Richard Coles in the Church Times

A fascinating interview in the Church Times this weekend with the ex-Communard, now parish piest, the Rev Richard Coles. Here’s the excerpts that I found the most powerful and intriguing.

Wasn’t his sexuality an issue? “I think sexuality is always an issue for everyone. If they were startled by my luridly gay past, they didn’t say so. I’ve always tried to be honest with people, and they’ve always tried to be generous back. For some people, this has become the issue of orthodoxy and legitimacy – but I think the rest of us are a bit more fluid than that now. My experience in parishes is that people are just more and more used to gay people being unremarkable.”

Nethertheless, far more is demanded of gay ordinands than of others – namely celibacy. “The standard that is required of you in accord with Resolution 1.10 of the Lambeth Conference is that you have to be celibate. I personally don’t have much time for the Resolution, but it’s not about what I think. It’s about how, at the moment, we struggle to maintain some sort of coherence around a deeply unsatisfactory compromise. Well, you know, there’s nothing new about being an Anglican and doing that. people make their acommodation with Resolution 1.10 in all sorts of ways. My own life conforms to it. So technically I’m ok.”

Is he celibate? “Yeah.” Because of the preiesthood? “It just kind of happened that way. Or rather it didn’t happen, if you know what I mean. It just sort of suits me. I hope there is nothing in any of my relationships that would cause a bishop to blush.”

The whole thing is a fascinating read.

I loved and still love the music that Richard Coles and Jimmy Somerville produced in the 80s. Sheer genius. This is my absolutely favourite track and just captures beautifully the tone of having lost a friend to HIV/AIDS.

77 Comments on “Richard Coles in the Church Times

  1. Yes, Fr Richard is a sound guy – indeed he and I were pen-friends for a while before he went to Mirfield.
    The most important sentence in the above is:
    "My experience in parishes is that people are just more and more used to gay people being unremarkable."
    And perhaps if this piece of intelligence were more widely known the issue would once again resume its correct place in the life of the Church.  i.e. peripheral and only an issue to those for whom it is an issue.  If many so concerned with the subject of homosexuality gave as much attention to their own morality and spiritual integrity the world would be a far better place!
    Of course this would remove the 'special' status afforded the issue – and the disproportionate interest some ministers and laity have regarding the subject.  It would also diminish other people's profiles in the church (I am sad to say there are some who have almost made a career out of the gay issue – or certainly used it as a means of furthering their own careers and their profile when mediocrity would have been their lot without the subject of homosexuality to boost their standing among the gaggle of other upwardly mobile clerics…).

    It is interesting to note that in all Fr Richard's time ordained he has never bored us with the subject of homosexuality.  He has just got on with his vocation when he could (as others have done) make it his area of expertise – but no, he has taken his ministry to be much more than talking about sexuality.  In a letter to me in 1994 (when he came out as a 'Christian') he wrote that he feared the BBC was trying to make him a spoke's person for gay Christians and he was not going to assume this role.  Hats off to Fr Richard is what I say!!



    • Alathia

      >>the issue would once again resume its correct place in the life of the Church. i.e. peripheral and only an issue to those for whom it is an issue.<<

      The problem is that it isn't a peripheral issue. It goes straight to the heart of our identity and hence who we are in Christ. The argument goes something like this …

      orthodox Christian: God created us as people, male and female, to live in relationship with Him and to worship and enoy Him for eternity. Gender, with its physical complementarities, ability to procreate and the powerful human dynamic of sex, is therefore foundational to who we are and how we relate to God. He therefore puts strong laws and boundaries on how we relate through gender and sexually, that include marriage, homosexuality, incest and bestiality.

      liberal gay Christian: But God created me gay and I have never known any other sexual desire than for the same-sex. And I experience that desire as beautiful and loving. As God created all things, including my sexuality, gay relationships are holy and to be celebrated as long as they follow other guidelines where God is clear and are committed loving and faithful.

      orthodox Christian: But how do you know that God created you gay? How do you know that experience is an accurate guide to your identity and how you see yourself?

      And so the debate that is well rehearsed on Peter's website starts …. :-)

      • Philip


        Thanks for this.


        It is odd, don't you think, that although Jesus, the figure that orthodox Christians would see as God incarnate, entering time and space, as the 'author and perfecter' of our faith, you'd think if sexuality was so important, there be more mention of it in the gospels, but this doesn't happen.  Indeed if you are familiar with patristic writing, the Spanish mystics, Bonheoffer – even John Stott or Tozer there isn’t a great deal of jawing on about sexuality there, is there?  I am not saying it is something that doesn’t need to be discussed, all I am saying is that it needs to be discussed within its proper context and proportion.



        • alathia

          The logical fallacy in your points are that because something (in this case homoseuxual behaviour) is not mentioned many times directly in the Bible it is not seen as important. While it is true that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality directly, whenever he spoke directly about sex He maintained the orthodox Jewish views of sexual morality.

