Surely the Lord is in this place: this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven. And this stone shall be God’s house. (Genesis 28:17)
I have been playing the organ for church services since the mid-summer of 1973, a bit more than 45 years ago, when I served as the substitute organist at Bethelship United Methodist Church on Fourth Avenue – the avenue of churches – in Brooklyn, New York. That church actually had the very same model organ that we have in our chapel – a Möller Artiste. Since then, I could conservatively estimate that I have played the organ for more than 5100 church services, most of them celebrated in English, quite of few of them in Latin, and a few of them in French or German. There have been several dozen synagogue services, too. That adds up to quite a few sermons and homilies I have heard over the years. With rare exception (generally a travel requirement that one check out of lodgings on a Sunday morning), I attend church services while on vacation. I don’t consider myself to be overly “pious.” And I am not patting myself on the back for this personal quirk of finding, shall we say, pleasure in being in and at church. But for me, Sunday morning is not about bagels and cream cheese, or mid-morning brunch, or Meet the Press, or running/jogging, or communing with nature, or reading the weekend edition of the newspaper. As I said, it not about some public (or private) display of piety — I’m really just a church geek.
Since I seem to have clocked a few thousand hours of sermon listening, odds are that I have heard a minister or two preach that well-known line, “The Church in not just the building – it’s more than just bricks, stones, and mortar” on more than one occasion. An addendum: I have seldom heard that party line preached outside of an actual church building, although I have heard it preached several times in churches with leaky roofs and peeling plaster.
In the end, most people of faith do worship inside a designated building — most of the time. A reasonable exception might be Blessing of the Animals or a baptism in the James River! Church buildings, whether grand or modest, are outgrowths of committed faith. This sense of respect for a building is a noticeable priority for the people of River Road, who exert great effort to maintain and enhance the beauty of our church buildings, and who work hard to ensure that our worship, fellowship, and teaching spaces are meaningfully equipped for the use of our congregation, our preschool, and our community. The main sanctuary of River Road Church, as it nears the 50th anniversary of its completion, is indeed an inspiring place to worship and pray. The founders deserve our gratitude for their faith and vision.
As many of us make preparations for the upcoming choir pilgrimage to historic cathedrals and abbeys in the West of England, we are prepared to be spiritually enriched by the inspiring altars, rood screens, columns, arches, and buttresses in and around the sacred spaces where we will sing. In 1993, I had the good fortune of spending a week at the Vatican and other Roman churches as part of a conference for church musicians — St. Matthew’s Cathedral sent me there as a way to enhance my musical and spiritual growth. One of the most deeply religious experiences of my life took place as I toured the “scavi” excavation, the tomb of St. Peter, under the high altar of St. Peter’s Basilica. It really fulfilled the deeper meaning of “pilgrimage.” It was called a church musicians’ conference, but it was also a pilgrimage for me. In 2014, a high school student named Virginia Tilley sang with our choir at Canterbury Cathedral — six services in one week. Virginia soon decided to study music in college with the goal of becoming a church musician. Her quote on Canterbury: “Oh my goodness, well, it started my whole journey!” During the same choir residency, we had trouble keeping Paul Honaker out of the cathedral. Sometimes, in the evening, just before closing, he would have to go inside “just one more time.” These stories of inspiration barely touch upon the deep spiritual value of choral singing in these buildings – for both the singers and the other worshipers.
The next time you hear the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (in their home church or on one of their famous tours); the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge (in their chapel or on tour); the Washington Cathedral Choir (at their cathedral, perhaps singing for John McCain’s funeral, or in their annual River Road concert); The Tallis Scholars (in concert at RRCB on December 2) or any choir that rehearses diligently for long hours (such as ours) — take a moment to appreciate the stones, bricks, and mortar that make it possible to sing God’s praises with poetry, acclamation, joy, and sincerity. And next summer, when members of our choirs sing God’s praises in Bristol, Bath, Tewkesbury, and Wells, we will pray that we are serving as musical missionaries, representing the thoughtful faith from a very special church in Richmond, Virginia.