so that the general effect is that of an indecisive jellyfish; I usually end up listening carefully for the organ and choir and trying to stick with them while people around me mumble into their hymn books, and I really struggle if there’s a tune I don’t know. But in this instance everyone was singing, the tempo was on the whole right for the space without being too slow to get through a line in one breath, and it was all quite wonderful. I really enjoyed being able to sing without feeling like I had to take the lead for twelve people sitting near me who had no idea what the tune was, and being able to let my voice follow others when I didn’t know the notes. Maybe this is what hymns were like, or could be like, when there was more general enthusiasm about singing. Maybe this is what hymns can still be like if people can be convinced to sing! It was one of the best experiences of congregational singing I’ve had for a long time.