Sermon Archive

Sunday March 3, 2019
4:00 pm - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Bishop Andrew Dietsche

Centennial of the Opening of the Choir School

It is a great pleasure for me to be back in the pulpit of Saint Thomas Church this evening - this is one of the great preaching stations in the city of New York,I believe, and I’ve always enjoyed preaching from this pulpit and in this great church - and it is an honor to speak to you on the occasion of the centennial celebration of the opening of the Saint Thomas Choir School. As always, it is a joy to worship in this glorious space with Canon Carl Turner, your rector, with his associate clergy, and on this occasion with the school headmaster, Charles Wallace. I am also delighted to see again Daniel Hyde and the Saint Thomas Choir of Men and Boys. In many ways it is you who sing tonight whom we celebrate tonight, and the founding of this great institution which has shaped and formed the unique sound of this choir for one hundred years.

As I am sure you know, the boys choir was actually founded in 1902, a year after the arrival of the seventh rector, Ernest Milmore Stires, but the boys were scattered across the boroughs of the city - instruction and practice were difficult - and the development of a disciplined and regular program of music instruction and practice was more than challenging. So in 1913, with the coming of Tertius Noble as the Organist and Choirmaster, much of whose music we have heard tonight in this evensong, Dr. Stires began to press the parish leadership for the establishment of a choir school for this parish. He argued that both the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and Grace Church Broadway had their own choir schools, and that those schools gave great advantage to the music at their worship. It would require, they felt, the capacity to provide daily music instruction and practice, a residential community, to take the music of this parish to a higher and more auspicious place.

Indeed, forty years earlier, when my predecessor Bishop Horatio Potter called in his convention address for the creation of a cathedral church in this city and the Diocese of New York, he argued at the same time, and with equal fervor, that “under its great shadow would be found a school for church music, which would help to relieve us from some of the abominations which we occasionally meet with in our worship.” Bishop Potter spent his Sundays then, as I do now, visiting the two hundred or more parishes across what was then still largely, once one left New York City, a rural diocese, and I have no doubt that he experienced quite a breadth of worship and musical forms across the diocese, but I think it was at least impolitic to refer to them as “abominations” from the pulpit. Still, I suspect that something of the same sentiment drove Drs. Stires and Noble to the creation of this school. This would make possible a quality of sacred music performance which, without the rigor and structure of a daily school, would be beyond them.

In April 1918 Dr. Stires and three members of the music committee were charged to explore the possibilities of raising the funds and securing the support to see if this could be done. A positive response was immediate, and from that day to this the Saint Thomas Choir School has stood on the foundation of the generosity and support of a great many people who have seen and understood that this choir school might be the backbone of the worship life of this parish, a unique offering for the education of young people, and a profound contribution to the cultural and spiritual heart of this great city. So on this very day in 1919, March 3, the Saint Thomas Choir School was opened with 21 boys, 14 of whom were resident. And it is that heroic and hopeful beginning that we celebrate tonight, on the very centennial day of its founding. We also celebrate a century of sacred music in this church in the ancient English tradition of the men and boys choir, and we celebrate as well a vision - a vision articulated by Bishop Potter perhaps, but certainly echoed by Drs. Stires and Noble - that when we come before the altar of Our Lord, and make our praises, the only standard which we may allow ourselves is that of excellence.

That commitment to excellence is the root of the impulse for the creation of all choir schools. Yet that very vision of liturgical excellence has birthed a tension in the Christian church between the act of performance, which celebrates the achievements of human artistry, creativity and imagination, and offering, which is our praise of that God who is the source of all creation, and who hallows that creation by the incarnation of his Son and the enlivening richness of the Holy Spirit.

There is a phrase, often cited and ascribed to Saint Augustine, which says that “he who sings prays twice.” There are two problems with that sentiment. First, it is very clear that Saint Augustine never did say that. And second, who in the world knows what that means anyway? But that is not to say that Saint Augustine had nothing to say about sacred music, or liturgical music, but what he did say isn’t all that encouraging. He loved the music, but he was a theologian, a professional thinker, whose purpose was the study of God and the science of the faith, and he worried that he enjoyed the music so much that it might be just the beauty of the music which was moving him and not the theological precepts and sentiments behind the music, contained in the psalms and tracts which were being sung. He found himself distracted by the beauty of song, and worried that letting his thoughts drift from the contemplation of God to be washed by the sublime human expression might be an easy way to get lost. He finally concluded that he could “approve of the use of singing in the church, that so by the delights of the ear the weaker minds may be stimulated to a devotional frame.” But for himself, when he was more moved by the singing than by what was being sung, “I confess myself,” he said, “to have sinned criminally.”

I find those statements astonishing, but that swell of iconoclastic skepticism that we find in Augustine became a current that continued down through the life of the church, and continues to trouble the spirit of the church when it comes to its artistry and creativity in the context of worship and that tension between performance and offering, performance and adoration.

So for Bishop Potter, the music wasn’t good enough, and for Saint Augustine it was too good. But somewhere between those two sentiments - between the insistence on the excellence of the word and the insistence on the excellence of the form by which that word is proclaimed - lies the long discourse of the church on theology and the arts, on theology and beauty, and on what we mean when we say sacred music. For the purpose of the church and its worship is to invite, beckon, and draw all people into an authentic experience of the living God through Our Lord Jesus Christ. And everything that we do in worship and the beauty that surrounds us - the statuary and the stained glass, the readings and proclamations, and all the music with its hymnody and anthems - must exist in service of that purpose if it is to be named holy or called sacred.

