Let all the world in every corner sing?

By Siân Jones

‘Just two more Sundays’, said a church-going friend hopefully to me after the Prime Minister’s announcement on Monday. For fifteen months, churchgoers across the UK have sat through church services, desperate to let rip with a hearty rendition of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Now, with the end of most Covid restrictions confirmed for July 19th, the moment may – finally – be near at hand. Even if parishioners have to keep their masks on to do it.

As a church chorister myself, I’ve been fortunate not to have been subject to the same restrictions as those in the congregation. We’ve been allowed to sing indoors, albeit in reduced numbers.

But it has felt very strange. The unique pleasure of hymn-singing is that it’s a communal activity; a moment of joyful release after a long sermon or a solemn communion service.

Instead, for the past fifteen months, we’ve had to ‘perform’ hymns to a frustrated and (largely) silent congregation. Knowing you’re singing a parishioner’s favourite hymn when they can’t sing it themselves does mean you feel a responsibility to get it absolutely right. And to me, that seems to go against what hymn singing is all about. It should be about passion, not perfection.

Covid has not been kind to the two million or so people who sing in amateur choirs in the UK – or the many hundreds of thousands more who look forward to a good sing in church every Sunday. But amateur singing, lacking the financial, cultural and lobbying clout of the sports sector, or the professional arts world, has been treated as an easy target by Government Ministers.

Take the Welsh Government. Generally perceived as having handled the pandemic well, it was ridiculed when new guidance for amateur choirs stated that tenors were likely to emit more particles of virus than other voice parts. The source of this so-called ‘official’ information? A fake news story.

Amusing, yes. But equally, it’s depressing that highly-qualified government officials in the Land of Song didn’t think amateur singing – an activity proven to have significant health and social benefits – an important enough issue to bother doing their research properly. Indeed, earlier scaremongering about singers being ‘super-spreaders’ has now been thoroughly debunked through scientific research. 

The UK Government’s handling of the issue has also left much to be desired. Last month, just as choirs across the UK were preparing for a return to normality, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport poured a bucket of cold water on the plans. It announced that only six amateur singers, socially distanced, could perform indoors at any one time. That’s despite loud shouting in pubs and at football matches being deemed perfectly legal and safe. 

Official guidance from the Church of England is still awaited following this week’s announcement.  But after such a torrid year and a quarter, it’s no wonder parishioners are hesitating before dusting off their copies of the New English Hymnal.

‘Just two more Sundays’? Let’s hope so.