Our founder and Hammond organ player, Miko Giedroyc, writes about how it all started for him, back in 2005...
Everyone thinks they know what gospel music sounds like. But I’ll never forget the first time I heard contemporary gospel music live in church. It was in 2002 at a small Pentecostal church in Tooting. After a chance meeting I’d been asked by their drummer to play keyboards. The Sunday service lasted five hours, five times as long as what I was used to, and individual songs lasted up to 20 minutes. But I was knocked off my feet by the sheer passion of the Christian message sung in powerful block harmony and over a soul music groove.
This was the music I’d been looking for. Jazz is beautiful, but let’s face it there’s a limit to the amount of meaning and emotion that can be invested in lyrics like “I got rhythm, I got music, who could ask for anything more?”
My initiation continued swiftly. Twinkie Clark’s solo on Amazing Grace reduced me to tears, and still does. I discovered Donnie McClurkin’s Victory Chant, Kurt Carr’s Kumbaya and Fred Hammond’s You Are The Living Word. And I was starting to meet players and singers in London, and quickly discovered that the gospel scene here, while all but invisible, is as weighty as the jazz and rock scenes, and only too willing to encourage a newcomer.
Beauty and meaning
I am a Catholic, and in musical terms my poor old church suddenly looked very threadbare. I could no longer find beauty or meaning in the post-1960’s liturgical music which is standard in most churches. And if I thought it was just me, I only had to look at my children (then aged 6 to 10) slumped over the pews and rolling their eyes as we sang a Gloria or Sanctus.
What could be done?
Encouraged and assisted by several British gospel musicians, most notably Lincoln Ramus, a Pentecostal pastor and Tracey Campbell, to my ear the British Aretha Franklin, I decided to form a choir to work in a well-attended Catholic church in Central London, with the objective of breathing contemporary gospel into tactfully and prayerfully into the Catholic Mass. Our music would be performed and produced to the highest possible standard. It would pass muster with any member of the iPod Generation.
The choir's first gospel music Mass... in 2005
Tracey agreed to direct the choir, I was by default its main keyboard player, and with commendable courage, Fr Alexander Sherbrooke gave us his 5pm Mass at St Patrick’s Soho Square. Our first Mass in September 2005 was attended by around 20 people – at our second Mass attendance dropped to around 5, teaching the newly formed St Patrick’s Gospel Choir its first important lesson, that contemporary gospel isn’t for everyone (a couple of years later, however, weekly attendance was consistently around 120 people).
Other challenges came very quickly. I had assumed that there would be an endless supply of Catholic gospel music from the USA’s 50 million Catholics. Not a bit of it, and we had to write our own Mass settings and adapt well-known gospel standards to become 'psalm tones', capable of accommodating lyrics of any shape and length (luckily the choir contained several talented composers, notably Edwin Fawcett).
Second, gospel music is naturally very ebullient: within the Catholic Mass there is great need for calm, and more importantly, the music must never compete for the spotlight, which belongs to the Eucharist itself. We had to work hard to rein in the music’s firework tendency.
Third, we discovered that there is not enough thematic diversity in contemporary gospel to reflect the differing seasons in the Liturgical calendar, and almost no gospel music on specific themes (for example, Mary). Even more original music was therefore written.
Fourth, we found that word spreads very slowly, glacially in fact: after five years at St Pats singing our hearts out every Sunday, and having sung on BBC Radio 4 and at several cathedrals and been written up in newspapers, our efforts were still essentially unknown by anyone except our congregation.
Finally, the biggest challenge: to get the congregation to sing with us, especially in the Mass parts and psalm.
A decade later
Other expected hurdles proved easier to clear. We quickly found that there were musically-gifted Christians of all denominations – and even some non-churchgoers - who were keen to sing and play in the choir in St Patrick’s for little or no financial gain. We found that our music was received enthusiastically by a significant proportion of churchgoers, and ecstatically by an important minority.
More than ten years on, the choir, whose name changed in 2010 to Soul Sanctuary when it moved from St Patrick’s to Farm Street Catholic Church and St James’s Anglican Church in Piccadilly, is a happy mix of denominations and has grown physically and musically under the leadership of 'home-grown' directing talent (Marie Benton, Alison Beck, Clarence Hunte and Chris Bullock). It still faces huge challenges – notably in the areas of congregational participation and of 'planting' our music in other churches. It also remains voluntary, and thus dependant on the willingness of big-hearted singers to sing for nothing, and the graciousness of our two churches.
But in conjunction with those churches and with God’s grace it flourishes in its ministry: hundreds attend our Farm Street Mass, attendance is growing steadily at St James’s and we are regularly humbled and inspired by positive feedback.
Would you like to hear the choir sing live? Soul Sanctuary sing contemporary gospel music at Farm Street Catholic Church (6.15pm, last Sunday of the month) and St James's Piccadilly (6pm, second Sunday of every month). All are welcome, just turn up!