Religion & Liberty Online

Bare Ruined Choir Schools

(Image credit: St. Thomas Choir School)

It may seem quaint, a school for the training of a boys’ choir, but it may just be the only thing standing between a nation that treasures beauty and order, and mere nostalgia for an extinct civilization. And when it goes, like the dodo, it will almost certainly not return.

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My news feed early last month included updates on an ongoing drama involving two animals, both from endangered species. Zookeepers in Fort Worth and in Cleveland breathed a sigh of relief when Jameela, a western lowland gorilla born at the Fort Worth Zoo that had been abandoned by her mother, was accepted by Freddy, a Cleveland gorilla who has successfully fostered orphaned and abandoned gorillas before. Concurrently, a weeping South Korean zookeeper was photographed saying his final goodbyes to Fu Bao, a four-year-old giant panda he had raised since birth but now was being transferred to a conservation program in China.

For the first time in history, humans have the knowledge and the resources to intervene when an animal species is under threat of extinction. Many species have disappeared, and natural history museums are filled with their skeletons as reminders that what are now lifeless vestiges were once living, breathing, and vibrant creatures that walked the earth or filled the skies and seas. While not human, they were once living, and their physical remains give only glimpses of what they were like in life. We will probably never be able to fill in all the gaps to understand how they lived, what they ate, and how they responded to their environment.

Other things in our world that face a slow decline toward extinction are often not represented by a cute face to inspire efforts to rescue their relegation to history. Entire languages, for example, have gone extinct or are nearing extinction. Linguists have rushed to construct written alphabets and grammars, record what they can from native speakers in books, and create audio recordings. Once the last native speaker dies, however, the unique turns of phrase and the nuanced inflections that hint at nuanced human emotions will die, too. Museums and libraries can preserve artifacts that we can study to construct incomplete portraits of a flying pterodactyl or an extinct language’s poetry. But this is not a substitute for a body animated by life or a language articulated by a tongue.

Earlier this spring, word got out that a unique cultural and religious institution in New York City is now imperiled by financial difficulties. The St. Thomas Choir School is one of the world’s last Anglican choir boarding schools. For the past century, the school has provided the treble voices for St. Thomas Choir of Men and Boys, the flagship choir of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Midtown Manhattan. Not many churches within the Anglican Communion have operated such schools, but they have not been uncommon either. But now these schools have reached the status of “critically endangered,” as has the unique English choral tradition. “For four hundred years [the] prayers and hymns, recited by the congregation and priest in the spacious splendor of cathedrals or the simple dignity of the parish church, have given English families inspiration, consolation, moral discipline, and mental peace.” For better or worse, it has done the same for tens of millions of others around the world, too.

It’s not that we can’t learn about religions from prayer books, sacred writings, recordings, and similar items used or created by religious communities. But these, like fossils, also are merely artifacts that once served something alive and vibrant.

My family’s home parish, in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, worships in a building that is just over 110 years old. Despite being in the southwest, it has everything a mainline Episcopalian from the Northeast (which I am not) or a redneck convert from the South (which I am) could ever want. Stained glass, rood screen, beautiful organ, and a commitment to a distinctively traditional liturgy drawn from the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the nearly 100-year-old Anglican prayer book that has since been superseded by two others in America’s two largest denominations claiming a complicated continuity with the historic Anglican Communion—the Episcopal Church’s 1979 and the Anglican Church in North America’s 2019 editions.

Despite our love for our unique and wonderful church, there is, however, almost no place on earth better for someone to experience holistically the purpose of the Christian liturgy than at St. Thomas Church, and the Choir of Men and Boys plays a significant part in this. The Christian liturgy is, among other things, a deliberate interruption to the patterns of daily life. While it is certainly that in Fort Worth, Texas, it is even more so in a church building situated on hectic, crowded streets where worshippers are periodically rattled by rumbling subway cars passing underneath. The beauty of the liturgy is not beauty for its own sake but something we should seek to translate into the world as we leave the sanctuary behind. It is beauty that has been born of a desire to encounter transcendence in the context of the immanent. The contrast between the beauty and order within the sanctuary and the world outside the doors of the church is drastically starker in Midtown Manhattan compared with what you experience in Fort Worth.

What I am describing, however, may only be significant to Christians. Of course, there is a personal and spiritual dimension to the liturgy, but there is a public and communal dimension as well. A nation’s religious practices are much more than what they mean to the faithful personally. The Anglican tradition in the United States has always been relatively small, but it has been a tradition of outsized influence that has punched above its weight class. In fact, St. Thomas’ diocesan sister church, Trinity Church Wall Street, is the wealthiest religious institution in the world after the Vatican. In all the chatter about the decline of religiosity in the West, we express much concern about unused buildingsand infrastructure and the social and political implications of a world less religious. But we risk losing more than church buildings and religiously motivated voters as churches and religious participation decline.

Over the course of 2,000 years of Christian history, liturgical practices have evolved; moreover, it has only been fairly recently that liturgical practices within a given tradition were even standardized. While the church was unified prior to the Great Schism of 1054, when East and West went their separate ways, regional practices nevertheless marked worship. In the Middle Ages, right up to the Reformation, there was even more variety. Such practices have waxed and waned, given way to innovation, and been one of the primary vehicles through which musical styles have evolved. But Christian liturgical practices shape the worshipper in ways that are both spiritual and social. The evolution of Christian worship is influenced by doctrinal considerations for sure, but almost always is accompanied by pragmatic and cultural considerations, too. At their best, religious practices shape worshipers holistically and prepare them for the world as well as for eternity.

Also in the news cycle last month, famed atheist Richard Dawkins made a surprise announcement that, while he doesn’t believe a word of Christianity, he considers himself a cultural Christian. He’s spent his entire career working to destroy the faith of others, only to look up and realize he doesn’t like what has replaced it in the resultant moral vacuum. He likes “to live in a culturally Christian country.” He prefers the “noble lie” of Christianity to the noble lie of other faiths, or the ethical barrenness of radical secularism, but it is hard to motivate families to enroll their sons in or donors to support schools that train musicians to cater to Dawkins’ preference for Christmas festivities over solstice carols and Ramadan lights.

So it is not a surprise to see that institutions like the St. Thomas Choir School are teetering on extinction. It is hard to use cultural and historical pleas to save such places when it was a living faith that understood cultural, social, and spiritual concerns to be intertwined that built and sustained them in the first place. This doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t try. There is probably little reason for optimism that the school will survive if a church like St. Thomas concedes that even their significant resources are insufficient to support it. But we should recognize that we are all losing something valuable as these types of institutions decline and close. Museums can be the home to bones and artifacts, but only living and vital bodies can contain a soul, and once these institutions die, we can never get them back.

Trey Dimsdale

Trey Dimsdale serves as counsel for First Liberty Institute (FLI) and executive director of the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an FLI initiative focused on education and cultural advocacy for freedom.