Introducing an Opportunity for Young Singers at St. Thomas's

By Matthew Larkin
Organist and Director of Music

One of the most enduring features of our musical tradition as Christians and Anglicans has been the participation of children in sung worship. From an evangelical standpoint, music has been rightly regarded as an excellent tool of outreach, and thus, as a pathway to faith. This is true for those who receive and hear sung music as congregants, and even more so for those who work carefully and over time to prepare repertoire, which in turn takes its appropriate place in the service of liturgy.

Most adults, when they seek membership in a liturgical choir, are doing so with at least a preliminary understanding of what the mission of such a choir is, and they likely come having some sense of personal theology, knowledge, and an experience of church life. While the same may be true of many children – those who have grown up in churches, participated in church activities or programs, or simply attended services regularly with family or friends – it is undeniably true that in contemporary society, church attendance among young people has been in decline for some time. Partly as a result of this, many churches have reluctantly set aside programs and ministries that are geared toward children. Resources are hard to come by, of course, and any activity requiring a regular commitment among participants often has too few subscribers to justify the time and effort to maintain programs such as children's or youth choirs.

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These are not new challenges. One can point to any number of times in history when the role of churches in community life has been reduced from previous highs, and when the institutional foundation provided by the church has played less of a role in spiritual life. Today, the media tells frequently of falling numbers of adherents and attendees, and this is often couched in language that suggests these trends are a post-modern phenomenon. This is far from the case, as any student of history knows, and it just may be that previous generations faced with similar portents of decline found solutions that are instructive for us today.

In early Christian times, and for many centuries following, the church took up a central role in providing for the education and enlightenment of children, often by involving them in monastic life, which included programs in literacy, music, art, science, and, of course, regular participation in worship. The early Christian fathers believed that knowledge and experience of classical and contemporary masterworks – tradition, if you will – informed young people of the beauty and richness of church and community life. They felt that through knowledge of the past, an awareness of the present is enhanced, and indeed, the pathway to the future might become a little clearer. This is particularly true through instruction in the art of music, and the evidence is plain to see over the course of hundreds of years that a community that offers opportunities to learn and grow in knowledge of something so timelessly beautiful as music, and in return asks only for commitment and dedication, is itself enriched immeasurably by a ministry that is challenging, and potentially life-changing.

My own view is that the musical and liturgical traditions of the church are more vital than ever, and that if they are to continue to serve the world, as they must, it is essential that they be made available and accessible to young people. Many of us know of the famous cathedral, collegiate, and abbey choirs overseas, and assume that those choirs have always existed and always will exist. The reality is that in almost every instance, the resident choir has been disbanded, started up again, set aside due to a paucity of leadership or operating capital, social disruption, changing trends in worship, or whatever. But no matter what the conditions that brought about the interruption in activity, the desire was always found to restore what once was, for the simple reason that the community is strengthened by the presence of young people in worship, and, more importantly, that young people are empowered by a knowledge of faith tradition and expression.

I joined the boys' choir at St. George's Cathedral in Kingston when I was just beginning my fourth-grade year at Lord Strathcona School (having begun school in England at age four, I was a year younger than my classmates, and quite diminutive as well). My parents did not attend church at that time, and our weekends had previously been taken up with ski trips to upper New York State, visits to a friend's cottage, or simply playing road hockey in the driveway. One day, a schoolteacher who sang in the cathedral choir (a man who was very gifted in the art of persuasion, and who could talk up just about any subject he put his mind to), delivered a stirring address to all the boys of the class that they needed to join "Dr. Maybee's Choir" at St. George's. I was so taken with this that when I came home from school that day, I announced to my incredulous mother that I was joining the choir at the cathedral. And so I did. I didn't know it then, but that decision marked the first day of the rest of my life.

