Tom Daggett, Community Music Co-ordinator, blogs on a recent visit by the choir of ARC Pentecostal Church in Forest Gate to St. Mary Magdalen’s church in Oxford…
One of the many things Oxford is known for is its rich history of choral music. Indeed, it’s been at the forefront of church music developments for many centuries. Some of the most progressive English composers have enjoyed time spent in Oxford’s various chapels and churches, and its libraries remain home to thousands of manuscripts containing the sources of some of the world’s finest choral music.
It would be fair to say that Oxford remains one of very few places in the world where the highest quality of church music can be heard on a daily basis. The services of Evensong and the Eucharist remain at the heart of the daily patterns of liturgical and musical life across the university and city.
It is not often one hears much which strays from English or Continental core repertory. Perhaps the furthest a chapel or church might go would be to sing a setting of a ‘Jazz Mass.’ It is even more unlikely one would hear the tones of a Gospel Choir in one of Oxford’s ecclesiastical buildings. Gospel music enjoys its own vibrant history – but it’s far removed from that of music written for the Church of England’s cathedrals, chapels, and parish churches. Indeed, Gospel singers deploy memorisation, individual extemporisation, and collective soulful creativity which set them apart from almost all other church musicians.
It was therefore exciting for the Contextual Theology Centre to introduce such a choir to the rhythm of Anglican worship in Oxford. On Friday 26th April, the Gospel choir from one of our partner churches, ARC in Forest Gate, led Eucharistic worship at St. Mary Magdalen in the centre of Oxford. This is a particularly notable location for collaboration of this sort, given St Mary’s rich Anglo-Catholic tradition. Seven singers from ARC, plus their versatile accompanist, masterfully led songs in place of the Gloria, Gospel acclamation, offertory, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, as well as the hymns.
One of the many remarkable things about this service – attended by members of the Oxford Jellicoe Community – was just how well the styles of liturgy and music complemented each other in a worshipful and respectful way. Neither tradition had to make aesthetic concessions because of the other. Led by London Community Gospel Choir singer Angenita Blackwood, ARC’s choir demonstrated their church’s values: “abounding in creativity, originality and diversity of gifts, talents and abilities.”
Daniel Stone, church-based community organiser at the ARC said, “This type of cultural exchange really is invaluable. Many people in the congregation may have heard the powerful, soulful sounds of a Gospel choir for the first time… I’m sure they were enchanted by it; but equally the choir wouldn’t have been used to singing in a service with so much time given to quiet reflection and stillness. I’m sure this experience will reinforce the fact that as Christians we are one body, worshipping one God, and that our cultural differences are a strength that make our journey of faith that little bit more enjoyable.”
The service has provided one of many recent platforms for getting a conversation going within the Contextual Theology Centre about the community-building role of music. May this service herald further collaboration across cultures and traditions which seeks to open hearts and minds.