A Choral Convocation: History in the Making

Six staff songster brigades from across North America and the United Kingdom met in Toronto in April for a weekend of praise and worship. by IHQ Communications

The eyes of the Salvation Army world were on Toronto as six staff songster brigades came together for A Choral Convocation. Special guests for the weekend were the International Staff Songsters (ISS), who were finishing their North American “Songs of Love” tour in Toronto under the leadership of Dorothy Nancekievill.

A capacity crowd gathered on Saturday, April 6, as the sounds of A Choral Convocation filled Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. The event was also enjoyed via live stream by Salvationists and friends from dozens of countries around the world, including Canada, Bermuda, the United States and the United Kingdom, and from as far afield as Australia, Costa Rica and Zimbabwe, virtually making this an international Salvation Army event.

Supporting the ISS were the host Canadian Staff Songsters (CSS), with Songster Leader Cathie Koehnen, and the four staff songster brigades from across the United States: the U.S.A. Western Territory Staff Songsters (WTSS), with Songster Leader Barbara Allen; the U.S.A. Southern Staff Songsters (SSS), with Songster Leader Robert Snelson; the U.S.A. Central Territorial Staff Songsters (CTSS), with Songster Leader Matthew Woods; and the U.S.A. Eastern Territory Staff Songsters (ETSS), with Songster Leader Erik Jones. The Canadian Staff Band (CSB), under the leadership of Bandmaster John Lam, presented a spectacular prelude and offered their musical support to the event.

The night before, the six songster brigades met at the Sheraton Parkway Toronto North Hotel for a celebration dinner and concert by the ISS. The event gave opportunity for the songsters, their leaders and executive officers to share with Commissioners Lee and Debbie Graves, territorial commander and territorial president of women’s ministries, and Colonels John and Lani Chamness, chief secretary and territorial secretary for spiritual life development. Also present for the occasion were General Brian Peddle (Rtd), Commissioner Rosalie Peddle and General Linda Bond (Rtd). 

During the celebration dinner, ISS member Ruth Unwin was recognized for her 44 years of faithful—and ongoing—service to the brigade. As a charter member of the ISS, Unwin has been singing with the group since its formation in 1980.

Songs of Praise

A Choral Convocation began with a presentation by the ISS of Benjamin Harlan’s “Make a Joyful Noise.” With words adapted from Psalm 100, the lively song reminded those gathered of the goodness of the Lord and His everlasting mercy and truth. 

Lt. Colonel John Murray, territorial secretary for communications and executive officer of the CSS, expressed words of welcome and prayed God’s blessing on all that would transpire. The congregation then stood to sing “Praise, My Soul, The King of Heaven,” arranged especially for the event by Captain Nicholas Samuel, corps officer at London Citadel, Ontario, and a member of the CSB.

Throughout the Choral Convocation, the ISS expertly presented a variety of selections, including “Ubi Caritas,” a traditional Latin antiphon with music by Ola Gjeilo, Sandi Patti’s “In the Name of the Lord” and Joseph Martin’s “You Are the Song.” 

In turn, each of the supporting brigades took their place on the altar steps of the majestic Yorkminster Park Baptist Church to offer songs of praise to the Lord. Among their musical contributions were Shaun Craig’s “In Christ Alone” by the WTSS, Robert Snelson’s “Psalm 24” by the SSS, Mark Hayes’ “Far Above All” by the CTSS, Craig Courtney’s “Who But the Lord?” by the ETSS and Larry Nickel’s “Working With Joy” by the CSS.

It was a special moment in the program when Heather Hetherington, daughter of the late General Arnold Brown, received a plaque recognizing his establishment of the ISS in 1980 during his tenure as the Army’s international leader.

Gift of Salvation

A highlight of the Choral Convocation was the presentation of the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah” by the massed songsters and the CSB, under the leadership of Major Len Ballantine, former leader of both the ISS and CSS. Later in the program, the groups again joined to share Major Ballantine’s “Behold the Tabernacle of God,” a moving and descriptive work based directly on the words of Revelation 21:3–4. 

Following the ISS’ presentation of John Stainer’s “God So Loved the World,” Commissioner Lee Graves, territorial commander, shared a devotional message on the gift of salvation, which the Apostle Paul says is indescribable. “Paul would further make the statement that it’s a love that surpasses our knowledge,” he said, but assured his listeners that salvation is available to all. 

As the evening concluded, the massed songsters again took to the stage to sing “The Lord Bless You and Keep You,” a familiar benediction from the Book of Numbers, with music from John Rutter. 

Before sharing a closing prayer, Cathie Koehnen thanked each of the visiting groups and the CSB for their support and participation in A Choral Convocation. “We thank you for sharing this music and creating space for us to enter into worship with you,” she said. Turning her attention to the congregation, she continued, “We sing and we make music because we love to express our faith in Jesus Christ. If you haven’t experienced being in relationship with Jesus Christ, then we pray that the words that have been sung, and the music we have shared, may have touched your heart and caused you to reflect and to consider who Jesus is.”

The final selection of the evening featured the massed songsters and the CSB sharing Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise.” As the last notes of this powerful song of celebration and exultant worship echoed throughout the sanctuary, those gathered for A Choral Convocation were blessed and reminded of the goodness of God.

Beyond the Choral Convocation

A significant part of the Choral Convocation weekend was the staff songsters’ participation in ministry opportunities across southern Ontario, including Sunday worship services at Toronto’s Yorkminster Citadel (ISS and CSS), Guelph Citadel (CTSS), Hamilton’s Meadowlands Corps (ETSS), Mississauga Community Church (SSS) and Aurora’s Northridge Community Church (WTSS).

At Yorkminster Citadel, ISS member Juliet Parker shared her testimony of growing up in The Salvation Army, starting in the singing company. After their “Songs of Love” tour and the Choral Convocation, she said, “I have a renewed passion for vocal music. I’m thankful that God has put a song in my heart and He’s given me a voice to sing it.” 

Sunday afternoon musicales took place at Yorkminster Citadel and Mississauga Community Church, and individual groups engaged in visitation and music ministry at Toronto Grace Health Centre (ISS), Toronto’s Meighen Retirement Residence (ETSS), and the Village of Arbour Trails and the Elliott Community in Guelph (CTSS). 

“The passion for ministry, dedication, collective spirits and musical talent of the staff songster brigades enriched this historic Choral Convocation weekend,” concludes Lt. Colonel Murray. “Their musical offerings were a testament to the transformative power of God’s music and its ability to touch hearts and uplift souls.”  

By IHQ Communications, from a report prepared by Pamela Richardson