“We’re like stained glass windows in two ways! We make God visible the way that the windows make light visible, and we also are the things God uses to tell stories about who he is!”
Having been an active member of the Choir of Boys at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral for years, this nine-year-old theological anthropologist came to such a revelation during a rehearsal at choir camp. In between hikes, theory classes, visits to the snack bar, and playing pranks on fellow campers, the fifty-odd students who comprise the Cathedral Choirs of Boys and Girls not only learn how to control and use their voices well in worship, but also how to talk about who they have discovered God to be through music, Scripture, and community. And occasionally they do so in words resembling the great authors of the Anglican tradition, such as George Herbert (1593-1633) in “The Windows.”
The young people who comprise these choirs develop an ability (now rare) to articulate matters of faith with true conviction and confidence by praying and singing the Psalms and the great music of the Anglican tradition week in and week out and by being encouraged to think about the meaning of what they’re singing and to consider why a composer might have made the musical choices he did.
While the children were learning Henry Purcell’s I Was Glad last summer, the choirmaster, Canon Jared Johnson, asked, “When we sing Psalm 122 and the line, ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem,’ are we praying just for peace in Jerusalem?” Hands shot up as choristers realized that Jerusalem’s place in Scripture involves more than being an ancient city where God dwelt, and they began to reason together that if God now dwells in each of them and they live in many places, perhaps Psalm 122 and Henry Purcell’s stirring setting are praying for peace throughout the world. Have you heard the difference in a voice when the singer not only understands what she’s saying, but believes and longs for it too?
For this group of boys and girls, aged eight to eighteen, the choir is a family. They meet at least twice a week for rehearsals throughout the school year and provide leadership in worship several times a month. Just ten years ago, no such group existed at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral; it is not the result of decades of tradition or cultural expectation—the sort of depth and clarity which enabled the young boy’s quotation came from his simple exposure to teachers who have joyfully expressed and modeled the Gospel to him through reverent worship, faithful work, and devotion to community.
“Everything I do affects everyone else.” A seventeen-year-old girl reflected on what she had learned from being part of the choir for more than five years. Through consistent work on her voice, memorizing her music, and fighting to keep focus during rehearsals, she’d learned that her work directly impacted the other choir members. As just one voice, any one member can only contribute so much, but, in a working, worshiping group, it quickly becomes apparent that, when they work together, many voices can create much more beauty than the simple sum of their parts. These children know in their bones that they are each part of a larger body, each given a job to do to help the whole body worship well.
Such a mantle is not too heavy for young shoulders—indeed, it is the seed of faithfulness for many choristers. When asked to consider the meaning of the words they sing or to try to notice what God might be communicating through sound and body in their work and life together, minds and hearts are made attentive to the God who is always already there. “I hear God when we sing, and when other people talk to me, because God is in us.”
Nine-year-olds are noticing how church architecture and church music directs us to God and leads us to understanding our place in God’s world. In many ways, the young are more attuned to the beautiful than any other age; the key is to feed minds on a steady diet of the most excellent things—not to water down the good and true and beautiful because they might be rather complicated. When we offer to young people all that music, art, church, and, above all, Scripture have to give us, we end up with elementary school-aged theologians. Can you imagine anything better?