          1. He set even stricter conditions for divorce than the Jews allowed at that time, allowing divorce only in the case of adultery.

          2. He repeated the orthodox Jewish view of marriage as being only between a man and woman.

          3. He taught and modelled that great compassion, love and a non-judgemental attitude is needed in dealing with sexual sin, when he met the woman caught in adultery.

          4. He maintained that even while we have compassion sexual sin is important and we should 'go and sin no more'.

          Let's addrss the point of context that you raise. Jesus did not need to say anything directly about homosexuality. Preaching in a Jewish context, the high value attached to the prohibition of homosexual conduct meant that He would not have needed to challenge His largely Jewish listeners. However, whenever He did speak directly about sexual behaviour He set a high standard of sexual behaviour and integrity beyond the customs of the Jews of his time. As Jewish teaching from the Old Testament prohibited homosexual behaviour and his teaching on sexual behaviour was stricter an orthodox biblical reading supports the continued prohibition of homosexual acts. As the first port of call for interpretation of scripture is its consistency with the rest of scripture itself, this interpretation is reinforced by the New Testament prohibitions of homosexual activity.

          The same point can be made in relation to the Christian writers that you cite. Throughout the history of the church, at least until relatively recently, it has maintained a strong and consistently conservative sexual ethic, which included the biblical prohibition of homosexual conduct. Christian writers did not need to emphasise this prohibition in their writings as this prohibition was essentially uncontested. No-one in the church was disputing the view that homosexual behaviour was a sin.

          Indeed, it is only in the modern period that the view that homosexuality is innate, rather than a behaviour, has been promoted. And this viewpoint follows in a direct line from the Victorian sexologists, especially from Sigmund Freud and his followers. It is only in the last few decades that this historically recent viewpoint has found support in the church as it has increasingly been influenced by secular worldviews, primarily under the impact of liberal theology.

          Indeed your citing of John Scott is a very good example of how what was not an issue in the church has become an issue as the church has moved away from the plain truth of scripture. 'Issues facing Christians today', published originally in two volumes in 1984 and 1985, but with updates since, decisively addressed the detrimental impact of sexual revolution on society. It strongly supported the orthodox view that homosexual behaviour is a sin. And, in my view, that is simply because while Christian writers of earlier generations did not need to address the essentially uncontested view of homosexual behaviour as a sin, by the 1980's John Stott most certainly did!

          • Spot on Philip,

            Here are some other moral issues that Jesus didn't mention very much: murder, rape, racial discrimination, sexism, nuclear war.  This raises the question: looking at the New Testament, how should we organise our moral thinking about “essentials” in the absence of unequivocal teaching from Jesus himself? I would suggest two possible answers: First, we can look to later apostolic writers, who give us some quite firm organisational and moral guidance. Take, for example, the vitally important question of how to deal with dissent and error in the Church. Where Jesus is more or less silent, the Pauline epistles have a great deal to say.

            Secondly, we need to think carefully about the recorded words and deeds of Jesus. He may not have left us a detailed teaching on a certain issue, but what He does do is to give us pointers as to how we should be thinking about ethical and moral issues. So, for example, when someone asks him about marriage, he does not just give them a pat answer, but instead refers back to Genesis and the creation story; that is, he refers to the original divine plan for human relationships.

            So in a sense, a more useful question than “why didn't Jesus say much about homosexuality?” is “how do homosexual acts fit in to the divine vision of human sexual relations as laid down by Jesus and the apostles, and as understood by the historical Church?”

            • WC

              Thanks for giving some powerful examples of how we consistently apply the scriptural principles while also taking its content seriously. One of my main disagreements with liberal theology is that is claims to use biblical principles of love, justice and equality, which are indeed important biblical principles. These however are then defined and applied with far greater reference to modern secular principles and to culture rather than a disciplined exegisis and analysis of what scripture actually says.

              Your example of how Jesus responds to the Pharisees questions about marriage by pointing them to the divine plan of Genesis is I think very powerful. Your framing of the question of how the Christian should view homosexual acts is also very helpful. It is pretty much how I responded at the time that I was struggling with same-sex attraction (SSA). It helped me tremendously to realise that God has a divine plan in sexuality and that homosexual acts are not part of that plan.

          • The view that homosexuality is simply a behaviour is no longer tenable; it isn’t, any more than heterosexuality is. Orientation and behaviour are two different things. People’s sexual behaviour tends generally to be in line with their orientation, of course, but it is not inevitably so. People may act contrary to their orientation for all sorts of reasons, the two most obvious examples being homosexual people who act heterosexually in an attempt to fit in with the “norm” and frustrated heterosexual people in closed single-sex communities (e.g. prisons) who act homosexually.


            I see no reason why we should be for ever bound by the thinking of past ages. We, being wiser than out forefathers, can profitably dispense with superstitions and irrational hang-ups which amused or burdened them.

