A Journalist Learns From Singing in the Choir

by Allan Roy Andrews

“All God’s critters got a place in the choir.” So begins a bouncy folk tune written and recorded several decades ago by New England singer and songwriter Bill Staines. I’ve sung in church choirs off and on for most of my life, but I’m still attempting to figure out what draws me to it.

In many ways, a church choir is the ultimate community of cooperation. Many voices attempting to sound as one. E pluribus unum, and all that. In many other ways, a church choir is the hotbed of petty jealousies and competing egos, as well as the deep harbor of catty criticisms of the institutional church.

Almost every choir I’ve belonged to harbors a cadre of heretics who to some degree choose to sing in the choir so they don’t have to sit under the convicting gaze of the preacher or so they can slip in and out of services through a choir door (mea culpa on both counts).

Church choir directors, even those who rely on hiring professional soloists, don’t require a test of faith; I’ve known some vocally talented agnostics who sang on Saturdays in the local synagogue, on Sunday mornings at the Episcopal Church and on Sunday nights at a downtown pub.

When one wants to find the rebels of a church congregation, one needs look no farther than this week’s row of contraltos or basso profundos (or tenors or sopranos). Not so oddly, this all sounds like the world of a daily newsroom, where often a righteous muckraker by day becomes a profane cynic at night.

Despite petty problems, I’m convinced there’s a lesson for democracy, not to mention lessons in theology, hiding under those choir cassocks and albs that have known more wearers than England’s crown jewels.

But why does anyone give up several hours of his or her week to sit in uncomfortable chairs and rifle through sheaves of indecipherable code, much of it in a foreign language? All of this while sitting beside someone who either smokes too much or often is in need of a bath or a breath mint.

I believe singing in the choir may be one of those hidden graces that God uses to evangelize the soft of tone but hard of heart (or the heavy of tone but soft of faith).

I was one of those boyhood sopranos, a treble as they’re known in chorister circles. I probably should have gone to a cathedral school and become a trained chorister, but there were too many baseball dreams in my blood. When my mother offered to pay for singing lessons, I rejected them because of the time they would demand, taking me from ballgames in the neighborhood. I was enlisted as a 10-year-old to sing two solo selections at my older sister’s wedding, but that was enough of a vocal career for me.

As if getting what I deserved, my three sons, all now young adults and fair singers, totally rejected my suggestions that they join the youth choir at church. I never tried to push it, remembering the angst I went through as a teen turning away from church singing opportunities.

When, as an adult, I had strayed for several years from attending church, it was joining a choir that drew me back into the fold, and now, several years and several choirs later, I’ve learned some of the mysteries of sacred song.

Among those who pay attention to the ancient Rule of St. Benedict, some discover a way of reading called lectio divina. As I understand it, such reading, primarily of the Bible, involves reading with more than the eyes and the mind; it engages the heart and the whole person. Lectio divina is a slow, contemplative process that demands frequent pauses and a peaceful “listening” to the text.

Without necessarily being aware of it, church choirs are doing something like this every Sunday. They take a tiny text, perhaps little more than a sentence or a phrase, and mold it into a four-part anthem that speaks of the deepest recesses of being to listeners in the congregation.

The English writer C.S. Lewis once suggested Christians should begin each day with reading both the Bible and a daily newspaper–would that we journalists and our readers could apply a kind of lectio divina to our consumption of the daily news.

And perhaps Lewis didn’t go far enough; maybe we need to take some time to sing a meaningful text to ourselves more frequently. All God’s creatures, including homo sapiens, have a place in the choir.

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This slightly updated essay is an adaptation of a column published online for The American Reporter in March of 1999.

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