For publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel on October 14th 2015
When the newly elected Leader of the Labour Party did not join in the singing of the National Anthem recently, it caused a bit of a stir.
But how many people are there who know the anthem off by heart? How many people even know it has three verses? Wayne Rooney, the England football captain, has admitted he has never sung the anthem, because he never learnt the words. Gary Linker too - who played for England 80 times - says he never joined in its singing.
And this his has nothing at all to do with patriotism. Most people can’t sing the National Anthem, because most people never sing. Like Wayne Rooney, they never learnt to sing. Communal Singing is a practice which is in danger of dying out.
We still hear crowds singing of course - Delilah at the Brittannia, The Wonder of You at Vale Park, Swing Low Sweet Chariot or Cwm Rhondda at Rugby matches - but even then we hear only a few words. These are hardly “songs”, they are more like ringtones - short distinctive snatches of song.
Even Christmas Carols lack the hold they once had. Few people could give you the second verse of Away in a Manger. Carol singing, round the streets from door to door, is now a very distant memory almost of a bygone age.
As a priest I am very well aware that singing is in serious decline. Though they want to, people struggle to choose songs for weddings and funerals - they just don’t know any.
Yet many of us remember when every school day would begin with choral singing. Every music lesson was filled with melody. Often these were Christians hymns - but there were plenty of other songs too. Oh yes, mischievous children would devise disrespectful and sometimes rude lyrics - but not because they didn’t enjoy singing - but because they wanted to make it even more fun. In the churches, especially the Methodists, so much part of the history of North Staffordshire - everyone sang with great gusto. And it wasn’t just churches: everyone enjoyed a sing-song. Men would sing in the pubs and farm workers would sing in the fields. There were bawdy songs, and ballads, and songs of protest familiar to Trades Unionists too. People grew up knowing shanties, and lullabies and carols. Melody helped memorise the words of poetry and verse. Generation after generation had this great heritage of shared song.
Not any more though.
Just like the boarded up pubs, and converted chapels, the heritage of communal song is rapidly becoming a distant and even quaint memory.
There are of course still some great choirs. We are lucky in North Staffordshire to have The Ceramic City Choir, the Daleian Singers, Wetley Rocks Male Voice Choir, and many others, including the Lorna Spode Consort who will be singing at our Annual Carol Service at Sacred Heart, Hanley this Christmas. Yet for all their skill and expertise, these are enthusiasts - communal singing is not an everyday activity.
And yet, it is such a great irony, that while we live in a world which is bombarded by recorded music of all kinds, it is mostly soloists, and hardly ever choirs that ring out their songs.
It will be a very sad loss to our culture, and our future, if communal singing is to continue in this sad decline.
Singing together helps foster friendships, cement communities, and bring happiness to so many people. It celebrates both our joys and our sorrows, expresses our hopes and affirms our identities and allegiances. You don’t even have to be good at it: in the larger choirs and congregations, the odd growler can even add a little texture and variety to the sound. Song lifts the spirit, and fills us a sense of belonging. And for religious people, it is singing - singing together and with others - that raises the heart to God and provides the most basic religious experience.
“He who sings well, prays twice,” said St Augustine, seventeen centuries ago. And so here is a thought - if we live in a society where song dies, perhaps we will never learn to pray.