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Choir Residency in Lincoln: A Reflection

by Rachel Evangeline Barham

It was Sunday evening, our last day at Lincoln Cathedral, and we had sung evensong every day since the previous Monday. We’d had conversations with local people (who were intrigued by our American accents), getting to know more about them, their small city, their county, and their nation. Like at Epiphany, much of thier ministry is to people experiencing homelessness, and several of their parishioners have done so. We had eaten together, played together, and prayed together. Staying out in the county, we had gotten to know the land from which the city rose (literally, on something called Steep Hill). We had toured the Cathedral – which for 238 years was the tallest building in the world – and learned about the quirkiness of the architecture: things collapsed and had to be rebuilt, miscalculations were made, and it didn’t come out just right, especially in the vaulted ceiling above the 14th-century carved wood choir stalls.

photo of asymmetrical vaulting on the ceiling of Lincoln Cathedral
Wacky Vaulting, Lincoln Cathedral

Our daily prayers had commemorated anniversaries of deaths that had occurred on that day in the 15th, 18th, 20th centuries, as well as prayers for people who had died in the course of building the Cathedral, the majority of whom had no other choice of livelihood and were forced into that dangerous work. We prayed for the hungry and the overfed, for the victims of the fires in Greece, for those being detained, for the local farmers suffering with the drought, and for peace among nations. We learned how grateful Lincoln is to the people of the US who, through private fundraising efforts, paid for major repairs on the Cathedral in the 1920s. That effort included the first overseas tour of Lincoln’s copy of the Magna Carta (one of four copies in existence), the Great Charter of 1215 on which much of the US Constitution is based. It includes the phrases

"No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land."

"To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice."

Some of us were able to see the actual document, preserved on the skin on some anonymous but very important sheep. We had laughed with the people at the Cathedral about the challenges of having an old building, Epiphany’s having started construction in 1844 and Lincoln’s in 1072.

graffiti from 1256 and 1821 at Lincoln Cathedral
Graffiti, Lincoln Cathedral

Now it was Sunday evening, and we had sung three services that day, the last of which was a civic service to bless the Lincolshire county council, full of pomp, circumstance, and fabulous hats. Afterwards, we gathered in the space behind the main altar where we’d been told the best acoustic was, for a final benediction in song, a goodbye to this place that had treated us so kindly and changed many of us. As we sang Stephen Paulus’s “The Road Home” (a piece that will tug at your heartstrings any day), people who had attended the civic service started walking up to us one by one, following the sound of the music. Instead of immediately pulling out their phones to start recording, they were just listening, obviously touched by the music. Even the most jaded of us were moved to tears by this spontaneous gathering at the culmination of such a profound experience. We felt ourselves joining the countless, mainly anonymous others who had carved animal figures in wood or stone; laid stone upon stone; sung praises to God; figured out how to hoist entire trees up to build the roof; railed with the psalmists against injustice; gone through religious/political transitions in which the choice was to convert or be put to death; lost everyone they knew in the plague, left graffiti on the pillars after a long pilgrimage by foot; cried with joy; cried with grief; and done all they knew to do to make sense of life. Now it was our time, our short and fleeting time to create, to love, to serve, to move others, to give thanks.

Epiphany Choir at Lincoln Cathedral
Epiphany Choir at Lincoln Cathedral

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