A Magical Musical Pilgrimage

by | Sep 8, 2023

Above: The choirs of Grace Church Providence and St. Luke’s East Greenwich, with Dr. Rose, in front of Salisbury Cathedral. Photo by Bill Galligan

How 6 members of St. Luke’s spent their summer vacation

By Laura Sullivan

“Yes, it’s been quite a summer…”

This iconic lyric from the late Jimmy Buffet will surely inspire nostalgic and wistful memories of past times. However, for six individuals from St. Luke’s Church, this summer just past is fresh with recollections of a special trip to England. Joining with 45 others from Grace Church in Providence, the St. Luke’s Six – Tori Cormier, 15, Ryan and Shawn Scarber, both 16, their parents, Jason and Christine Scarber, and Rodney Ayers, St. Luke’s minister of music – made a musical pilgrimage to England to experience history, and offer their voices in the glorious tradition of Anglican worship and song.  

Leaving from Providence on a bus to Logan Airport, the group boarded the plane on Saturday, Aug. 5, for an overnight flight across the pond, landing at London’s Heathrow Airport early Sunday morning. Another bus – this one driving on the left side of the road – delivered them to Salisbury, about 90 miles southwest of London.

View of the Salisbury Cathedral from the Cathedral School. Photo by Vince Edwards

Life in Salisbury as Cathedral Choristers

Once there, the travelers settled in for the next five days, establishing their residency on the grounds of the 800-year-old Salisbury Cathedral, living as cathedral choristers and singing the evening “office” (also known as evensong) each night at 5:30. While the younger choristers stayed in modest but adequate rooms in the boarding house, off the Cathedral Close, the adult travelers stayed in rooms at the neighboring Sarum College, and at a B&B, about a 15-minute walk from the Cathedral grounds. Meals were served in what had been the Bishop’s Palace which, like the Cathedral, was centuries old and featured a vaulted undercroft, stone arches, and a Chapel upstairs. The food was tasty and generously-portioned, including the full breakfast. Apparently British bacon differs from American, it was reported.

Over the course of the week, there were day trips to Stonehenge and to Weymouth, located about an hour from of Salisbury. There, at the popular resort town, they had a chance to take a dip in the English Channel (“freezing,” Tori reported). The rhythm of those days, of course, was punctuated by the Evensong service, followed by supper, and then a chance to romp on the beautiful Cathedral grounds, play some music, toss a football, and enjoy each other’s company. Always, the huge Salisbury Cathedral loomed above them, a living tableau of the famed 1823 John Constable painting.

The group also had the opportunity to climb the 350-plus steps of the Salisbury Cathedral tower and take in the astounding views of the surrounding countryside. Definitely an “upward” experience for those who made the climb, including Ryan, who proclaimed it to be a literal highlight of the trip. Of course, the bells in the tower would ring on the quarter hour, which was, not surprisingly, “really loud” when they were up there.

For Shawn, a special time was in the evening, after 10 p.m., when he would walk the grounds and watch the Cathedral lights extinguish in successive stages. First, the lights on the ground level would be turned off at 10:50, and then upwards, 10 minutes later, at 11 p.m. Finally, only the steeple would be illuminated, and then disappear into darkness, at 11:10 p.m. “It was beautiful,” Shawn recalled.

For their final day at Salisbury, the traveling choir welcomed Dr. Barry Rose, former Master of the Choir of St. Paul’s, London, renowned English professor, musician and composer, whose credits include directing the music at the 1981 wedding of King Charles III and the late Princess Diana. Dr. Rose has also traveled to the United States and, as a friend and mentor to Rodney Ayers and Vincent Edwards (Grace Church’s music director), led this past February’s Choir Festival in Providence. This Friday Evensong was, therefore, especially glorious, with Dr. Rose, Yale University’s professor of organ and sacred music, Martin Jean, and the organists from Grace Church and St. Luke’s raising the bar of excellence and worship at Salisbury Cathedral. Once again, the service music resounded on the 1877 Cathedral Organ, which, with only a few minor changes, and full 2020 restoration, continues its original purpose to accompany daily choral evensong – so cherished in the Anglican tradition – as well as other services.