While I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into, and while I won't claim that every day in the choir's service was like a walk in the park, membership in the choir began for me an absolutely amazing journey, one that started with a mild interest in music and social activity, but that soon had me entering into a relationship with God that has been absolutely vivid and sustaining. My imagination ran wild in those early days as I sang music of almost every character and quality, heard the scriptures proclaimed, and watched the liturgy happen around me, drawing me in, and teaching me to take my part in it. All this I did with friends to the left and right of me – friends who in many cases have stood the test of time. All of us were growing in faith, and growing in knowledge. All of us felt the incredible power of music, the freedom of expression and creativity, the discipline of hard work, and the joy of achievement.

About 20 years ago, I felt the calling to provide for that experience so that others might have the chance to live it. For most of my professional career to that point, I had worked only with adult singers and other musicians, and it seemed to me that working with young people was best left to others who had time and patience for it. And in any case, it was getting harder to get young people to commit to church attendance. What's more, liturgical renewal and change had meant that for many places, the old traditions were being abandoned for something more accessible, and more in tune with modern life. I realized one day that I had overlooked something important: perhaps God hadn't intended me to turn my back on the musical heritage that had given me so much. Perhaps it really was time for me to work toward the inclusion of young people in the musical aspects of worship, and to evangelize the opportunity as my schoolteacher had.

At St. Thomas's Church, boy choristers were a regular part of parish life for many years. I count among my colleagues and friends many who sang under Dr. MacNutt's instruction, and who have lived lives in faith and music partly as a result of that experience and the chance they had to live the traditions of the church fully as young people. I've been at it for quite a while myself now, and have seen time and again young people who came to a choir lacking in any experience of church life or even music become confident musicians and faithful Christians (a few of whom have begun to sing in St. Thomas's choirs). In our diocese today, there are very few opportunities for young people (and boys in particular) to participate in and contribute to a ministry of music such as is found here. I know what such a ministry can do for young people. I've seen it happen to those I have known or taught, and furthermore, I'm someone who "grew up" living it.

In the 1940s, former parish organist T.A. Reed wrote on the back of this photo, which was taken in 1896, the following details: "The Probationers, St Thomas Choir, 1896. Front Row: 1 __, 2 Ted Partridge, 3 Jack Dykes (Rev Canon J.P.D), 4 Stanley Chambers, 5 Gordon Medland. 2nd Row: 1 Jack Mills, 2 Suter, 3 Frank Cochran, 4 W J. Chambers, 5 Malcolm Cochran, 6 ____." (Baldwin Collection, Toronto Public Library)

What we are proposing at St. Thomas's is to introduce a choral ensemble each for boys and girls. We've started talking about a boys' choir first, in part because there is potential interest from educational institutions in supporting this work, but mainly on the weight of evidence: building such a choir from scratch will be a most challenging proposition. Not all girls are inclined to sing in choirs, necessarily, but the numbers don't lie. In our society, girls are far more likely to join a choir than are boys, and while children's choirs involving both boys and girls can work marvellously well, it is true that introducing a boy to an unfamiliar (and doubtlessly intimidating) activity such as singing is made far more attractive if the boy senses that he is not alone in it, and that he can rely on the company of his peers. Thus, while we envision a ministry that is inclusive, offering equal opportunities to both boys and girls, the decision to begin with boys is based on the historical legacy of the parish, and the likely significant challenges in getting such an ensemble started. If we are successful, we will enact plans to introduce a girls' choir, thus making our choral offering truly full and unique.

While the desire is to begin this work as soon as possible, there is no clear time frame, and prudence suggests that patience will truly be a virtue in all this. That said, there's no time like the present to begin an important initiative, and so here we are. I ask your prayerful support of this venture, and I am most happy to answer questions, concerns, and respond to expressions of interest at any time.

Do you know a boy between the ages of 8 and 13 who is musically inclined, given to imagination and creativity, and who might take joy in the beauty and richness of the sacred music tradition? Please speak to Matthew Larkin ( or Fr. Andrews.

Easter 1891

Standing in the centre of the choir is John Charles Roper (1858-1940), priest-in-charge from 1889 to 1897. According to David Harrison, a contributor to the parish history Household of God (Toronto, 1993), it was during the early years of Roper's ministry that "the music of two choirs, the organ, and a parish orchestra [became] a vibrant part of parish life." St. Thomas's had a choir of men and boys until 1977.