Sermon preached at the Festival of St Cecilia (21 November 2018) by the Revd Richard Coles, Vicar, St Mary the Virgin, Finedon

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Sermon preached at the Festival of St Cecilia (21 November 2018) by the Revd Richard Coles, Vicar, St Mary the Virgin, Finedon

Richard Coles reflects on St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, and that her medium "reminds us...that beyond our horizons lies the possibility of limitless hope".


When I was in training for ordination at the College of the Resurrection at Mirfield, I was one of the Precentors, responsible for our liturgy and music. Our regime was monastic, although it did not in all respects conform to the Rules of Life associated with the tradition. Our daily diet was plainchant, but being Anglican, being students, and having, in my case, history in what the more fogeyish of my peers persisted in calling ‘the Hit Parade’, there were diversions, most memorably when students were entrusted with creating a liturgy for Evensong. Encouraged to experiment, my group, one year, produced a sort of techno-Magnificat, with a thrashing drum track at 130 bpm, a light show which veterans of the Second Summer of Love in Ibiza would have found excessive, the words yelled over a video projection of a woman who looked like Bonnie Tyler roller-skating down Santa Monica Pier. It caused rather a stir, and I can still see the faces of the traditionalists turning pink, their rage intensified rather than disarmed by our not so tuneful quire.

One of them was my successor in that role, and in spite of the contretemps, we parted on good terms. On my last day I gave him a present, a relic of St Cecilia, bought on eBay, a speck of dust in a glass-fronted case, sealed authoritatively with red wax by a Belgian archbishop.

I like to think of her on his desk today, inspiring the meticulous programming of renaissance polyphony as he grows mature in ministry; but her life is so distant, her story so peculiar, even her existence is called into doubt. 

According to tradition, Cecilia was a noble Roman maiden of the second or third century, given in marriage to one Valerian. Before consummation could occur an angel appeared insisting he respect his bride's virginity, and, as a sign of his bona fides, wreathed her in the scent of roses so intense Valerian not only agreed, but immediately sought and received baptism from the Pope, who happened to be passing on the Appian Way. There Valerian became so diligent a custodian of the catacombs he was arrested and executed, Cecilia too, sentenced to be scalded in her own bathhouse, but even though seven times the normal amount of fuel was added to the furnace, she emerged unscathed, and another method of despatch had to be found. Up she went to heaven, eventually, but how she became patron of music is unclear. From the fifteenth century or so she began to be portrayed in art playing a sort of organ, or a lyre, although images of her without any connection to music had been around for a thousand years by then.

Her credentials might be uncertain, but her inspiration has been steady, and many composers have hymned her praise, from Purcell to Britten to Handel to Charpentier to Musgrave to the New York post-hardcore band, Polar Bear Club. 

I first succumbed to her enchantments when I was a boy chorister at school, singing in cassock and surplice and ruff. Cecilia went to work, forming me, without me realising it, in a love of the Anglican choral tradition, a feeling for the English scriptures, and an affection for the CofE, which have endured. Those were obvious; less obvious, I think, was doctrine, in which I had no interest at the time; but it seeped in, shaped me, not because of what I heard from the pulpit, or read in the Bible, but because of what I sang - Thou Visitest the Earth, I Was Glad, God Be In My Head. Lex orandi, lex credendi, we say of the Church of England, which can be understood to mean ‘how we pray expresses what we believe’. This is true not only for clergy. I have often thought that the English love of elegy, so powerful in our art and music and literature, derives from Evensong, with its canticles, and lengthening shadows, and departing in peace: think of all the poets and musicians and painters whose sensibilities were formed in the candlelight of school and college chapels. 

But there is much more to our choral tradition than cultural Ovaltine. There is its strangeness, a peculiar kind of English mysticism, at odds with the sceptical temper of our mainstream culture, but you hear it very powerfully in the music of the English renaissance, in Thomas Tallis’, greatest of his day, in my opinion. Great still in ours, and under the aegis of Cecilia, his peculiar enchantment proved irresistible to Vaughan Williams, who created in the twentieth century, from sixteenth century materials, his Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis which to me sounds like English mysticism on the move, gliding towards us out of the inaccessible past. When it was first performed, in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910, sitting in the pews was a young Herbert Howells, so moved by the performance it literally changed his life. His own Hymn to St Cecilia, to a text by Ursula Vaughan Williams, was first performed on St Cecilia’s Day in this cathedral fifty years later, thanks to the (continuing) generosity of the Worshipful Company of Musicians. ‘Sing for your loves of heaven and of earth’, she wrote, ‘a bond of roses and a ring of fire’.

Roses and fire. Cecilia is too the martyr, the one who paid in blood the price of love. And patron too, I would argue, of a quite different kind of music, the music of militant love. Think of Motown, the sound of the Civil Rights movement in Detroit, dance floor fillers that drew people together and pumped them with anger, and hunger, for justice and freedom, springing from the Gospel tradition and its origins in slave music, sung by those living under the lash, who sought through song to anticipate in a fallen world the righteousness of heaven. That music of liberation fertilised other movements for equal rights: women’s liberation, gay liberation, which also armed their combatants for battle on the dance floor; think of punk, igniting in the late seventies, startling us with its unquenchable fire, to paraphrase Auden.

That fiery heritage may seem distant from us here today, but as someone who has participated in both, in tuneful quire and cultural combat, I’m not so sure. The choir and the squadron are closer than we think, and what formed me for the church formed me for the battle too. 

Cecilia’s elusiveness serves us here, I think. Too defined and she would not translate, as Auden put it, move without let or hindrance between the rival jurisdictions we have to work our way round, which so narrow and diminish range and depth. Music, her medium, reminds us more effectively than anything else, in my view, that beyond our horizons, but implicit within them, lies the possibility of limitless hope. 

So blessed Cecilia, indistinct and elusive, pray for us, for musicians and composers and songwriters and singers, for the cloistered and the mobilised; give to the voiceless a voice, tune our songs to heaven, and grant us your gifts of roses and fire.