Founder’s Day was established in 2010 on the hundredth anniversary of the birth of our Founder, Canon Markham. And its purpose is to remind us of our founding principles, to celebrate the story of which we are part and to look to the future as we look to build on the firm foundations on which we were built as members of the remarkable family that is the Morland Choristers’ Camp.
It is remarkable what a family we are. In the 9 years that I’ve been associated with Camp, I’ve got to know a number of people who belonged to Camp in previous generations, long before I knew anything about it. But what is remarkable is that we have an immediate connection. Their experience of Camp, in a different age, is the same as my experience of Camp now. During the summer, Oli Tarney and I were listening to a recording of Camp from the early 1990s and marvelling that the distinctive Morland sound we make when we sing was exactly the same as it is now. Completely unique, beautiful and unchanging. And no doubt, in 20 years’ time, long after my time, the essential Camp experience will be the same. The people change, the traditions evolve, but the spirit of Camp seems to endure from one generation to another.
And we, who have been privileged to be part of Camp, know what it is to be part of this family. Wherever we are the rest of the year, we belong deeply to each other. If we miss a camp (or in the case of our music director this evening, 22 camps!) we come back as though we had never been away. No-one is ever a former member of Camp. We may become former trebles or even former choristers, but never former members of Camp, because we always belong to one another. Camp is a constant part of our lives. It watches over our going out and our coming in and it marks the seasons of our lives.
This year, we’ve marked a number of important landmarks in our shared life. Very sadly, this year saw the passing of young Gervase Markham, the Canon’s grandson, who preached at Founder’s Day three years ago. He had fought a brave battle with multiple cancers for almost twenty years and his courage and faith in facing his suffering and death were exemplary.
And, more happily, this year marked Nick Willmer’s fortieth camp. You would be forgiven for not noticing, because it is typical of Nick that he wanted no fuss. He didn’t want the attention to be on him, but we, as the Camp family, hold that landmark dear. The amount that Nick has done for us over those forty years is more than any of us knows – it passes all understanding. He has worked for us with energy, with passion, with commitment and with distinction. But more than all that he has done, he has been to us a father figure. Particularly since the death of the Canon, Nick has been the natural father of camp and I know I speak for us all when I say that we love him and are profoundly grateful for his 40 years of service (so far).
Those distinguished members of the Camp family have done much to remind us of our founding principles. Gerv, when he preached to us in 2015 reminded us that his grandfather founded the camp because he believed that singing Church music was both fun and important.
Well, we can all testify to the fact that it is fun, yet perhaps fun hardly begins to describe it. The experience of singing together, of blending our voices in some of the most enchanting, moving and powerful music ever written is an experience of deep communion. In fact, I don’t think the spirit of Camp would be what it is without that experience of singing together. You could have the same people, the same games, the same jokes, but the spirit would not be the same. Singing is a ridiculous thing to do. It requires us to engage with our emotions and exhibit those emotions in a way that is most un-British. It requires us to believe that we can create something beautiful with our own voices. No-one is supposed to believe that. Whereas 100 years ago, singing was a normal thing for communities to do, nowadays the default assumption is that people can’t sing. I’ve heard it said of me many times – people who don’t know me, who’ve never heard me sing, have said, as though it was completely obvious, “Stewart? No, he can’t sing!” (Mind you, come to think of it, there have been people who’ve heard me sing who’ve said the same thing. It reminds me of a lovely fellow who sang in our church choir in London. It was a new choir and we were encouraging new singers, and this fellow had a lovely voice, but really struggled to stick to his own bass part. But he was very enthusiastic and one day, he came to the choir master and said proudly, “you may find this hard to believe, Matthew, but I’m signing in another choir.” And the choir master, without missing a beat, replied “Yes, dear boy, I noticed.”
But why would people who have never heard me sing assume that I can’t do it? I think it’s because they’ve come to believe that no-one ordinary could sing, certainly no-one they know. Singing is the preserve of the professionals, a community of freaks with a gift unavailable to normal humanity. Well, when we sing, we proclaim that that is not true, that ordinary people can produce, with their own voice, something that is transcendent and beautiful.
Our voice is such a deeply personal thing and proper modesty requires us to believe that our voices are humble, awkward things that ought to be kept down, kept discrete. To sing out requires courage and self-belief that most people think is preposterous. It requires us to come out of the shadows and let our lights shine. And that is a risk. We can only do it with people we trust – people we trust not to laugh at us, people we trust to believe in us, and people who will encourage us out of our shells, into the light to shine.
And to sing as a choir requires each of us to use our own individual voice. We don’t need to beautiful on our own. In fact, on our own we may sound like a foghorn, but together we become beautiful. Yet, we cannot achieve that beauty without each individual voice, for all its quirks and oddities. It is in coming together that we find our individuality and in expressing ourselves that we find our unity.
And this explains, I think, why singing praises to God is both fun and important, because this gets to the heart of our vocation as Christians.
This evening we are celebrating the feast of All Saints. And that is a celebration that reminds us that Christians are never solitary beings. It is not possible to be a Christian by yourself. We are only Christians when we relate together as Church. And Camp is a wonderful microcosm of that wider Church.
As Christians, we have an immediate connection with other Christians, even those of previous generations, stretching back not just through 48 years, but through the whole of human history. As Christians, we never cease to be Church members. Our roles and jobs might come to an end; we might become former-Choristers, former vicars, former this or former that, but we never cease to be part of the family. And as Christians, we find the courage to stand out, in the face of a world that says that it’s unseemly to be a follower of God and preposterous to be a Christian, a world that believes that we are a community of freaks, who should confine ourselves to the shadows and keep our voices silent. We, however, refuse to live our lives in the shadows. We insist on singing out, in letting our voices be heard and allowing our lights to shine.
The Church is a family where it is safe to be ourselves, a family that we trust not to laugh at us, and a family we trust to believe in us, to encourage us out of our shells, into the light to shine.
And above all, the Church is a family where our own individuality matters deeply. There is no-one else who can bring what we bring to the family. We don’t need to beautiful on our own. However much of a foghorn we might be alone, together we become beautiful. We belong to one another and it is together that we find our truest identity and unlock our inner beauty. Yet, we cannot achieve that beauty without each individual voice, for all its quirks and oddities. It is in coming together that we find our individuality and in expressing ourselves that we find our unity. And that’s why we keep coming back together, to remember our founding principles, to become more firmly part of the story and to build our future as part of a remarkable family.
So today we celebrate Camp and we celebrate the Church of All Saints of which Camp is but a small, exquisite part. A wonderful family of foghorns, freaks and oddballs, just like you, and together the most transcendently beautiful thing ever to appear in this world, sent from heaven to shine like a light in the darkness, most wonderfully fun and tremendously important. Amen.
Preached: – Morland, Founder’s Day 3 November 2018