For the Christian, carol singing should be about more than hitting the right notes, Simoney Kyriakou explains.
Carols by candlelight, Michaelmas music, Christmas carol service, nine lessons and carols: whatever we call it, this is the one event nearly every Christian denomination spends a lot of time, money and dedication in preparing.
Each year, teams and individuals get ready for this seasonal event, whether putting together beautiful flower displays, decorating the church hall, organising refreshments, compiling posters and promotional material, and teaching the children to smile when they sing, ‘Oh now carry me to Bethlehem’, instead of looking like rabbits caught in the pastor’s headlights.
And then there are the choirs. Some years, I’ve been in three separate choirs: church, work and occasional. Most years I sing in Southwark Cathedral with the Financial Times (FT) choir and at Thornton Heath Evangelical Church with our singing group.
To the outsider, musically the differences are clear. The FT choir is selected based on ability. You have to be able to sight-read music. We usually sing six pieces in several different languages, and only have six one-hour rehearsals before we perform. If you miss more than one rehearsal, you get booted.
The church singing group, on the other hand, is made up of volunteers. We sing fewer songs (and all in English); rehearsals ostensibly take an hour (usually more); and there are at least ten of these before the big day. Nobody, to my knowledge, has been booted yet.
But there are other differences a discerning outsider would notice. Although the FT’s choirmaster — a wonderful composer in his own right — is a practising Christian, the people in the choir are a mixed bag of singers. Some are sentimental atheists. Others are agnostics, Catholics, Muslims.
The songs are mostly Christian, based on the biblical story, but we also sing jubilant eight-part versions of Christmas classics, such as Jingle Bells, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and, well, sometimes we’re not quite sure what the German or French carols are about, but we sing these with gusto!
The motive itself is the performance: making sure we are pitch perfect and, given that most of our pieces are completely unaccompanied, there is absolutely no going off-pitch. I’ve never done it, thankfully, but I’ve seen the choir master glare another soprano into silence for warbling on a long note.
Furthermore, we must sing so that our dulcet tones fill the entirety of a large, beautiful, inner-London cathedral — and possibly impress our bosses in the pews. It’s all about the show.
At church, the motives are very different. Of course, we aim to be pitch-perfect and give a great performance. But our ‘audience’ is not our main concern. Our desire for a great performance is to give glory to God. We want to honour him with our worship and praise.
Prayer begins each rehearsal (and the choir leader at church probably also prays during and after. I know I certainly did when I once volunteered to lead the singing group!). The songs are chosen based on their theological message.
Do the words convey the truth of the biblical message as to why Christ came to earth? How can we best portray this to the people who may be coming into a church for the first time?
Sometimes we read John Wesley’s Directions for singing, which says: ‘Above all, sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature.
‘In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven’.
You see, it’s not about the song. It never was; it never should be. It should always be about the message. We want people to hear the good news of the gospel of Christ. While some people may not be able to grasp theological truths laid down in long sermons, or quite understand all the accompanying Christmas readings, song can sometimes reach people — and that is what the Christian singer wants to do.
This is why it is so vital that church singing groups are full of professing believers, not just people who are good at singing. We have to mean the words we sing, as indeed the congregation should.
‘Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of Righteousness!’ Do you really mean that? Do you really sing that directly to Jesus Christ, or to the person in front of you in the congregation?
‘O come, O come Emmanuel’. Do you really want Christ to come? Sing it like you mean it, Christian! For if we do not sing it like we mean it, regardless of our ability, then the real meaning will not be made manifest to those people we’ve worked so hard to bring in, and about whom we’ve prayed so long for their salvation.
I am reminded a little of the use of ‘angels’ in the book of Revelation. The ‘angels’ of the seven churches refer to the leaders, the pastors. Let’s extend this word to take in all true believers this Christmas, when we peal out these words, ‘Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation’.
Let us blend our own voices with those in the heavens, truly, honestly, absolutely praising God in the highest.
Simoney Kyriakou is an online editor with The Financial Times and news editor of Evangelical Times