An Ecumenical Choir

Alan Tavener gives some background to the Jordanhill Ecumenical Choir.

Some four years ago I came up with another of my wild ideas…  At Jordanhill Parish Church in Glasgow I was already leading Jordanhill Community Choir which had grown out of the ashes of our Church Choir, and also attracted other members of our congregation together with people from the wider community.  My new idea was to create another choir that would also ‘reach out’ – spurred on by experiences such as those local ecumenical services where the singing left something to be desired!  Also, after more than one joint Holy Week service with our Scottish Episcopal neighbours, I had been presented with the suggestion that we should sing Choral Evensong together – just like that…  Needless to say, I body-swerved that one: I knew all too well how challenging non-Episcopalians (and even some Episcopalians) find the singing of versicles and responses - in their most simple form, hear

and the chanting of prose psalms.

So I woke up one day with this idea of forming an ecumenical ‘liturgical’ choir, which would be open not only to our Scottish Episcopal but also our Roman Catholic neighbours.  Liturgy is characteristic of these two Christian traditions, but often much less apparently so in the Church of Scotland where the use of Book of Common Order is optional, and varies widely from parish to parish between close and no adherence.  Liturgy is neatly summed up (my italics) in the introduction of the Wikipedia page as “a pattern for worship (whether recommended or prescribed) by a Christian congregation or denomination on a regular basis”.

Whilst fully expecting to find enthusiastic recruits from our local Scottish Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches, imagine my surprise that so many Church of Scotland Members chose to join Jordanhill Liturgical Choir at its inception!  True, the host church was and continues to be Jordanhill Parish Church, but perhaps there had been a yearning by some for a greater richness of musical expression in worship than many a Church of Scotland Service offers?  It certainly spoke volumes for the open-minded and adventurous spirit of those participants.

Our rehearsal model is a fortnightly mid-week evening that avoids clashing with choir practice evening in any of our local churches.  But other possibilities were considered seriously when we were starting out – even a weekend afternoon every few weeks.  A question I’m often asked runs along the lines of ‘who comes to hear the Choir’.  Peripatetic by nature, Jordanhill Liturgical Choir provides a varying balance between choral resource and congregational support in the spirit of a church choir.  We sing at services in Jordanhill Parish Church, All Saints Scottish Episcopal Church in Jordanhill, and The Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, also in Jordanhill.  (In fact, the Choir Members come from an even wider spread of Church of Scotland, Scottish Episcopal and Roman Catholic congregations in Glasgow and beyond – potential for a possible ‘day out’ some time?...)  Perhaps the most rewarding services for the Choir are those which would have happened in any case.  To my mind, this provides an object lesson as where to direct our limited time and energy such as the area Unity Service, the area World Day of Prayer Service.  That said, satisfaction on another level is to be derived from singing a full Choral Evensong, even where ‘two or three are gathered together’ in addition to the Choir!  This sort of service is musically demanding, and that kind of focus works wonders for enhancing a choir’s work ethic and stretching its musical capabilities.

What music do we sing?  We draw on the legacies of the three Christian denominations represented by the Choir.  The common thread is represented by psalmody: metrical psalms, prose psalms and plainsong psalms.  There’s nothing quite like preparing a psalm to the simple melodic formula of a plainsong psalm tone

for developing choral teamwork and confidence.  The unison singing means there’s time for the choir leader to concentrate on blend and unity.  The simple recurring melody means the participants can quickly get used to singing unaccompanied.  (It’s highly beneficial to rehearse this with the leader singing by example, and reserving accompaniment until fluency has been achieved.)  Combined, this allows the leader to encourage the flexibility which permits good communication of the text.  We took a year before daring to venture into the territory of harmonised chanting of the psalms.  Although often styled ‘Anglican’, (try from 14’58”),

the singing of prose psalms has its place in the Church of Scotland’s music legacy too.  There is a uniquely Scottish Prose Psalter (“being the Authorized Version of the Psalms with selected passages of scripture, and ancient hymns, pointed for chanting with accompanying chants : for use in churches”) still in use to this day in a few locations across the country.  Can anyone name one such church?  Even the practice of metrical psalmody continues to diminish in favour of hymn singing and worship songs, and Jordanhill Liturgical Choir has found it refreshing to start ‘rediscovering’ the extensive repertoire of metrical psalms. 

