I went to the First Advent service at Magdalen (not as in Mary, this is pronounced MA—as in ma and pa—DLIN) and it was certainly a new experience. The first thing you need to know is that I didn’t even make it into the chapel. I had a ticket to secure a seat in the ante-chapel (aka the foyer). I could peek through the door into the chapel and see the hundreds of statues of saints and the back of the readers. This is the consequence of building large pews that face each other (lining the sides of the chapel) rather around a large aisle rather than a more efficient narrow aisle. There were more people sitting in the ante-chapel than in the chapel. This didn’t make me feel more included.
The second thing you need to know is that Magdalen College is closely affiliated (but not to be confused) with Magdalen College School, a boys school a Brett Favre’s football throw (in his prime) away from the College. The Magdalen College School choir sings at formal halls (where I had seen them previously) as well as services like the Advent service and from the top of Magdalen College (not school) tower at 5 am on May 15th. (No, I don’t know why this happens, but I hear it is pretty cool.) As I mentioned, I had seen a small cohort from the choir sing grace before formal hall, but I had never heard the entire choir. They lived up to the hype, but there were some surprising elements. For starters, the choir members ranged in age from (based on my own age assessment) age eight through eighteen. As a side note, I think that British kids are incredibly cute, both because of their cute British accents as well as the fact that usually when I see British kids around Oxford, I am seeing little boys in suits and ties, often with mortar caps and cloaks (that look like the one that I wore when I dressed up as winter Kirsten from the American Girl’s dolls series). But I did think it was a little weird that you would have elementary school students in the same choir as high school students. Well, when they sang, it suddenly made sense.
You see, they sang ALL parts (bass to soprano). The reason why this is significant is that this was an all boys choir. These little boys gave new meaning to the term “singing like angels”. To me, it was impressive and noteworthy on two levels:
1. The fact that it was physically possible for boys of any age to sing so high. Granted, I understand that the little guys don’t have any facial hair and probably don’t yet (yes, junior-high boys, I said yet) need to wear deodorant, but, to put it into technical music terms, they were singing the high-high-soprano part (That’s right, “high-high-soprano”. Google that.) I’ll confess, they were singing much higher than I am physically capable of singing.
2. The fact that it was culturally acceptable for boys of any age to sing that high. Let me reiterate that we are talking really high. Enough said. (As a disclaimer, I am not suggesting that I do not think boys should sing high; my brother sings angelically as well. However, this takes things to a whole new level, and choir participation is celebrated to a degree unparalleled in the states. The choir kids are the cool kids at Magdalen College School.)
I guess none of this really has anything to do with a high-Anglican service—but here is something that is.
I have to admit that I have never been in a service where there were such specific directions about your role as a participant. And I can tell you that "Amen-be-seated" (the common protestant transitional term) was never necessary. There is also significantly less (in my estimation) time where you, as an "audience" member are participating. This allows a one hour service to seem quite long because you can squeeze so much thinking and contemplation into it. There are certainly some advantages to this model, but it requires your mind to be trained in very different ways.