            • William

              Perhaps that line in my earlier comment was a bit throw-away, although in my defence it was not my main point at that stage. However, clearly at the most basic level homosexuality is a behaviour, in that even for someone with a gay orientation one can choose whether or not to act on that orientation. I would not want to minimise the struggles of anyone with a same-sex orientation to not act on that orientation: indeed many gay Christians choose to not act out of love of God and faithfulness to the commands of scripture. I certainly agree that sexual orientation exists and that it is a very powerful thing in our lives!

              But your examples I think point to the criticism that I was pointing to in my raising of the Victorian sexologists. The way in which Freud and his followers changed the debate is, I think, underestimated. Indeed, if you read some of Peter Thatchell's pieces, Freud seems to be somewhat of a personal hero of his! And I can understand why.

              It is primarily from the work of Freud and the psychologists that followed him that sexual orientation has come to assume such a major role in modern culture. It is from their work that sexual orientation has come to be seen as having such a central role to the human psyche – as something that must be expressed and which is inherently damaging to not be expressed. It is also of course partly from their work that sex and sexuality have come to assume such a central part of modern culture.

              I would have liked to give you a link to a wonderful article I read a few years ago in hard copy (but have never found online), which argued that while the Victorians had taboos about writing and talking about sex but often wrote and talked about death (indeed ad nauseam if you read their novels!), modern culture is exactly the opposite! It is, I think, a very powerful point to make, and points to the problems of the highly sexualised society that we have, which many commentators are now writing upon.

              Consider what we seem to know from the research on sexual orientation:

              1. That the proportion of people with a true homosexual orientation (i.e. who never have an attraction to the opposite sex) is actually quite small. The figures that I have seen cited range from 1.5% to 3%.

              2. That the proportion of people with a bisexual orientation (i.e. who have experienced attraction to both sexes, in whatever proportions) is actually quite large. Again, I have seen figures cited that range up to 35% for men and 49% for women.

              3. That, as the body of research increases, there is increasing evidence that sexual orientation changes for significant proportions of people during their lifetime. I seem to remember a study that concluded that people will experience, on average, a change of 1 point on the 6 point Kinsey scale during their lifetimes (can anyone help me here?)

              One interpretation of these findings would be that sexual orientation is actually not that problematic, and that it is only a fairly small proportion of people that actually experience their orientation as unchangeable. Of course, that should not be taken to minimise the struggles of such people when their experienced orientation clashes with their beliefs!

              But it does, I think, point to something on which I have commented before, and something that we can usefully re-learn from the Victorians. When you consider the literature and history of that period there are many examples of same-sex activity (indeed Victorian public schools were fairly a hotbed of homosexual activity). But the vast majority of people seem to have grown up and had fulfilled lives in a marriage.

              Or simply just stopped having gay sex! My favourite example here is my personal hero as an economist, John Maynard Keynes. In his youth and young adulthood he was an enthusiastic partaker of 'rough trade'. With his mathematicians precision for detail he would document both the location of each encounter (rear building lifts at Claridges) and its characteristics (pretty blond bell-boy) and then cross-reference the two! As an active member of the bohemian 'Bloomsbury Set', his predilections were also well known, and there is no record of him having a significant sexual encounter with a woman.

              Then, in his late thirties – a common age for marriage by men at the time – he met and married a Russian ballet dancer who seems to have been the love of his life. And his gay encounters just stop – immediately! Keynes, an obsessive diarist, makes no further reference to any gay conquest. The Bloomsbury Set, where gossip was a stock-in-trade, make no reference to an same-sex activity. And any change in his orientation doesn't seem to have affected him negatively – he did all his best work as an economist after his marriage.

              So, was Keynes really a bisexual? Or did his sexual orientation undergo a sudden and dramatic change from homo- to heterosexual? Or, which is what I think, did he meet a woman that he really loved and, in an age and environment where sexual orientation had not assumed the huge proportions that it has today, he just decided to stop having gay sex?!

              (Incidently, if you visit websites about famous LGBT people in history you won't get any of this. Keynes is still a gay hero!)

              • Yes, maybe, but I see no need for “the struggles of anyone with a same-sex orientation to not act on that orientation.”

                • Absolutely, William. And I gather from a friend who runs a local branch here in Cambridge of an international gay group for older men called "Care and Friendship for Men over Sixty" is that a large proportion of their membership is or has been married, often widowed. Some of these men have known that they were gay all along but have decided to do something about it after lifelong marriage, while others say they have shifted in their orientation from straight to gay, though without the help of reparative therapy :-). But one thing seems clear, men's sexuality may not be quite as fluid as women's but it still can be fluid for many people. As far as numbers over gay people in the population, I think the figures from censuses have to be taken as only the tip of the iceberg. None of the men in CAFFMOS would tell anybody outside the group that they were gay, let alone fill in a census form to that effect. My friend tells me that after the monthly coffee-morning they trot dutifully back to their families who haven't a clue -there is no question about them coming out to rock the boat. So I think with Philip's numbers ranging from 1.5% to 3% would need to be factored up to quite an extent to get anything like a realistic estimate.

