Often when I go to my stall in the Cathedral to get my prayer books ready for the service there is some music playing. Organ music. So it was a real change yesterday evening that the background music to my pre-prayer activities was a soulful rendition of ‘When A Child Is Born’. And who is that singing? Joe McElderry. And accompanying him? Rick Wakeman.
My next task of preparation is to get vested: that is, put on my robes. Between me and them, however, Kathryn Tickell is sitting on the floor doing her hair. Someone has set up an ironing board too. And among the colourful and heavy vestments already laid out for Sunday, various performers’ stage clothes are just as carefully organised.
Robed and ready for the daily evening service, there is chance to talk to the friendly staff from the Sunderland AFC Foundation and the County Durham Foundation who are on duty for what is going to be the most spectacular of Christmas Concerts: ‘Carols of Light’.
But first Evensong. Men’s voices: plainsong and Latin words sung to the beautiful music of Cristόbal de Morales – the Spanish renaissance composer of the early sixteenth century. We prayed for those suffering the blast of icy storms across the country and all ravaged by extremes of weather across the world, and that true light would be shone by the events late that evening: that it would truly be carols of light.
I was fortunate enough to attend as the guest of a company of architects and sat with a Quantity Surveyor and a couple of engineers who are collaborating on a major Cathedral development project. ‘You come in here every day… does the wow factor ever wear off?’ Newcastle supporters all, they were delighted to be at this event which was a joint Durham-Sunderland venture. We talked about the old St James’ Park and how they as teenagers (and I as a Durham student in the 1970s) had popped in to watch matches at half-time when the gates were opened to let people leave early. We were sorry about the loss of something for nothing opportunities like that for young people and we shared our worries about growing levels of youth unemployment.
The Cathedral was beautifully illuminated within. The best lighting rig since Sting recorded ‘On A Winter’s Night’ here two years ago. The Salvation Army Band were a wonderfully atmospheric warm-up act. We all stood to welcome the Royal guest, to be welcomed ourselves and to sing the carols. Readings, from the Bible and elsewhere, moving and amusing, were read by the likes of Sir Tim Rice, Kate Adie and the Countess of Wessex herself… oh and Kevin Ball and, oh yes, and children from Belmont C of E school and Gillas Lane Primary School.
Rick Wakeman told us the story of his piano accompaniment to Cat Stevens’ no1 hit ‘Morning has Broken’ and then played it on the brand new Cathedral piano. Later he played his ‘Nursery Rhyme Concerto’ – familiar tunes in the style of great composers, except that one of the ‘great composers’ is Dawson, Les… If you need a smile, watch an earlier performance on You Tube. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UB7RpAtfajM
The Cathedral’s girl and boy choristers were on the stage all evening. It was a two-hour marathon of best behaviour interrupted only by beautiful singing. Children from the Cathedral’s Music Outreach project also sang and reminded us of one of the purposes of the event: to support young people of the area and to allow some, at least, to develop their musical aptitude in the Cathedral choir. And if anyone doubts whether it is really going to happen that an ordinary local lad or lass is going to do that, they just need to be reminded that one of the first young stars to be found through the scheme went on to become a BBC Chorister of the Year. The new Bishop of Durham, who said the final prayer and blessing, wants the church to use the language of success and failure more easily. Well here is a place to start: and it is the ‘S’ word that is relevant: big time.
And so the evening sped by, with Sir Thomas Allen commanding the Cathedral with ‘The Little Road to Bethlehem and Clare Teal moving everyone deeply with her interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Halleluiah’, a song that bears all the repetition it gets. Alan Price reminded us what a friend we had in Jesus and Barbara Dickson offered a version the ancient hymn ‘Creator of the Stars of Night’.
It was, of course, a fund-raiser. The Cathedral’s Music Endowment will be the stronger for it, and so too the Sunderland AFC Foundation, which goes great work encouraging purposeful and worthwhile activity, developing skills in the young and raising their aspirations will be able to develop their work yet further. These are difficult days for many, but in the North East the recession is biting especially deep and hard. Like the winter wind in Laurie Lee’s poem, ‘Christmas Landscape’, which South Shields MP David Milliband read, it has teeth of glass.
And so the final question. Were the prayers at evensong answered? Did true light shine?
Yes it did. Those of us lucky enough to be present saw, heard and felt not just moving performances and stunning lighting effects, but the collaboration of talent and hope which life at its best is all about. In the final reading we heard the words: ‘In him was light, and the light was the light was the life of men.’ This whole event was about light as the purpose, meaning and hope of ordinary life. But it also reminded us that there is no such thing as ‘ordinary’ life. True life is what matters and the word ‘ordinary’ is far too mundane to do it justice.
True life is life infused with the light of love, the light of God and the light of potential being fulfilled, however fleeting the moment. Life becomes light when lived in a world where those who have done well care about those who are struggling, and where all come together to be humbled and inspired by the true light which comes from the creator of both stars and mortals.
As we slipped away into the evening, the winter wind bared its teeth threateningly. It was enough to make anyone one shiver – but only a little. Looking up, the sky was clear and the stars were shining with a brightness that no wind, however chill, could diminish. You could say we had seen the light in the carols, the light which no darkness can overcome. Ever.