Off to London

On Saturday, the travelers packed up and bid a somewhat bittersweet farewell to beautiful Salisbury, their home for the past six days, and headed to London. Once there, more wondrous and timeless places and experiences awaited them, including pilgrimages to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and St. James’ Park – all iconic landmarks of historic and architectural significance. Christine Scarber, accompanying parent, says that the visit to Westminster Abbey was especially memorable, as they arrived after the daily tours, and in time for the Abbey’s Evensong. She may have been “too busy gawking at everything in the building” to focus on the service – finding it “one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been in my life.”

Rodney Ayers, Tori Cormier, Ryan & Shawn Scarber outside of Buckingham Palace. Photo by Ryan Dellinger

On Sunday morning, the visiting choirs left London’s Celtic Hotel to travel to Southwark Cathedral, on the south side of the Thames, to participate in their service of Holy Eucharist (livestreamed), and also lead the afternoon Evensong. Southwark Cathedral stands at the oldest crossing point of the River Thames and is widely regarded as the first Christian establishment in England, formed as a community of nuns in the 7th century. The site of the cathedral itself dates from the 12th century.  

Returning to London for overnight, Monday was busy, with a final tour of London.  “So much fun,” Rodney Ayers said, as they took in aerial views of the city from the London Eye, rode the merry-go-round, toured the Tower of London and savored the friendships that had been forged over the previous week. 

On Tuesday morning, August 15, the travelers headed back to Heathrow Airport, boarding the plane to journey back to Boston, and returning to Providence via bus later in the day. Jet lag?  Of course. Memories? Joyous and unforgettable.

Preparations and Rehearsals

Months before the trip, back in September of last year, the St. Cecilia choristers of St. Luke’s and their parents were offered the opportunity to join Grace Church’s tour in the United Kingdom. “I was so excited [at the opportunity] I couldn’t keep myself in the chair,” Christine recalled, thinking of what a wonderful experience it would be for the youngsters. Tori confessed that she was “a bit nervous” at the prospect of spending so much time in the company of other young choristers whom she barely knew [from the Grace Church choir], but who came to be great friends over the course of the trip. Rodney shared that while the choirs had already been doing some of the music over the past year, especially for February’s Choir Festival, there was still much to be mastered: “I made it clear we’d have to do some extra rehearsing” to additionally learn more settings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, and the Preces and Responses – all standard parts of the Evensong service. Moreover, each day’s lectionary would feature a different setting of a Psalm, sung in Anglican chant, plus several anthems to be sung during the offertories. In all, the choristers mastered four settings each of the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, and also four settings of the Preces and the Responses.  

As the school year was ending, even in the midst of exams, Tori, Ryan and Shawn met with Rodney on a regular basis to learn the trip’s challenging repertoire. In addition to meeting at St. Luke’s, they went to Providence for rehearsals with the Grace Church choirs through June and July, right up until their departure on August 5. It was “cool to be able to learn all of that music,” Tori said, crediting her years in music education and her participation in the St. Cecilia Choir at St. Luke’s, without which it would have been “more difficult to learn and sing in the short timeframe.” 

“We follow the ethos and curriculum of the RSCM [Royal School of Church Music, founded in 1927],” Rodney said, which is “why we are so well prepared…that progression of truly building very strong musical skills and awareness of what the music means – of what the church service means, being part of a church community.”

The English Anglicans are known for their expertise in singing this service, and have a particular affinity for the Psalm settings, and Rodney reports that the choristers’ offerings of these psalmodies were well received. One needs only to revisit the recent funerals of Prince Philip and Queen Elizabeth II, as well as the Coronation of King Charles III, to appreciate the devoted discipline of the choirs, encompassing all ages, and the timeless traditions of the Anglican Church.

Reflections and Impressions

There was a chorus in unison sounding the praises of the trip from the travelers. From the spectacular architecture, to the worship in song, to the shared experience of the group, and the friendships forged – it was an experience to savor and remember.  

“So much fun to be part of the group and go to these amazing places,” Tori said.

“The daily rhythm of Evensong, with its prayers and music, lodged itself happily in our hearts and gave each day a shape and point,” Rodney shared. “It would be an understatement to say what a profound time we had, both spiritually and musically, singing each day in that ancient and sacred space, truly a thin place’ experience.” 

“One of the best experiences on the planet!”  Christine said unequivocally.   

Yes, it was quite a Summer – especially for the U.K. troubadours and travelers from St. Luke’s.

St. Luke’s choir rehearsals are just starting up for the year and new choisters of all ages are always welcome. If you are interested, reach out to Rodney Ayers at [email protected]

Laura Sullivan lives in East Greenwich and writes occasionally for EG News.

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