              • Philip, there is a portrait of Maynard Keynes with his wife the ballerina in the Arts Theatre which he had built for her. The general assumption seems to be that he married her as a beard, but maybe you are right. Unfortunately they are both too dead to ask :-)

              • You don't know that Keynes same sex encounters did stop, he may have just been more discrete about them, not diaried them any more and the Bloomsbury set may have just "closed ranks" about any indiscretions after he was married – or he may have become straight or have found someone of the opposite sex with whom he had a strong sexual bond. We don't know!

                I know married people who consider themselves not exactly straight , but more spouseosexuals. I've known political lesbians who choose to be with women on ideological grounds rather than orientation.

                But none of it matters unless you are keen to prove that one size fits all. It doesn't! People must make their own choices about the gender (and individual) they wish to be with without the pressure of "ought", "must" or "must not".

                • Exactly, Sue. And anyway it appears the second volume of his sex diaries was written in code that has yet to be decyphered, suggesting if nothing else, that he felt the need to be more discreet as he became more famous.
                  There is an interesting comment on how his homosexuality may have informed his economics:
                  It reminds me of something Leonard Bernstein said about being a musical genius: "You have got to be gay or Jewish – I am both so I've got it in Spades".

                  It may sound flip but perhaps it is not completely off the wall. Once you realise that you don't conform to the rigid standards set by the heteronormative world it frees you up to think laterally – or break taboos, if you like.


                  • 'People must make their own choices about the gender (and individual) they wish to be with without the pressure of “ought”, “must” or “must not”.'

                    'Once you realise that you don’t conform to the rigid standards set by the heteronormative world it frees you up to think laterally – or break taboos, if you like.'

                    I would be interested to know how these statements are integrated with Christian ethics.  I don't say that they can't be, but "do as you want without worrying about any prohibitions" and "feel free to undermine moral rules based on your personal feelings" don't seem to me to be obviously Christian perspectives on morality.

                    • “Do as you want without worrying about any prohibitions” and “feel free to undermine moral rules based on your personal feelings” don’t seem to me to be obviously Christian perspectives on morality.

                      Well, I didn't say either of those two things!

                       I am not interested in breaking taboos or prohibitions just for the sake of it – I can't speak for Tom. I am fairly conformist and conventional in my personal behaviour.  But I DO think personal feelings are important and so is moral choice. I can't see that it is particularly "moral" to enter into a heterosexual marriage when your personal feelings are wholly or largely homosexual and I think it immoral when individuals are coerced, either with overt or insidious pressure, to do this.

                      I don't see any contradiction between this and my Christian faith.

                    • Sue and WC, the rigid standards of patriarchal heteronormativity may not be morally defensible in the first place, such as the treatment of women as men's property which it might be argued is "biblical" in some quarters of the Christian world. But I was really trying to account for the fact that so many homosexual people seem to be highly productive. Just like Jews. The ability to think laterally about proscriptions imposed by authority or not treating taboos as necessarily moral may not be unethical at all. A case in point: an abbess in Italy was concealing a party of Jews in her convent. The offices asked "Are there any Jews here?". Should she lie to the Gestapo? Her answer was that she didn't when she said "No" because she was adding the unspoken words "there are no Jews under my habit". It is a casuistic answer intended to deceive so still a kind of lie. But I would argue that there are some circumstances, this being one, where you actually have a moral obligation to lie and break the formal Commandment.

                    • I agree with Sue entirely. Very well put. I would add that I also can’t see that it is particularly “moral” to attempt to make gays unhappy with their sexual orientation and to pressure them to try to change it or to attempt to discourage them from forming sexual relationships in conformity with their natural orientation. Quite the contrary, in fact.

                    • (This is an attempt to reply to William, Tom and Sue, but the 'reply' button does not appear to be available, so I don't know where it will appear!)

                      But where is God in all this self-satisfaction?  Are we called to be obedient to his Word or not?

                      We are a nation which has turned its back on God – and the fruits of this disobedience are around us.

                    • Fascinating, Jill, that you should think of a relationship in which two people love each other and share their lives together as “self-satisfaction”.


                      My reply to your question “Where is God?” would be the same as that given by the late Cardinal Hume when he was asked by reporters about gay relationships: “Ubi amor est, ibi Deus est.”


                      As for turning one’s back on God, I would remind you that “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

                    • Nothing wrong with love, William!  Love is something which cannot be explained by science, and yes, I believe it comes from God.

                      It is inappropriate sexualisation of this love which is against scripture and which I believe is forbidden by God. 

                      'Lord, let THY will, not MINE, be done'.

                    • But Jill, aren't you just a little bit nervous that in forbidding for others with such blinding certainty a sexual expression of love that is consensual and not abusive or harmful, but something you can't possibly experience yourself (as a happily-married heterosexual) you aren't being the least bit judgmental – "easy for you to say", and all that?  As it happens I think the Buddhist precept about the misuse of sex – avoiding anything that causes harm – is a much more rational and humane guide than the rules supposedly laid down by an Old Testament deity. As far as I can see, that God is a human construct, a character in a series of narratives; one who justifies the treatment of woman as property, who orders genocidal behaviour on several occasions, including the drowning of innocent children and the unborn in the Noah's Ark episode, one who plays horrific mind-games with Abraham. Everyone cherry-picks the Bible for the bits they like; I just think we must take what is humane and discard the hateful stuff.e.g.

