Friday, December 3, 2010

Reflections on the Journey Part I - A Chorister Named Ron

Note: For the Prologue to this series, click here.

I have always strenuously resisted identification with any particular form of churchmanship or association with any particular church “party.” I tend to stay away from such self-identifying terms as “high church” or “low church”; “Anglo-catholic” or “Evangelical”; “conservative” or “liberal.” This is not to say that I don’t have particular leanings in the direction of some of the above labels, but in the spirit of the great nineteenth century theologian, F.D. Maurice, I have never felt inclined towards aligning myself with any particular “brand” of Anglican churchmanship. I believe that Anglicanism draws together the beauty of these various strands, not creating a dull homogeny, but a rich tapestry. To devote so much of oneself to one strand is to miss the beauty of the whole. As such, I prefer the simple designation “churchman” for that is who I am, neither “high” nor “low,” nor any of the above assortment of colours. Rather, I like to think that I have the strands of each woven into the fabric of my Christian identity.

I was introduced to one of those strands, the Anglo-catholic strand, by a chorister named Ron. As a young man in my early twenties, upon returning home to the parish church I knew as a child (St. Mary’s, Richmond Hill), I was invited to join the choir. This invitation came about because I had sung in a high school choir with the son of a St. Mary’s parishioner. After about a month of being back at St. Mary’s, this parishioner recommended me to the choirmaster who invited me to join. I suppose I was ill-equipped to sing as one of two tenors in a church choir as I had little technical knowledge of church music and only an average voice.

I attended my first rehearsal, was assigned my cubby-hole for keeping my music, a folder, a cassock and surplice, a number (#21, as I recall), and placed next to an older English gentleman named Ron. I’m not sure how old he was, but he was a retired high school art teacher, and thus probably in his late sixties or early seventies. I was one of the youngest members of the choir. The only ones that were younger than me were the priest’s son, who sang bass, and a girl who sang soprano. They were both in their teens. With the exception of them, everyone in Church seemed old to me in those days. At that first rehearsal, I took my place next to Ron, and began to sing, not knowing what I was doing and scarcely hitting a proper note. I’m sure that first rehearsal must have been painful for those around me, but over the years Ron taught me how to sing church music. I still treasure a copy of “Carols for Choirs I” that he passed on to me in my early days in the choir.

Ron had been a chorister since a boy in England. He had always sung in church choirs and he knew every tenor line of every hymn by heart. It was easy to learn to sing sitting next to Ron, all I had to do was listen. If I was a bit flat, sometimes he would gently say “up.” Occasionally, he would ask the organist to play a measure or two again even though he knew it well, just to help me along. To this day, when I struggle to capture the tenor line of a particular hymn, I close my eyes and listen for his voice.

I learned something else from Ron, though, and that was the glories of the Anglo-Catholic Tradition. Anglo-Catholicism is a certain brand of churchmanship that treasures the beauty of the liturgy, holds a “high” view of the sacraments, and a deep appreciation and connection with the historic traditions of the Church. Ron was deeply steeped in Anglo-Catholic piety. The Anglo-Catholic sensual nature of Anglo-Catholic liturgy is very attractive to artists, and Ron was an artist. His piety was of a deeply humble, sort though. He was not the sort of pretentious high churchman that is so often the subject of parody and caricature; rather, he was a quiet and joyful man with a wonderful smile, and engaging laugh, and playful spirit. Most importantly, though, appreciated the beauty of holiness and sought to incorporate it into his own spiritual landscape.

From Ron, I learned the externals of Anglo-Catholic devotion: when to kneel and stand, how to genuflect and when to bow, when to cross oneself in the liturgy, and a profound devotion upon the sacrament of our Lord’s body and blood in the Holy Eucharist. He did not so much as instruct me with words but with the gentleness of his actions and personal liturgical piety. From time-to-time I would ask him why he did certain things, and his answers were usually short but helpful. For example, one Sunday I turned to him and asked him why we did not say “Alleluia” after before and after the fraction sentence (the “Alleluia” is printed in brackets). He whispered back “It’s not a festival.” And it made perfect sense. Festivals were a time for Alleluias.

I suppose in the several years that we sang together, I never really knew Ron that well on a personal level. I knew that his first wife had died of cancer and that he remarried. I had met his second wife and his two sons on several occasions as they attend only on festivals (and shared in the Alleluias). I know that he taught art. Before he died he painted a picture of the Blessed Virgin and gave it to the church anonymously. I always knew it was his work though, as the initials R.S.P. at the bottom betrayed his anonymity. Along with my “Carols for Choirs” I also treasure a copy of an Anglo-Catholic missal that he gave me during one rehearsal.

I never became an ardent Anglo-Catholic, but thanks to a chorister named Ron, certain aspects of the piety of that tradition are woven inseparably into my own spiritual landscape. And thanks to Ron, who now sings in the company of the saints in an incense-filled hall in heaven, I know well the sacred songs of our tradition.

c. 2010, the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

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