The English essayist and poet, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), in his 1694 ‘A Song for St Cecilia’s Day’, called music: ‘the greatest good that mortals know / And all of heaven we have below.’ We have had a practical demonstration of that claim all last week, as Westminster Abbey Choir, singing either alone or alongside the Choir of the Sistine Chapel, have brought to us that ‘all of heaven’ in services and concerts in Santa Maria Maggiore, the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica, and Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
Westminster Abbey has been a Christian church for more than a millennium. Despite its name, which recalls its original Benedictine monastic community, it is formally established by royal charter as ‘the Collegiate Church of St Peter’, dedicated, like St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, to the first of the Apostles. It is exempt from Episcopal jurisdiction, a great Church at the centre of the nation. It is home to the shrine of Saint Edward the Confessor (r. 1043-1066), and the resting place of many other English sovereigns including its great benefactor Henry III (r. 1216-72), those sisters divided by religious faith, Mary I (r. 1553-58) and Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603), and of Mary Queen of Scots, Catholic cousin to Elizabeth I, executed in 1587 for plotting to overthrow Elizabeth’s Anglican establishment. Newton is buried here, as are Dickens, Darwin and Chaucer, and the composers Handel and Purcell. The Abbey is more than a national shrine; it is a sanctuary of national life.
At its heart is its choir, established in the fourteenth century as a choral foundation of boys and men, responsible for the daily choral services of the Abbey and singing at the many royal, state and national occasions which take place there. This was the choir that sang the Service of Evening Prayer held in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI in September 2010. And it was Pope Benedict who asked that the choir should come to Rome, in this year of the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, to sing before him for the celebrations of the Solemnity of SS Peter and Paul. Never before had another choir, least of all an Anglican one, sung alongside the Choir of the Sistine Chapel at this most important of Papal Masses.
This visit, at the behest of the Pope, was more than ecumenical symbolism. It was ecumenism in action. ‘The beauty of holiness’ (Ps. 96 vv 8), the culture of celebrating God through beauty, is shared by the Roman Catholic and Anglican traditions. After the Evensong service at Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s representative in Rome, the Rt Rev. David Richardson, recalled the words of Archbishop Archibald Tait (1811-82), who said that: “sermons divide where music unites”. This uniting power of music was experienced at its most poignant during the Papal Mass for SS Peter and Paul, at the solemn moment of the Eucharist. While Pope Benedict distributed the consecrated host, Westminster Abbey Choir sang William Byrd’s great and serene setting of Ave Verum Corpus. Byrd (1540-1623) is undoubtedly one of England’s finest composers. He lived and worked at a time of religious convulsion, and wrote both for the reformed English and the Roman rites. He was a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. But he remained all his life a loyal Catholic, composing settings for the Latin Mass at a time when celebration of the Roman rite in England was punishable by death for treason after Queen Elizabeth’s excommunication by Pope Pius V. And yet here was Byrd’s music, being sung brilliantly by an Anglican choir, at a Papal mass, bringing Rome and Canterbury, the United Kingdom and the Holy See, together.
There will, I hope, be many more such moments. H.E. Cardinal Bertone and the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, agreed after the joint concert in the Sistine Chapel on 28 June given by the Sistine Chapel and Westminster Abbey Choirs, that this extraordinary musical harmony must be the way forward for the ecumenical relationship. Our music springs from a common root, enriched in its development to the full flowering of distinct but complementary traditions we can appreciate today. In the words of Psalm 46, set to music in Orlando Gibbons’ extraordinary anthem sung at Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Maria sopra Minerva last week: ‘O clap your hands together, all ye people: O sing unto God with the voice of melody.’