                      "a blessing on anyone who seizes your babies and shatters them against a rock!" (Psalms 137:9, Jerusalem Bible)*

                      As it happens we as humans are not being self-satisfied, as you suggest, if our moral standards are higher than the diktats issued by a crazily jealous and psychotic deity. (IMHO. I may be wrong, of course, but one terrible indictment of the Christian religion as well as the Muslim is the doctrine of Hell – infinite punishment for finite crimes. What loving deity could possible do that let alone condone behaviour worse than Pol Pot, Idid Amin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein put together? No human court would, which is why human justice is superior to divine.)

                      Maybe I have got you wrong and you don't believe any of that; you seem such a nice cultured person, so I find it hard to think you actually would go along with sending anyone to Hell.

                      *When they first translated the liturgy into English the monks of Mount Saint Bernard's Abbey in the Charnwood Forest couldn't bring themselves to sing this verse in English, a verse monks had been happily chanting since St Benedict's time.

                    • Tom, I am not 'forbidding' anything – who am I to do that, for heaven's sake? Nor am I being judgmental. We have to make our own moral judgments.

                      This is what the Bible says. If you want to reinterpret it to mean the opposite of what it actually says, really I can't stop you, but you can't stop me from pointing out that this is contrary to what the Church has always taught. I beleive it to be right, and this has been proven by the chaos which has ensued since we turned away from the one man/one woman for life model.

                      I do not agree that because something is consensual it is not harmful. Often it is.

                    • I didn't mean that you personally forbade anything. Perhaps I should have said "consider it is absolutely proscribed". Nor do I wish to accuse you of being personally judgmental, though I do think when person finds homosexuality "sinful" that is a comparatively cost-free moral position for heterosexuals to take. The Catholic Church following St Paul, considers celibacy a "calling", a special grace not given to everyone, yet it suddenly becomes not a calling but an obligation if you find yourself a Kinsey 6 homosexual.

                      But Jill, don't you think there is a problem with treating the Bible as if it had a single "good" meaning? I mentioned some examples above of where I think the Bible is immoral but you didn't say if you could explain them, if you accepted them at face value, or if you rejected them. So where do you stand on Hell?

                      The ancients used to say that there were up to 5 levels of meaning that any one story in the Bible could have. Not every one had all 5, of course. Origen said that no sensible person thought that a snake could talk yet today there are evangelicals who say every word of the Bible is literally true – i.e. they treat everything in the Bible on the same level. That is clearly at variance with the way the ancient Church Fathers viewed the meaning of scripture.

                    • Amusingly enough, Tom, the schism in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands in 1926 was the result of a dispute over whether the serpent in the Garden of Eden was given the power of speech and spoke to Eve in Hebrew or whether the story was an allegory.

                      An appeal to “what the Church has always taught” is all very well, Jill, but what the Church teaches can change. For centuries the Church taught that to accept any interest at all on a loan was a sin because “This is what the Bible says”, and the teaching was confirmed repeatedly by Popes and Councils. After the Reformation Luther continued to teach this, but Calvin jettisoned it, although he had no scriptural warrant for doing so. Nowadays, of course, many of the churches are themselves in the business of lending money at interest, and it is on the accumulation of interest that a great many people – including the clergy – depend for their pensions.

                      The phrase “the resurrection of the body” in the Apostles’ Creed was meant in the most literal sense when that creed was first formulated and was so understood by Christians right down the centuries. Indeed, anyone who had the temerity to suggest otherwise would have risked excommunication and, in some countries at certain periods, burning for grave heresy. Today very few Christians (apart from odd sectaries like the Jehovah’s Witnesses) seriously believe that the body which is buried in the grave or consumed in the crematorium will at some future date be reconstituted and resuscitated.

                      I agree that even a loving, consensual sexual relationship can be wrong for a number of reasons, the two most obvious being that one or other of the parties (or both) is breaking a commitment to someone else, and that one of the parties is being taken advantage of (as in paedophilia). No doubt, if we put our minds to it, we can think of others. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that the relationship is between two people of the same sex isn’t one of them.

  2. Quite a moving song, Peter.
    There is a story about Fr Coles in the Indy. It may be the same as the one in the CT but you do not have to subscribe to access it.
    It is laudable that he doesn't feel the need to beat himself up about his sexuality.
    BTW in case people haven't seen the schedules and are interested BBC3 is screening a programme about being gay in Uganda tonight – 9pm

  3. Interesting to hear your singing experiences, Peter and Tom. Nothing so grand for me – a very ordinary alto with not a very big range – although I usually sang soprano in the church choir, mainly because they were short of sopranos, and just had to mime anything above f sharp, which I could just about manage on a good day (with a prevailing wind).

