preached by the Very Reverend John Dobson, the Dean of Ripon
in Ripon Cathedral
on Sunday, 5 October 2014 (Trinity 16)
for the National Gathering of the Friends of Cathedral Music
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:8-16; Philippians 3:4b-14; St. Matthew 21:33-end
“I shall sing for my friend”
How fortunate for the preacher on a weekend when the Cathedral hosts both the national meeting of the Friends of Cathedral Music and the Yorkshire Three Choirs Festival! How fortunate that the first words of the first reading should be, “I shall sing.” (Isa. 5:1)
And how fortunate for the congregation that this particular preacher will not be singing. At least, not a solo from the pulpit. And even more fortune is to be celebrated when we notice that we have heard the Revised English Bible instead of the often-used New Revised Standard Version. The latter translates the Hebrew as
“Let me sing”. While the Revised English Bible give us the more emphatic “I shall sing.”
In this cathedral the more emphatic note is certainly welcome, and more than justified. As a cathedral we shall sing, we shall make music – to the highest standard possible. We are quite determined.
There are challenges, of course. Without the advantages of a choir school the recruitment of talented boys and girls could be seen to be more difficult. But we have resolved to find ways of identifying and attracting talent from a wider base than has been the case in the past. Needless to say, we need more resources: the reason why we are establishing an endowment fund to secure the necessary funds into the future. In faith and with some confidence we believe that our vision and commitment will bear fruit; choice grapes, even, to use the imagery of two of our readings. And let us celebrate the success with which we have been blessed thus far in the area of recruitment: 17 boys and 20 girls.
It is an interesting verse, Isaiah 5:1. “I shall sing for my beloved a love song about his vineyard…” We could be forgiven for wondering where the prophet is leading us. Except the Hebrew translated as ‘my beloved’, yadid, could quite legitimately, and possibly more properly, be translated ‘my friend’. This is another word that resonates with us this weekend. We all need friends. Cathedral music needs friends, as was clearly identified back in 1956 when the Friends of Cathedral Music was created. We all need friends; this passage suggests that even God needs friends. The prophet sings a song that belongs to his friend. The song is indeed about love, the love that the prophet’s friend has for his vineyard. This friend had carefully chosen a fertile plot of land which he deliberately dug and prepared for cultivation, removing all the large stones that would inhibit healthy growth before planting ‘choice red vines’. A very pleasing and promising prospect, one might have thought. Yet, despite constant care and attention, the expected-choice grapes disappointingly turned out to be wild grapes.
The friend to whom this love song belongs is God. He now relies upon the efforts of a prophet, a friend, to speak up for him. The friend tells the people of Jerusalem and Judah that God’s chosen people have failed to produce the fruit of faithfulness and justice for which God had been hoping. So, even God needs friends to take courage and speak up for him, often telling the truth to those who are belligerent or apathetic.
Cathedrals and cathedral music are genuinely grateful to those who support and those who are prepared to speak up for us in the wider community and society. Of late we have become the flavour of the month, demonstrating a capacity to grow which has not been seen so readily in every part of the national church. Though, I must say, the growth in membership of the Friends of Cathedral Music has been equally impressive in recent years. You now have four-thousand members.
With cathedrals, though, it is not so long ago that we had to defend ourselves against the accusation of privilege and exalted irrelevance. We are grateful for those who have remained faithful to the vision of a mission which the cathedrals are uniquely placed to extend way beyond the confines of the Church and Church-centred circles. Why did the Church of England decide to retain three cathedrals in this great new diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales? Because our cathedrals make a difference; they connect with the wider community in ways that other parts of the Church do not and cannot.
And we are grateful for those who have kept faith with a taste in music that stands the test of time and is as capable of speaking to hearts, minds and souls now as it ever did. And, yes, sometimes we may just need a critical friend to goad us into embracing the best of the new.
I was encouraged to read the purposes of the Friends of Cathedral Music. Forgive me, those of you who know this.
To safeguard our priceless heritage of cathedral music and support a living tradition.
To increase public knowledge and appreciation of that heritage and tradition.
To encourage high standards in choral and organ music.
To raise money by subscriptions, donations and legacies for choirs in need.
“I shall sing for my friend a song…” and our prayer today is that Friends of Cathedral Music will continue to sing their / your song; and that this cathedral will continue to sing services that bring glory and praise to God, the God who needs his friends to sing up for him on earth as in heaven.
Jesus uses the image of the vineyard in his parable. Speaking in the Temple, he is teaching about the nature of the Kingdom of God, and challenging the passive hypocrisy of those who have regarded themselves as God’s people. Those who would be God’s people – his friends, we might say – are those who would live as he would have them live, making this world more like God’s Kingdom. Israel and Judah had failed in this regard. The Son was needed to claim what was his Father’s. And in so doing showed that God’s Kingdom belongs to those who live it, not those who believe it is theirs by divine right. “Therefore, I tell you, the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you, and given to a nation that yields the proper fruit.” (Matt. 21:43)
The message is clear. The Church, with its cathedrals and its music, is not an end in itself. Following in Christ’s footsteps, it is to be the friend who sings the song of God’s love for his people by leading lives that, in return, show love for God and his people. We are to be the friends of God who sing his song in all that we are and do.
Our ambition for our cathedrals and their music is that they do exactly that. By opening hearts and souls to a level of beauty that is often absent from the more mundane routine of daily living; by touching in people those parts that other attempts at life-enhancing pursuits do not reach; by speaking of the majesty and love and friendship of God – our cathedrals in all their ministry and mission, not least music, are agents of the kingdom. They are friends of God who encourage and inspire kingdom living.
Until God’s kingdom finally comes on earth as in heaven, may our efforts bear fruit and may we all, as friends, sing the song of God.