There is an old saying which goes “God listens to me when I pray, but loves me when I sing”. Thanks to the initiative and care of Maestro Palembella and Mark Spyropoulos from the Sistine chapel choir there is now developing a greater and more frequent collaboration between the Sistine chapel choir and Anglican cathedral and university choirs from England. Vatican radio has reported what this means recently.
The first major step forward occurred when Westminster Abbey's Choir visited at the invitation of Pope Benedict to sing the Papal Mass of Ss Peter and Paul in June 2012. The night before both the Westminster Abbey Choir and the Sistine Chapel Choir sang a private recital in the Sistine Chapel at which Cardinal Bertone represented the Pope and spoke. This came about in large part because of the deep impression made on Pope Benedict and his entourage by the beauty of the singing at the service in Westminster Abbey that he celebrated with Rowan Williams during the State Visit in September 2010.
Last year, on June 27, this model was repeated when the Sistine Chapel Choir and New College Oxford Choir sang together in the Sistine Chapel - which will be repeated in June this year because it was such a success musically and ecumenically. A tradition is developing that is gaining its own momentum because of its intrinsic value and witness. We are finding our way together as we sing in some kind of harmony. This is practical ecumenism in a most delightful and worthwhile way. Plans are already in place for the Westminster Abbey choir school to visit this coming January. The British Embassy to the Holy See has been a consistent supporter of these visits - the Ambassador, Nigel Baker, blogged about the first visit here.
Here is an except form the address I gave last year after the two choirs in the chapel sang to the papal household, in the presence of the Vatican’s Secretary of State His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin:
The invitation to the choir is also a generous sign of the capacity of our two communions to share in whatever way we can, in the worth-ship of Almighty God, who made us all, whose image we bear and whose praise is sung this evening. When we invite each other into each other’s sacred space like this we are saying that, under God, what unites us is greater than what divides us. What unites us this evening is the lifting up of hearts and voices to a higher power, to the divine. This makes the unity given in our baptism so immanent while at the same time experiencing a sense of transcendence together. Pope Sixtus IV, after whom this rebuilt apostolic palace chapel is named, reigned from 1471 until 1484 . New College itself dates from 1379, being the oldest choral foundation in Oxford. Both these dates come from a time before the English Reformation, when we were seamlessly one. We are one in spirit again this evening, and share a good degree of communion as hearts and voices are blended in the praise of the One who made us all, who loves us all and who keeps us all. And we are all surrounded here by deeply compelling paintings of the stories of Moses and of Christ, which are stories we all wholly believe and share.
These last days we have also seen millions of Christians sharing in the wisdom of the new papal encyclical Laudate Si, the Pope’s discernment of our environmental stewardship today. The Anglican Communion is already gaining so much from these words, paralleled as they were by a similar discernment from Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and others. Both are hoping for a Christian witness to be felt at the forthcoming Paris talks on the global environment. Many emerging leaders of many denominations and faiths will walk tomorrow to St Peter’s Basilica in solidarity with Pope Francis and hear him at midday during the angelus. So many agree with the message of the Holy Father and the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is also not possible to disagree while we sing together, if the singing is to happen at all. Singing from the same song sheet is such a gift to us all. And so the offering of harmonised music here is surely a sign of the generic oneness of our baptism in Christ, in whom we all live and move and have our being.
The words “unison”, or “harmony”, which are so important in choral work, are the spirit in which we meet and share here and now. And so we can say together with the Royal School of Church Music prayer: “Grant O Lord that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts, and what we believe in our hearts we may show forth in our lives.” The quest for greater unity in our lives and between our communions is being furthered by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission and the Anglican Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission. Their work is steady, gradual, but sure. We are compelled by the words of Christ “That they may all be One”. The papal Encyclical Ut Unum Sint surely outlines how this might be progressed in spirit and in truth and is a guide for us all in these complex times. If you measure the strides taken towards greater degrees of unity between us by decades, rather than by years, you can see the direction and the pace that God is setting more clearly.
Cardinal Parolin responded most generously as follows:
I sincerely thank the Choir of New College, Oxford, under the direction of Mr Robert Quinney, for being here this evening. From its beginnings in the latter part of the fourteenth century, when about thirty boys and six lay clerks first came together, your choir has known different stages in its rich history. But, in spite of changes of circumstance and membership, the Choir has remained faithful to its original purpose, namely accompanying liturgical prayer and cultivating sacred music. My thanks go to all benefactors, whose help has enabled this event to be organised. Your presence is a source of joy and confirms that professionalism, a love of culture, and the search for beauty and truth bring us together and show us a path we can walk in unity. The Eucharist, to be celebrated in St Peter’s Basilica on the Solemn Feast of St Peter and St Paul, with your presence, together with that of an Orthodox delegation, will be a tangible sign of the shared will to walk together towards full and visible unity. That is a gift of God, for which we pray continually, but one which, to a certain extent, we anticipate with our concrete initiatives.
The Anglican Centre in Rome is being asked to help strengthen these links and we are already involved in supporting the forthcoming visits. It is fitting that in our fiftieth year we are now involved in singing together the worth-ship of the God of all the earth in whom we live and move and have out being. Something happens when we sing together that is quite unique and this song will encourage a spirit of unity that is possible in no other way; lets sing our way into a deeper communion as we face the next fifty years together.
As the combined choirs so clearly demonstrate, we sing better together, and we are better together in God. Singing in harmony helps us practice what it means to fight slavery and human trafficking together, which we are now doing with the different world faiths. Singing of the hope that is in us helps us to link arms in the face of poverty and oppression as we labour in Caritas international and the Anglican Alliance. A shared song in our hearts of Gods liberation and justice means that we know what the score is when it comes to joining together in the struggle against violence, oppression and terrorism. Singing Psalm 104 together challenges us together to heal the earth and to be better stewards of creation. The music of Gods righteousness and justice brings us a choral communion that the world cannot give.
We will see this principle repeated at our fiftieth anniversary on October the 5th and 6th this year when over fifteen pairs of Roman Catholic and Anglican bishops from around the world will be gathering in Rome, together with a number of Anglican primates to be renewed in our shared mission in front of the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury. This is the work of the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission on unity and Mission (IARCCUM) which the Anglican Centre is represented on. A joint commissioning will occur in the ancient monastery church of San Gregorio a Celio, from where Pope St Gregory sent St Augustine on a mission of evangelisation to Canterbury in 595. From this early mission base the taproots of Anglican Christianity later grew. An Anglican choir will sing in a Roman Catholic monastery as we each remember the roots that we share and the hope that is in us.
And so we sing "Jubilate deo, Deo Gratias! Laudato Si!"
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