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Let Everything that Hath Breath: Praise the Lord

By Canon James Mustard

It was in this Cathedral Community that I first explored my vocation to ordained ministry, and this was the place that prepared me for a career in music. Singing here changed my life.

The music of this place changes lives. It changes the lives of the choristers and other musicians of course, but it also changes the lives of people in this community, this city, and those passing through this place, with the daily offering of Choral services.

The Old Testament records the lavish provision for music in the Temple of Solomon. What I would not give to attend a High Holy Day in Solomon’s temple with its lyres, harps and cymbals, and its chorus of two hundred and eighty-eight singers! What an incredible sight and sound it must have been! It reminds us that the organising of musicians, and making provision for them, goes back to the earliest days of God’s people settling in Jerusalem: a School and a Schola is nothing new! The Quire here would have been conceived as a sort of representation of the Temple of Jerusalem in this place: clergy and lay people maintaining a daily round of prayer in this Holy of Holies, nourished by the white heat of God’s daily presence in bread and wine. 

On a more modest scale, the New Testament reminds us of the centrality of singing to Christians and the Church. In their earliest days, followers of Jesus can find no better way to express their fellowship and oft persecuted faith than by singing. For example, the Colossians have no religious, genetic, or geographical relationship with the Temple in Jerusalem. This is very simple religion, carried out in homes and in secret. But St Paul and his fellow ministers have clearly taken some of their traditions from Jerusalem, including the singing of psalms, and shared it with these new, Gentile faith communities. And this borrowing of Jewish tradition has clearly really caught on. It reminds us that Christians sing, and Christians sing because Jews sing. It’s what we do.

Many hundreds of choristers have passed through Exeter Cathedral School and the Cathedral Choir, and hundreds of choral scholars, lay vicars and staff, including the annual. Over time, music here has operated on a Biblical scale.

This building is world class, and the Cathedral Choir gives voice, across the world, to this very special place. Our presence, our voices here, over the many changes and chances of this city through peace, war and tumult are a sign that time and voices raised in prayer do heal. We don’t know why people come to our services. But we know that it makes a difference to them. And that reminds us that what we do is important. Though what we do may seem to be on the grand scale of the Temple, its impact, the way in which it shapes community and brings comfort would be familiar to the Colossians.

Our Cathedral Choir and Exeter Cathedral School remind us that the task of church musicians is not just to perpetuate the music of our great Temples, with all their magnificence and spectacle. It is also, in the spirit of St Paul’s congregation in Colossi, to change lives by the forming a community of song and prayer. For nearly one thousand years, this community of music has changed lives, and nurtured faith in this modest city by the Exe.

In the pressures that come with running a school, keeping the money flowing, keeping a cathedral open, recruiting choristers and adult singers, making sure everyone is in the right place at the right time, of generally keeping the show on the road, it can be forgotten that what this choir does, and has done for nearly one thousand years, really matters. It really matters because it changes lives, it shapes worshipping congregations, and it engages with our wider parishes and communities. You can cross the threshold of this place for a service of Choral Evensong and receive a precious gift, free and without obligation. It is a self-giving offering. And self-giving offerings, as the Cross and Eucharist remind us, change the world. For that and for our Cathedral Choir, thanks be to God!