    Alto lines for hymns are dire – usually three notes at the bottom of my register. We are all jealous of the top-liners. I thought you might be amused to read the Alto's Lament – not written by me, alas, but will have every alto nodding.

    Alto's Lament

    It's awful being an alto when you're singing in the choir,

    Sopranos get the twiddly bits that people all admire,

    The basses boom like big trombones, the tenors shout with glee,

    The alto part is on two notes, or if you're lucky, three.

    And when we sing an anthem and lift our hearts in praises,

    The men get all the juicy bits and telling little phrases.

    Of course, the trebles sing the tune – they always come off best –

    While altos only get three notes and twenty-two bars rest.

    It doesn't matter what we sing, from hymnbooks or from psalter,

    The choirmaster looks at us – our voices start to falter;

    Too high! Too low! Too fast! Too slow! You hold that note too long!

    It doesn't matter what we do, it's certain to be wrong

    Oh! shed a tear for altos: they're the Martyrs and they know

    In ranks of choral singers they're considered very low.

    They are so very humble that a lot of folk forget 'em:

    They'd love to be sopranos, but their vocal chords won't let 'em.

    And when the final trumpet sounds and we are wafted higher,

    Sopranos, tenors, basses, all will form the heavenly choir.

    When they sing Alleluias to celestial flats and sharps,

    We altos in the corner will be polishing our harps.

    • Perhaps you could discover your inner soprano Jill, just like Bejun discovered he was not a mere baritone some years after his voice broke. Always sad for a top class boy soprano, as Bejun was apparently, when his adult voice isn't up to much. I wonder if Aled Jones has tried CT?

          • I haven't read the book you are talking about, Tom, but I imagine it is about something unpleasant they used to do to chaps to make them sing beautifully!

            Thank you for posting the videos, Peter. I have listened to them through twice – it is lovely to hear this piece in its entirety. I have taken part in many public performances of Messiah (another one coming up at the beginning of April, at St Alban's Abbey – no plug intended! – not with a counter-tenor, alas) and it is always pruned, which is a pity because it is such a moving piece and it gives the choir a chance of a sit-down. But I suppose they have to get everybody out of the buildings at a reasonable hour, and it is quite long.

            Having been put in a thoroughly self-indulgent mood by listening to all this lovely music, let me add one of my favourites – Ombra mai fu, or Handel's Largo, performed by Andreas Scholl. Have hankies at the ready. Watch it through to the end, and see what he says about his voice.

  4. Personally, I don’t go much for counter-tenors. Their voices lack variation in tone colour. Give me a lovely contralto any day, like the marvellous Dutch singer Aafje Heynis. It’s a thousand pities that the CDs of her are very difficult to get hold of in the UK; I bought all of mine in Amsterdam.

    • William, at times her voice reminded me of Kathleen Ferrier. Anyone else think so?

      The reply link is very visible now, Peter.

      Jill, the premise of The Alteration is that the Reformation hadn't reached England or made real inroads in Europe and one of consequences was that there was (a) no Enlightenment and (b) the great cathedrals still used castrati. I am not sure castrati were ever used in Anglican services, were they Peter? – though Handel used them in his operas. I expect you saw Farinelli*. No one really knows what a castrato in his heyday really sounded like – supposed to be pretty wonderful – except for a wax-cylinder recoding of Alessandro Moreschi the last Papal castrato.

      It sounds sad and rather desperate, maybe because Moreschi was old and his voice had gone (and because recording technique was still pretty primitive). He was conductor of the Sistine Chapel choir 1883-98. You can download the complete Vatican recordings which includes Leo XIII reciting the Ave Maria from here:

      *For Farinelli they engineered the sound from both a soprano and a tenor.

      • Tom, I agree with you that Aafje Heynis’s voice is a bit reminiscent of Kathleen Ferriers’s. I prefer her to Ferrier. I feel that people’s character manifests itself in some indefinable way in their singing voices. Ferrier, I gather from reading a biography of her some years ago, was inclined to be a bit bossy and supercilious, whereas Heynis was a more unassuming lady, and I think that this can be detected in their respective voices. (Similarly, I think that Pavarotti sounds a nicer person than Domingo.)

        One of the people who, I believe, was instrumental in putting a stop to the practice of castrating choirboys was Don Lorenzo Perosi, a priest from Tortona, whom Pope Leo XIII appointed as Maestro Perpetuo of the Sistine Chapel in 1898 and who held that position for more than fifty years. Perosi has long been a hero of mine: although I don’t think rate his oratorios highly, I think that some of his Masses and sacred motets are among the most beautiful ever composed. Even if he had never composed anything other than his “O sacrum convivium” and “Tu es Petrus”, his memory would deserve to be venerated for those alone. In fact, I went to Tortona a few years ago to pay my respects at his tomb in the cathedral.

