The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead

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October 2017

The Vicar writes

Jeremy Fletcher

This month music is on my mind. Following James Sherlock’s move to Helsinki to pursue a career as an orchestral conductor we are on the hunt for a successor. This is an opportunity to reaffirm our vision for music in worship and parish life, and to give thanks that the long term work of the PCC, the Friends of the Music and the Hampstead Church Music Trust mean that we are well placed to develop that vision.
It is worth asking whether it is worth spending all this money on hot air which will dissipate and sound waves which will fade into nothing. Why would we break what Mark Oakley calls the ‘eloquence of silence’? Why make all this effort, employ such talented people, recruit for our choirs, maintain a complicated organ, spend so long each Sunday singing and listening?

One of my previous roles was to have responsibility for this at York Minster. The budget was £500,000 per annum, and the Finance Committee understandably wanted to know what they were getting for their money. In financial terms I could point to some CD sales and concerts. But in spiritual terms the ‘returns’ were incalculable. Music has a power which cannot be quantified on a balance sheet, but which enriches worship, restores the spirit, challenges the mind and strengthens the heart.

An experience in a service at York helped convince me of this. We had some army fanfare trumpeters who had just returned from Iraq. Musicians in the armed forces have to do something ‘useful’ as well: this lot set up field hospitals and were skilled in chemical warfare decontamination procedures. They had duly done all this. But their commanding officer said to me that they felt that they began to make a difference when they could play music: for the troops, for local people, in the streets and at special events. When a hard-bitten sergeant who has operated a field hospital in a theatre of war says that he felt he was having a more profound effect when playing his clarinet, you have to listen.

Half a century ago a parish church choir sang ‘Lead me Lord’ at Evensong. The soloist was an eight year old Jeremy Fletcher. When ‘for it is thou Lord’ was repeated I burst into tears. I can remember exactly why. The music was just so beautiful. And though my understanding has now been nuanced by a further 50 years of active churchgoing, 30 years of theological study and 20 years of liturgical research and teaching, I am as clear now as I was then that God makes his way plain before us and will make us dwell in safety. The music did that. It planted the words in my soul as well as my mind.

There is much more to music in worship than that. At Hampstead Parish Church we have a thriving Junior Choir, where young people lean both music and the Christian faith as they lead us week by week. Musicians at the start of their professional careers find a home here where their music is given context and security. The pursuit of beauty and the sublime is given transcendent reference when it is offered to the glory of God. People are changed by this encounter.

I would therefore value your prayers as we look to appoint a new Director of Music this autumn (to start probably early in 2018). And I would value your reflections too on how music has affected and enabled your prayer and your discipleship. Very practically, this autumn we are increasing the times our Junior Choir can lead worship. From October 5 there will be a service of either sung Evening Prayer or a full Choral Evensong at 6.30 each Thursday. Please come if you can, and experience how music offered in prayer nourishes the soul. That is beyond price.      

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