Lord, for thy tender mercy’s sake, lay not our sins to our charge,
but forgive that is past,
and give us grace to amend our sinful lives.
To decline from sin and incline to virtue,
that we may walk in a perfect heart before thee, now and evermore.
The opportunity to make sense of a church service came rarely to me as a child. When it did, it was usually in the context of song, in the harmonizing of hymns. These were occasional pearls sprinkled among the standard rota of guilt, judgment and substitutionary atonement. Our Church of Christ in Mississippi was proud of its a cappella singing in between its bible-thumping, and I was momentarily transported when given the chance to float an alto harmony into a beautiful hymn like Fairest Lord Jesus.
I dreamt of the angelic voices from the boys choir in Vienna, far off and unreachable. As an adult, I had little knowledge of the breadth of this marvelous polyphony until hearing the Tallis Scholars for the first time. I nearly drove off the road, I can remember it so clearly, the soaring straight tone of sixteen voices committed to each pitch and rhythmic line, weaving in & out of one another in a blend of multiple melodies. Most of their work is from the English church and Catholic traditions of southern Europe from the sixteenth century — Spain, Italy and Portugal.
Amid the early fits & starts of my spiritual growth, choir played an essential role in squaring me toward the godhead. Tears were shed singing Palestrina, and anthems like Lord, for Thy Tender Mercy’s Sake by Farrant and If Ye Love Me by Tallis. In addition to the music, there were kindred spirits in choir, a sense of community and shared experience. The way polyphony is delivered in a blended sound complements community. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always preferred it to operatic arias or cantoring. The space that emerges from the organic balance of choral singing evokes the Holy Spirit moving within the group.
Give a listen to the Dale Warland Singers, Westminster Cathedral Choir, the Voices of Ascension, the Cambridge Singers, the Huelgas Ensemble, The Sixteen, the Cambridge Singers — especially during the high holy seasons of Lent, Advent & Christmastide. Their unwavering tones amid majestic cavernous spaces will transport you to the altar of God.