        • I didn't know that it was formally stopped by a single man, William. It was a barbaric practice not only because it deprived the child of his reproductive rights (unclear if it took away all his sexual desire or capability) but also because of the severe health issues such as obesity in later life. People only now are objecting to routine infant circumcision but this was way worse. Oddly the Church condemned RIC fairly early on but it has largely been overlooked by the Bishops and Catholic parents in the States, and here until the NHS refused to sanction it unless medically indicated. Castration, on the other hand, had no religious meaning. A castrato was barred from receiving Holy Orders because you have to be an intact male for them to take.

          Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, Sess. 11, Feb. 4, 1442:

          "[The Catholic Church] firmly believes, professes and teaches that the legal prescriptions of the old Testament or the Mosaic law, which are divided into ceremonies, holy sacrifices and sacraments, because they were instituted to signify something in the future, although they were adequate for the divine cult of that age, once our lord Jesus Christ who was signified by them had come, came to an end and the sacraments of the new Testament had their beginning. Whoever, after the passion, places his hope in the legal prescriptions and submits himself to them as necessary for salvation and as if faith in Christ without them could not save, sins mortally. It does not deny that from Christ's passion until the promulgation of the gospel they could have been retained, provided they were in no way believed to be necessary for salvation. But it asserts that after the promulgation of the gospel they cannot be observed without loss of eternal salvation. Therefore it denounces all who after that time observe circumcision, the Sabbath and other legal prescriptions as strangers to the faith of Christ and unable to share in eternal salvation, unless they recoil at some time from these errors. Therefore it strictly orders all who glory in the name of Christian, not to practice circumcision either before or after baptism, since whether or not they place their hope in it, it cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation."

          • Tom, it was, in fact, Pope Leo XIII who finally put a stop to the practice of using castrated choirboys. He was said to have always been against it, but it was only in the last year of his pontificate, in February 1902, that he explicitly outlawed it. Perosi was one of the principle agitators for the abolition of the practice, and it was he who, when he was only Co-Director of the Sistine Chapel Choir, gradually replaced the castrati as they died off or retired with boy sopranos and contraltos. By the time that he became Maestro Perpetuo there were only three castrati left (Moreschi, Salvatori and Sebastianelli). Perosi, it has to be said, was kind to them and let them stay on, but no more castrati were ever allowed into the choir.

            The practice was undoubtedly a very cruel one. “Talent spotters” would go round the parish churches of Italy listening for boys with promising voices and would sometimes offer the boys’ parents, who were often very poor, money for their sons. In those days of zero or minimal sex education, many of the unfortunate boys didn’t understand the significance of what had been done to them and hoped one day to become husbands and fathers; it had to be eventually explained to them that this was never going to be possible. Furthermore, many of them, after some years of vocal training, were judged not to be good enough after all and were sent back home to their families, in one very important sense poorer on their return than on their departure.

            In 1907 Cardinal Antonio Agliardi congratulated Perosi not only on the beautiful music that he was providing in the papal chapels, but also on the revolution that he had brought about: “The old system was artificial, a relic of barbarous times, and an affront to the dignity of the Church. You instead remind us that the psalmist invited children to sing, that children went before Jesus singing on his entry to Jerusalem, and that we read of St Gregory that he taught singing to children.”

            (LEONARDO CIAMPA, Don Lorenzo Perosi, 2006; GRAZIELLA MERLATTI, Lorenzo Perosi: Una vita tra genio e follia, 2006)

            • Thanks for the reference, William. I think the counter-tenor is an acquired taste but once you've heard a really good one and got past the strangeness it can be beguiling.

              BTW did anyone see the documentary last night about the recording company looking for a choir of nuns to put on disk for their Christmas release? Eventually after a long search the nuns of Le Barroux made Voices from Avignon which got to No 1 in the classics.

                  • You need to register a new account a using the same email address that you use to register/post here. What your username is doesn't matter – Gravatar picks up on your email address and uses that as the identifier.

                    If Jill can do it, you can too!

                    • I get this message


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                      When I do this it doesn't recognise my email address.

                    • Hey!! What are you trying to say??

                      Well, okay, okay, I'm not much of a techie, but I do admit I already have a wordpress account so perhaps that is why it wasn't so difficult.

  5. Do you think the similarity of the voices has anything to do with the era in which they sang? In another thread we have seen this with choirboys' voices – they had a certain similarity to each other and very little resemblance to today's choirboys.

    • It's an interesting idea, Jill. Ferrier's voice was very distinctive, but then so was Flagstad's and Nilsson's. Do you find you prefer certain voices for certain music, e.g. Flagstad for the Wesendonck Lieder or Elisabeth Schwartzkopf for the Four Last Songs? (I had Beim Schlafengehen at my Dad's funeral but with Jessie Norman because Dad preferred her even though I otherwise go with Schwartzkopf).

      I like your gravatar – you are a cat lover obviously.

      • Thanks Tom – yes, we once had five cats but are now down to two. They are idle, greedy and selfish, and they totally ignored the mouse problem we had a while ago, but we love them just the same.

