As choirmaster at St Ann’s Dublin, now many years ago, I inherited a set up that was still very much in thrall to the choirmaster who died about a decade before. Many Irish church musicians have reason to be grateful to what he taught them. He’d been in post so long that I suspect the men of the choir, who had grown up with him, were still mourning his passing. I arrived on the scene and it was soon made apparent to me that I would never measure up to his memory. My feet were in my shoes and not his, so I just about withstood the onslaught. Since his death there had been a succession of choir directors, none of whom had stayed more than a couple of years, and pretty quickly I understood why—there comes a time when you realize that bashing your head against a brick wall is unproductive. A particularly fond memory was hearing that as the men were queuing up to enter the church, they were kept waiting by someone or something, and were muttering about how long they’d been there. My 16 year-old son, irreverent and fearless, who had been drafted in to lend some accuracy and quality to an otherwise rather wet-dishcloth-like tenor line, could take this no longer and said, very loud, ‘and I’ve been here since 1654’. I suppose you had to be there.
Anyway, the point I’m getting round to is that here I’m much more aware of ‘the way it used to be’ than ever I was in England. This is surprising in a way, for the culture in which I grew up was almost Wahabbi – rural, isolated, conservative, women largely confined to kitchens and bedrooms. In church terms, while women make up the bulk of the congregation, and do most of the work, in some parishes and church institutions it’s all but impossible to get people to vote for them. I refer you to the blog of a neighbouring Rector who is much more trenchant about this than I am.
It’s a human characteristic to hark back to glory days that never existed, but some people seem very good at it. Perhaps it’s because in the old days the tribes were more clearly defined, and comfort was to be had within the fences they provided. The trouble is that the fences are pretty scrappy now: the trumpet blast of increasing transparency and mobility has brought down the walls of Jericho. And a good thing too, for such conservatism, whatever its benefits, stifles creativity and imagination. It can even be dangerous when its adherents refuse to accept that what was appropriate years ago may, because of legislation and changing standards of good practice, be inappropriate now.
To finish the story about St Ann’s, I quickly came to see that the choir of men and boys had had its day. Recruitment of boys was a mug’s game, what with changing family expectations and the move of schools and people from the city centre. Girls were introduced. Mutter mutter grumble grumble. Even that was not sustainable, so a semi-professional group was employed and the Vicar retired the men. I think, on the whole, they were relieved. There comes a time when enough is enough and we grudgingly have to accept that a decent burial is the right thing. In Jesus’s words loosely paraphrased, there’s no point flogging a dead horse*: move on, there’s work to be done.
* though quite a lot have been flogged – as beef.