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There’s an environment in which you can mix the familiar and unfamiliar, words and music, active participation and passive listening, to help you on with learning sound language without lipreading.

14th century bench end, St. Michael, Clapton-in-Gordano

First, I want to clarify that I’m documenting my experience with church as a useful all-round ear-training experience, not recommending a belief or lifestyle. It may sound a bit off-the-wall or irrelevant. That said, I’m sure that the Christmas story is sufficiently well-known for attending a carol service to be an enjoyable singalong with the familiar story in the readings, to illustrate the kind of things I’m talking about in more depth here (and can be used as a year-on-year check on how well you’re doing). For Christmas, substitute any annual festival of your choice from your own tradition, if you have one!

Background: the cathedral context and Common Worship 2000

Anglican cathedral-style worship, with which I’m most familiar, is usually handily quite deaf-friendly. To start with, cathedrals attract tourists, many of whom find attending a service the highlight of their visit, even if unfamiliar with the liturgy, style of service, or even English. And, let’s face it, regular cathedral congregations contain quite a high proportion of elderly hearing-aid wearers too! For all these reasons, therefore, most Anglican cathedrals supply service booklets with the complete text, together with pew sheets giving all the day’s readings and prayers in full.

Prior to implantation, in tandem with cunning placement at a front-ish pew, I thus had the tools to keep up by lipreading. Complete texts are by no means universal in the wider C of E: many parishes have fairly minimal service books which seem to presuppose knowledge by rote (which must put off an awful lot of people, deaf or not, who just flounder – it’s not very welcoming). Anglicanism is, after, all, the original Broad Church, in which local practice and variant books in different styles of language have historically been mixed and matched according to whether the establishment in question prefers guitar-playing evangelism or Anglo-Catholicism.

The publication of Common Worship in 2000 made changes in liturgy and practice to emphasise just that: the commonality of worship across the whole C of E. One book, one language, one body – unifying clergy, choir and congregation. In short, more inclusive, and a step forward in deaf awareness as a positive by-product. In a cathedral context, it means bringing forward the clergy and choir from behind the choir screen to be seen and heard by the congregation in the nave, by use of modern moveable choir stalls which complement but do not impact on the historic fabric. Have a look at some examples at Bristol here and Gloucester:

Gloucester Cathedral: new choir stalls in front of the choir screen at the nave altar

Gloucester Cathedral: new choir stalls in front of the choir screen at the nave altar

(At my own wedding I practised what I am now preaching here: typing up every single word, which also made it easier for those unfamiliar with a Nuptial Mass – it turned out to be a 16-page booklet – and holding the ceremony in the Quire, with priority for my deaf friends nearest to us: as everyone was facing inwards, they all got a good view.)

Cross-Training in Church: 

Back to church as CI therapy: it rings the changes, mixing the familiar and the unexpected. The liturgy is a permanent fixture, slightly modified according to the season (but there’s those service booklets if you get stuck). The readings change daily but fit the season and the day’s theme: I use memory to help me predict what might come next, but I’ve got the pew supplement to fall back on. (This can be a productive skill too. On a recent interfaith open day, the guide at the local synagogue told me that most of the congregation relied on memory to be able to read aloud from the Torah.) The sermon is a more of a moveable feast, so to speak, but takes as its theme a sentence from one of the earlier readings as an ‘in’ to the rest. The prayers likewise have a set structure, and you can listen out for the world’s troublespots which have flared up in the news that week.

So there’s a lot of pick’n’mix potential there for speech, not least with familiarising yourself with lots of different voices, but music offers similar opportunities, in terms of both participating and passive listening. There are the bells, which become more mellifluous and identifiable over surrounding traffic over time. (For little snippets of listening practice, try Radio 4’s Bells on Sunday archive, bite-sized chunks 2 minutes long, an introductory segment on the church with a recording of its bells.) You should get the chance to join in with singing at least three hymns, some of which may be well-known, others less so, providing different challenges. I find this interesting because I can now sing in time, hear the descant, and pick out individual very distinctive voices, usually the chap who sings loudly and rather off-key in the pew behind (there’s always one). The choir chants the psalm but sings the more formal Mass setting providing exposure to classical music, in the environment for which it was written, Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. Alternations between boys and girls and between the home choir and visiting choirs provide comparative experiences. Then there’s the organ voluntary at the end.


It’s not always the music itself that allows me to zoom in on the little differences which I love picking up on. It can be something as simple as hearing a very discernible accent from a visiting Dutch choir leading the singing in English, or noting a variant Latin pronunciation from a choir specialising in early music (and so Latin as it was pronounced then, not as it is taught now).

Yes, the sung parts are often in Latin, which takes it to the next level in discerning the words among the repetitions and variations of the setting. Latin is used fairly commonly across many Christian denominations, but other faiths too can hold services in a language older than, and different from, the congregation’s main language, as in Coptic and Old Church Slavonic in Egyptian and Eastern Orthodox Christianity respectively, or Sanskrit (Hinduism).

Jewish and Muslim CI users handling bilingual liturgies have shared their experiences with me: we have all had a common experience in the past in relying on memory to fill in the gaps and imagine the sounds, and in the present, having a greater sense of achievement in being able to appreciate the soundscape of different languages in the service.


For me, going to church now is a much more interactive experience and it helps me to feel more part of the community, because I can be moved by the same things everybody else is; rather than just letting my eyes and mind wander during the sermon, taking in the architecture and the sudden shafts of light that throw stained glass pools across the floor. And, just as much to the point, I no longer need a nudge alert to know that the intercessions have finished! I just don’t think I would have got as far as I have without this regular opportunity to listen to live music in a variety of beautiful settings. Besides their regular services and carol concerts, cathedrals and major inner city churches often have free lunchtime organ recitals which can be a good way of accessing classical music, so do make use of the resources they have to offer, and I’d love to hear people’s experiences.

Further posts in this ad-hoc series will follow, but for now . . .

Fingerspelling display by Transient Graffiti projected on Bath Abbey,  23.11.2012