The boys that you see in front of you are heirs of a century long tradition. I am moved to think abut what they have learned and continue to learn in this school and in this church, and of the incredible gift they are being given for the greater living of their lives. But may I say i am more moved to see the school alumni who have come back tonight to sing with the boys. I was a parish priest in Massachusetts for a number of years, and there was a man in my parish, John Lynham, who must have graduated from this school around 1938 or 1939, maybe when they were celebrating the twentieth anniversary of this founding. For all the time I was at that church John carried the bass section of our little choir all by himself. He has been on my mind all week as we have approached this night and this celebration.

So when I see today’s students and yesterday’s singing here together, and the swell of their voices, I am reminded of John but I think too of what it means that the legacy and tradition of Saint Thomas Choir School is one that is lived across and through time, and any anniversary celebration must herald not simply the long-ago beginning, but as well the moving river that flows through us toward those who will come after. And remember that this tradition exists in time and very much across time

These are ways that we begin to think about our life in God. Ways to begin to think about what it means that we come to this church as to all churches to find, and then do, that experience of the living God who was and is and is to come, and to experience the outpouring and tsunami of beauty that gives God glory.

In this diocese I may have something of a unique perspective on that, because I spend my Sundays as Bishop Potter did, visiting one of our two hundred churches - many of them the same churches which he visited when he made his rounds. And like him I experience the same breadth of worship and musical forms, but I never say abomination.

A couple of years ago at the Martin Luther King Day service at Grace Church West Farms in the Bronx, the hundreds of people from all over that part of the diocese became suddenly a vast volunteer choir of the whole assembly and sang an a cappella We Shall Overcome with such transcendent beauty that when we were finished I said that I thought we should all join the same church so we could all sing together every week. If you ever mention that service to someone who was there they always remember We Shall Overcome.

Susanna Phillips, the lyric soprano with the Metropolitan Opera, comes each Christmas Eve to our cathedral and sings Cantique Noel, the traditional French O Holy Night. The first year that she sang that I stood by the altar transfixed in wonder, and several years later I told her that I love it every year but my regret is that I will never again be able to hear her sing it for the first time.

One Christmas Eve I went to preside at Saint Mark’s Church in Dutchess County, a tiny carpenter gothic church built in 1850 with a small, aging congregation. But as I arrived the snow was gently falling and there was a candle in each window. When I went inside I saw the greens and the poinsettias and the soft light, and two college girls, a harpist and a flutist, playing Christmas hymns while the congregation gathered, and I thought, “Nothing else anywhere could be this beautiful.”

You must go some day to the Church of Our Savior in Chinatown, so that you can hear the congregation sing the Lord’s Prayer in Cantonese, in a wonderful lilting call and response. Every time I go to that church that is what I anticipate and think about, and I never even try to sing. I stand at the altar and let that beauty wash over me.

Two weeks ago I visited a small upstate church whose music is accompanied by guitar, because they can’t afford to get their old reed organ fixed. It was sublime. The setting sun was coming through the windows as we sang familiar organ hymns to the strumming of a guitar. I told the congregation, with tears in my eyes, that I would never forget it. And at Saint Luke’s Church in the Bronx, our largest parish, all West Indians, they have a huge steel pan orchestra, with its bright, clangy sound full of joy.

And of course, there is the men and boys choir of Saint Thomas Church. This church has been blessed by a great legacy of the most illustrious teachers and conductors, of which Daniel Hyde is a most worthy successor. Generations of boys have studied sacred music here and taken it with them as they move on from Saint Thomas into the larger church. All of this is your gift to the church and the world. Some few weeks after John Scott died, Margaret and I were up in the Catskills, and the early Sunday morning show Pipe Dreams came on the radio, and that week the whole hour was a remembrance and tribute to John. I sat and listened to the great music echoing in the woods on our mountainside and I thought I am so proud, I am so proud. And humbled. Several months ago we were here for Daniel Hyde’s inaugural concert on the Miller-Scott Organ; we could hear history being made in this room that night, and God was glorified.

All of these things are the week-by-week expressions of the Diocese of New York. And together in sundry ways they form our collective voice of praise. In ways deeper than words these self-offerings make a clearing in the complex thicket of this world where God may be apprehended and known, and where we in the fullest expression of our own souls may be known by God. To this clearing we bring the gifts which God has given us and our own selves in all our magnificent variety, and praise God with everything we have. This is sacred music, not because it is marvelously done, as Bishop Potter would have it, or cleverly didactic, as Augustine would want, but because it represents and makes real for us the eternal call and response of the creator and the creature. All of it. And I know that, because after all this time, I still hear the music and the voices and the great welling up of the human spirit reaching out toward God, and every time it makes me a Christian all over again. And that’s the point. It’s why we do church. And tonight I want to say that the reason we are celebrating the centennial of this great parochial residential choir school, one of only three in the world, is not just to note and herald the achievement, but because from Sunday to Sunday, for one hundred years, these men and boys and you have touched the spirits of people with intimations of heaven and the truth of God, and Sunday by Sunday, we have become Christians together and abided for a little while in the glory of God, covered over for an hour in waves of sheer beauty. Amen.