DEMOREST - Almost 400 years after the Pilgrims left England for America, some 50 Piedmont College students and faculty returned to the United Kingdom to learn about the roots of Congregationalism.
The group was invited to London to perform at Brunel University during the International Congregational Fellowship, a meeting of Congregationalists from around the world held every four years. This year's meeting included delegates from 16 different countries, and the 45-voice Piedmont Singers were invited to celebrate the college's 112-year affiliation with Congregational churches in the U.S.
The Piedmont group arrived in Cambridge on July 28 for a 10-day tour of England and Wales, and not surprisingly, music and singing made up an important part of the trip. At Westminster Abbey they attended the Choral Evensong, a performance that has been held each evening largely unchanged since the time of Henry VIII in the 16th century. Later in the week, the Piedmont Singers performed the Evensong concert at Wells Cathedral, considered one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe. Begun in 1175, the cathedral is known for its unique scissor arches.
Also in Cambridge, the group toured Kings College Chapel, where the BBC has broadcast the annual "Nine Lessons and Carols" each Christmas since 1928. This service is the basis for Piedmont's own "Service of Lessons and Carols," which has been performed in the college chapel for the past 25 years.
In Wales, the Piedmont Singers performed the Evensong concert at Brecon Cathedral, which dates to 1093, and afterward sang with members of the world-renowned Brecon & District Male Voice Choir. They next traveled to Hampshire, England, to perform a noon concert in Winchester Cathedral, burial site of many of England's Saxon kings.
The trip also interwove elements of Piedmont's long history with Congregationalism, said Piedmont Chaplain Dr. Ashley Cleere. While in London, they visited the church where the captain of the Mayflower is buried, and shared communion from a chalice dated 1620, the year the ship set sail for the new world. The group visited the port town of Southampton, where the Mayflower began its voyage. That city was also home to Congregationalist Isaac Watts, prolific writer of renowned hymns, including "Joy to the World," "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," and "Our God, Our Help in Ages Past."
"Piedmont has a long association with Congregationalism, a tradition brought to America by the Pilgrims," Cleere said. "The college maintains a close affiliation today, providing scholarships to Congregational students from across the country, and promoting a breadth of religious expression. This trip was an excellent way for our students and faculty to learn more about those Congregational roots."
Piedmont Singers director Dr. Wallace Hinson said it was "truly a life-changing experience to sing in some of the great historic churches of England and Wales. To perform in services and concerts in these historic venues, singing some of the same choral pieces and service music that has been heard in these majestic buildings for hundreds and hundreds of years has been a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the students and for me. The students were excellent representatives of the college and the country. I could not be prouder of them."
Brittany West, a senior music student from Dahlonega, said Tintern Abbey was the most memorable of all the sites. "The surrounding mountains were just glorious. There were a lot of lingering spirits you could feel there. It is a very calming place," she said. The Piedmont Singers were moved to break out in an impromptu concert among the ruins, she said. Stonehenge was equally mysterious, she said. "The stones are really awesome, and to think that no one knows who put them there or why."
West said the countryside in England and Wales was also a surprise. "The mountains were huge and rolling, bigger than the ones here. And there were herds of cattle and blackface sheep." She also enjoyed the food, particularly Eton Mess, which is a dessert of strawberries, meringue and cream, and the steak and ale pie, a type of pot roast with a pastry top.
West will graduate in December, and during her four years as a member of the Piedmont Singers the group has toured the Southeast and Midwest. Despite a touch of jet lag after the England trip, though, she said it was "definitely the most memorable tour I've made while at Piedmont."