A Festival of Lessons and Coerced Carols

On Sunday evening I went to the annual Vespers service in Johnson Chapel. Vespers is one of my favorite Christmas season traditions – it’s pretty much the only type of religious service that gives me any kind of spiritual satisfaction anymore, with the emphasis on beautiful music and beautiful readings rather than loads of repetitive, rote prayers filled with words that I don’t quite believe in anyway. Amherst’s version of the service in particular has captured my heart for the past four years; it’s short, sweet and features adorable children (often with mild speech impediments) of faculty/staff reading the gospels. But mostly it’s the music: Amherst doesn’t have a reputation for being the Singing College for nothing, and the Choral Society always transports me with their fabulous renditions of gorgeous carols like “Stille Nacht” or “Carol of the Bells.”

But there’s always been something that bothered me about Vespers. This year I made sure to confirm with some of my friends in Choral Society what I had always suspected: participation in Vespers is not exactly mandatory, but it is expected. Vespers is, after all, basically the Choral Society’s winter concert; that’s the only music is they practice pretty much from Homecoming through the end of the semester.

My friends said that if anyone ever specifically came forward and said they were uncomfortable with performing in an explicitly Christian service, they were sure that no one was going to force that person to participate or even punish them for opting out. So this is not exactly a case of overt discrimination. But at no point do the leaders of Choral Society specifically offer opting out as an option. That’s coercion, however benign, and something that Choral Society needs to fix in future years.

As I said, I love Vespers. I love having Choral Society there. But I don’t really want them there if half of them are going to yawn and cross their arms and generally look uncomfortable and miserable during the readings and prayers. It’s a lose-lose situation: it’s not fair to non-Christian choir members (which, let’s be real, is probably most/all of them) to be subjected to a religious ceremony that at best, they don’t find enriching, and at worst may find offensive or disrespectful; and it’s not fair to Christians in the choir or the other congregants to watch some students act incredibly bored and generally unhappy to be there.

I heard that at the 4:00 Vespers on Sunday, one of the affiliated religious advisors helping to conduct the service openly chastised people who come to Vespers only for the music. That’s so blatantly unfair and ignorant of the situation that it’s insulting.

Yes, Vespers is a religious service, not a concert. Amherst College already knows that, otherwise they wouldn’t make Choral Society strip down the Christmas decorations in the chapel two seconds after the last Vespers ends. So simultaneously pretending that Vespers is an acceptable, secular winter concert for Choral Society is ridiculous and hypocritical. Why can’t they do their own separate Holiday Concert? There could be overlap in the music, allowing choir members who are comfortable with it to participate in Vespers easily. And then the Holiday Concert could also feature Hanukkah songs, secular songs like “Sleigh Ride,” or whatever the heck else they want to do. Isn’t that what pretty much every other college does anyway?

I’m sure Choral Society participation in Vespers probably stretches back many, many decades, to the times when Amherst was pretty much all white Christian men anyway. But we shouldn’t let tradition stop us from fixing this situation. A Christian service should not be entitled to using Choral Society at their service when no other religious group on Amherst gets the same privilege.