A Tribute to Visiting Choirs

16 September 2022

By The Very Revd Jonathan Greener, Dean of Exeter


This article was originally published in Cathedral Life, Exeter Cathedral's weekly newsletter. Thank you to Christopher Balcomb for bringing it to our attention, and to the Very Revd Jonathan Greener for giving us permission to publish it in Cathedral Voice. - Editor

Surrey, Sussex, Lancashire, Philadelphia and Arkansas. What do they have in common, you may be wondering? Not the cricket, as you may have first thought; rather they are amongst the places where our visiting choirs have come from so far this summer. Some from parish churches, some brought together especially for a week’s residential, one from a school even. And mighty grateful we are to each and every one of them.

It’s worth recognising how much these choirs give to and do for the Cathedral. By singing our daily services, they help maintain the choral tradition which has existed here pretty much since our foundation. They ensure we have music for our big Sunday services, even when their own parish church at home has to go without while their singers are in Devon! They provide music for special services – St Paul’s, Philadelphia sang for the Bishop of Plymouth’s farewell. They often bring their own fan club, who help to swell our daily numbers. And they pay, not just for their transport to get here, but for board and lodging for the whole of their stay. 

So why on earth do they do it? First and foremost, they get to sing in one of the world’s great cathedrals – a description of Exeter which I hope our regular readers don’t just now recognise, but have started to use for themselves! They enjoy the discipline of singing each day, and pushing their repertoire to new heights. They rise to the challenge of singing all the psalms appointed for the day in the Book of Common Prayer – sadly a declining tradition, which is hard to find even in many English cathedrals nowadays. They grow musically during their stay, as those of us who attend each day get to appreciate. And they enjoy a sunny week (this year at least), enjoying one another’s company and exploring the highlights of Britain’s most beautiful county. So what’s not to love! A win-win, it seems to me, for both Exeter Cathedral and our visitors.

My friends will tell you I’m not much of a singer, except in the car (often to Pamela’s chagrin), and during the odd hymn. I did take Grade 4 singing when I was 38. I wore a clerical collar to the exam to try to curry favour with the poor examiner that had to listen to me. It must have worked, since I achieved 118 points (two short of a Merit) of which I’m inordinately proud. My teacher urged me to carry on to take Grade 5, but such was the nervous agony that I suffered during my rendition of “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Molly Malone” that I resolved this would be the last music exam I would ever take. However the experience made me all the more grateful to the many choirs who come to the Cathedral for doing so much heavy lifting. Music is, to my mind, probably the single most import ingredient in our worship, since it plumbs depths and reaches parts that words alone cannot touch. When I lived in Wakefield, there were two churches I really enjoyed attending, poles apart in terms of style and structure, but both had great music.

A lot of our Western worship tends to be cerebral, appealing principally to the intellect, but human beings are so much more than talking heads. Over the years I’ve had a lot to do with the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially in Romania, and they focus more on the whole-person experience. The worship is more physical, with lots of standing up, kneeling down, and moving about, the whole service is sung – so much so that you cannot become a priest if you cannot sing – and incense wafts freely and wildly around the church throughout the service. A great assault on all the senses. Orthodox worship touches the heart first and then the head. So much so that the sermon, exalted as it is in this country, is left right till the end – so you can happily give that a miss if your Sunday lunch is calling. But music, that’s different: it doesn’t just adorn worship: it’s the very life blood. Beauty matters, it offers a window into God, and that’s what we pursue here at the Cathedral, but home-grown music too can go deep inside, and help carry our prayers to the pearly gates.  

Over the past couple of years, summer at the Cathedral has been pretty arid – what with travel restrictions and people anxious about mixing. There’s been hardly any choral music when our Cathedral choir has taken its well-earned break. So it’s really good this year to return to a full schedule of visiting choirs, as well as a comprehensive concert programme through the summer. Next year, do come and join us, and if you get the chance, please say a little thank you to the musicians for giving up their time and sharing their talents, and for all they do to give each of us a helpful push along our pilgrim path.  



Hear which way the wind's blowing

Cathedral music news from the UK and overseas.

View all articles

Recent news