        My dad was a huge fan of Kathleen Ferrier, and the very mention of her name brings back memories of his collection of scratched 78s – especially Blow the Wind Southerly – which was practically played through to the other side on his ancient gramophone. I do tend to go for rich voices such as Jessye Norman and other black singers. Willard White is another favourite. As I mentioned on another thread, one of the great privileges of belonging to choirs is being able to share a stage with the world's greatest and best conductors and soloists, and I have shared one with him a couple of times. Not only does he have the kind of dark brown voice which makes my toes curl up, but he is a really lovely man.

        Occasionally, however, I find a particular voice tugs at my heartstrings for no particular rhyme or reason, and Andreas Scholl has one of those. Hearing him just brings a lump to my throat.

        • Now Jill has bagged the cat pic I've got to find something else :-)

          Actually in Buddhism, so Sangharakshita the founder of the FWBO said, bodhisattvas are not supposed to keep cats because they show no compassion – in fact all the things you say about them Jill. It doesn't seem to stop monasteries in Thailand being very hospitable to their cat population though.

    • Jill, I don’t think that it’s solely the era, but that does, I’m sure, have a great deal to do with it. Vocal training techniques have changed, perhaps because tastes have also changed. If you listen, for example, to the recordings of coloratura sopranos of the first half of the twentieth century like Amelita Galli-Curci, Lucrezia Bori and Toti dal Monte (who on the high notes sounds like a spoilt little girl who needs smacking and on the low notes like a nagging Italian wife) you realise that it’s not just that we don’t have voices like that any more, but that sopranos aren’t trained to sing like that any more.

      With regard to boys’ voices, the sound varies from country to country, again because of training methods. The traditional “Anglican hoot” is a long way from the more metallic sound of the Vienna Boys’ Choir or the Regensburger Domspatzen or the even shriller sound of the Sistine Chapel. The individual choir director can also make quite a difference. I notice, for instance that the boys of the Regensburger Domspatzen now have a mellower (and, to me, more pleasant) tone under their present choirmaster than they had during their years under Georg Ratzinger (the present Pope’s brother).

  6. Goodness, William, you are very knowledgeable about the human voice. Are you a singing teacher by any chance, or just an enthusiast? 

    Since God invented You Tube I have been able to listen to all these ladies, and I have to admit I like the voices of that era.  There is something fresh and clear about them, and I wonder how they would sound if they were recorded with today's technology.

    Tom, I haven't bagged all the cats, only one – there are lots of cute kitties on Google Images (we have to keep our fingers crossed about copyright issues).  Or perhaps a puppy?

    • No, Jill, I’m not a singing teacher, just something of an enthusiast. I was a choirboy from the age of eight onwards, and until I moved recently to another part of the country I was for some years organist and choirmaster at my local RC church. My mother inherited the family collection of 78 records (mostly Italian opera) and the apparatus to play them on, so I eventually learnt to appreciate the voices of sopranos like Galli-Curci etc. and of tenors like Beniamino Gigli and Tito Schipa. It is indeed a great pity that modern recording techniques hadn’t been developed when they were around.

  7. That's interesting!  None of the RC churches I have ever been in have had any choral tradition at all.  Are you RC?  Not that I am nosey or anything (!) but have you crossed the Tiber in this direction?  Ignore this question if you wish!

      • Yes, it is one of the ways you know you are at an Anglican High Mass and not a Catholic one is that all the priests processing in are singing the entrance hymn at the tops of their voices.

    • Yes, I am a Roman Catholic, although by now a fairly marginal one.


      There used to be a good choral tradition in the RC church in this country, although I don’t remember those days. What is left of it is now confined mostly to RC cathedrals like Westminster and a few large RC parishes in big cities.


      My local RC parish church was one of the very few provincial ones that had kept up the choral tradition. Yes, it did provide a “folk” Mass every week for families with small children, but the music of the High Mass was traditional. We used the easier Gregorian settings of the Mass, in which the congregation joined with great fervour, and the choir usually made its own contribution to the celebration with a motet in either Latin or English at the Communion or the Offertory. As a small parish choir, we naturally weren’t up to Palestrina or Victoria, but our repertoire included Mozart, Haydn, Cherubini, Perosi, Webbe, Terry, Saint-Saëns and Elgar, as well as some of the Anglican composers like Attwood, Wesley, Stainer and Goss.

  8. It's a terrible shame, Jill. In the centre of Cambridge the Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs has a wonderful Abbott & Smith organ designed by the then University Professor of Music, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and refurbished in 2002.
    I went to a recital Tim Byram-Wigfield gave before his departure from Jesus College to become director of music of St George's Windsor Castle. Because the fundamentalists in the congregation didn't want the church used for "secular" music, we had to wait for the church to be formally closed and then re-opened with the permission of the parish priest – and all he played was Bach and Messien – none of your Blackpool Tower Ballroom favourites! The fundies only want things like "Soul of My Saviour" played on it! :-(

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