One of our chief aims is to encourage congregational participation, and so we include the ancient practice of responsorial psalm singing, where a congregational refrain is sung following each psalm verse hear:

For choirs and congregations that explored the far flung corners of CH3, Joseph Gelineau will be a familiar name, and his settings are well-served by blended unison singing with organ support.  Just one (Psalm 23) is to be found in CH4 (at hymn 17), but he provides the spiritual link with our Roman Catholic friends, for whom he created an entire responsorial psalter.  Some decades his junior, Sir James MacMillan has contributed substantially to the liturgical repertoire, including responsorial psalms and musical settings of the Mass.  Some of these are very approachable, so its small wonder that his St Anne Mass (CH4 648, 651, 653), for example, can be found being sung enthusiastically in churches of many denominational persuasions throughout Scotland.  For a musical setting of the Book of Common Order Holy Communion, look no further than George McPhee’s composed for the Scottish Church Society.  It’s very manageable for choirs, as well as being musically accessible in part to congregations (perhaps more so than Kenneth Leighton’s setting in CH3 at hymns 60, 560, 561 and 563). 

Both CH3 and CH4 provide rich pickings for the various services that we participate in or lead.  Hymns 1 to 108 in CH4 offer a wide stylistic range of psalmody, whilst 109 and 750 to 825 include acclamations, alleluias, blessings and doxologies.  Although these materials are rather scattered throughout CH3, there are helpful Tables on pages 1016-1017.  Other musical resources at the accessible end of the spectrum include the publications from the ecumenical communities of Iona and Taizé.  In addition, the internet offers a wide range of public domain music, such as:

Merbecke Communion Service
Mangelis (original and modern musical notation!)

as well as the offerings of many generous musical arrangers, such as:

Service Music - Psalms
Communion Antiphons - Year A 

Some of Jordanhill Liturgical Choir’s greater musical ambitions have been fulfilled by the singing of the Anglican Evening Canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis), for example to Charles Wood’s setting in D

or Stanford’s in B flat

It’s no shame to admit that these genuinely stretch our current resources to their limits, but thanks to the richness of the Millennium-long Roman Catholic and, subsequently, the centuries-long Anglican and Lutheran musical traditions, there’s a truly limitless supply of what the humblest to the most pretentious ecumenical liturgical choir can aspire to! 

Before getting too carried away, I’d like to conclude by coming back down to earth by outlining some benefits which we’ve perceived since starting Jordanhill Liturgical Choir.  Most of these were unforeseen, but they have all added to the ‘scene’.  The Choir provides a focus for some concentrated rehearsal – I use this to encourage good vocal health and to develop released and committed singing, which Members can take back with them to their own church choirs and congregations.  The range of musical material we learn includes some that Members will encounter in their own churches and can sing there with greater confidence, and for the benefit of their fellow worshippers too.  And in the case of my own church, it has meant that I have a larger pool of people who can sing confidently, so once again I can now field a choir from week to week at Sunday morning worship to lead a range of congregational singing and eve to bring a little choral colour to the services.

…all that and a true spirit of interdenominational cooperation and friendship!

Alan Tavener is Director of Music at Jordanhill Parish Church.  He conducts the professional vocal ensemble Cappella Nova, and a wide range of amateur and community choirs including the Scottish Plainsong Choir.  Earlier this year he was awarded the honorary Associateship of the Royal School of Church Music for his “considerable contribution to church music in Scotland, particularly in his ecumenical approach”.