Last Friday the final of Choir of the Year coincided with the anniversary of 100 years since the passing of Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy. (Admittedly, most BBC viewers would not have been aware of this fact!)
The programme, hosted by Aled Jones and Josie D’Arby, showcased the talents of six choirs which all stood out for their choice of music, beautiful voices, and an animated delivery of their chosen material. However, the Rainbow Connection Singers from Doncaster additionally stood out for the fact they had no conductor. Yet they still sang in time beautifully, performed soulfully, and delivered a memorable set of musical memories for those watching in the Royal Festival Hall or at home.
As I watched this, I thought about how the Christian Science movement that Mary Baker Eddy founded has been assumed by some onlookers to be a choir without a conductor ever since the loss of her dynamic leadership on December 3, 1910. That might seem like a 100 year old news story! But I have heard people say that a religion stripped of the personal presence of a charismatic leader is only expected to last about a century before it peters out into obscurity.
However, if anyone holds that kind of a (mis)belief about the Christian Science movement and expects it to fold on that basis they are misunderstanding who Mary Baker Eddy was and how she established her church. She was not a charismatic leader who commanded attention by a magnetic force of character. Quite the opposite. It’s true that she exhibited amazing strength of character, but she did so on the basis of sacrificing a sense of personal will, not on the basis of exercising it. In addition, she made increasingly sure that the role of “conducting” the worldwide movement was not down to any single person, including herself. As she once put it, “There was never a religion or philosophy lost to the centuries except by sinking its divine Principle in personality.”
So while she accepted the title Leader in relation to her movement – and was a remarkably bold, creative, insightful and caring leader – she progressively took personality out of the equation. She even told adherents of her teachings to follow her “only so far as she follows Christ”. Inspired by the Scriptures and her writings, they could go forward on the same basis she did, by listening for the intuitions and inspiration of the moment from the divine Mind, God. This could be sought and found through the kind of meek prayer she herself consistently turned to – which she so revered in the life and healing ministry of Jesus. One result of her prayer was the establishment of a slim volume called the Church Manual to guide the activities of the Church of Christ, Scientist, a step she had not anticipated needing.
To the degree Mary Baker Eddy was an authoritative leader on whom the movement could depend for its early strength and direction it was precisely because she was humble enough to go to God for guidance and meek enough to bend her own preconceptions to the divine will. As she once so eloquently put it, “All I have ever accomplished has been done by getting Mary out of the way, and letting God be reflected.” (“Mary Baker Eddy”, by Norman Beasley).
As one of those who has derived enormous benefits from “all [she] ever accomplished” I deeply love and appreciate Mary Baker Eddy for the legacy of good she has left and for the stick-with-it-ness with which she managed to do extraordinary things under enormous pressures. However, worshipping her would never even cross my mind. It would be anathema to all she stood for!
Nevertheless, the love, wisdom, flexibility, and principled decision-making that comes from listening for and obeying the “divine conductor”, God, was very visibly evidenced in her handling of the fledgling Christian Science movement.
The way her Church is structured in the Church Manual as a result of that leaves no room for a personal successor, although a five-person Christian Science Board of Directors is uniquely charged to transact “the business of The Mother Church”. Instead she formed a Church that equips its members – from the newest inquirers into Christian Science to the serving officers of The Mother Church – to strive for what she consistently did, namely let human will and personal biases bend before the divine will, whose direction can be surprising.
To the degree this occurs there is no reason why the century after “the century before” shouldn’t be a fresh dawning in many more hearts, minds and lives of what Christian Science is, the spiritual message and practice of Christian healing brought to humanity by Jesus, practised by his earliest disciples, and reinstated by Mary Baker Eddy just over a century ago.
The final of the BBC’s “Choir of the Year 2010” is available (in the UK) all this week on BBC i-player. For a neat news slot about the youngest of the finalists, the New Forest Children’s Choir click here .