In 1967, when I first started singing as an Anglican chorister at St Peter's Cathedral in Adelaide, the Church Cantor tradition had pretty well died out. Clergy canted with varying quality, choristers sang, and soloists within the choir were just singers. The Decani and Cantoris seats still adorned Anglican Cathedral Churches, but the origin of the Cantoris seat had been largely forgotten. At that time the title of Cantor was reserved for Jewish male synagogue Cantors. Then Jewish women took up the liturgical Cantor baton, and, following the role model of Miriam, revived the art of the Jewish woman Cantor. Their lead was invaluable.
I had been singing in Church choirs all my life, but in 1996 I was called to formal Church Cantor ministry after my parish Church burned down. I looked for contemporary female role models to follow, but I found that no liturgical singers in parishes were familiar with the ancient female Church Cantor tradition still practised in some convents and abbeys. I had learnt about Gregorian chant and polyphonic Church music with Dr. David Swale of Adelaide University, and I was fortunate to find excellent mentors in the Royal School of Church Music and the UK Guild of Church Musicians, who helped me to shape and develop my female Cathedral Cantor ministry. My models were gleaned from historical female Church Cantor traditions, the Australian Conservatorium system and experienced Church musicians supplied my musical training, and a six year theological degree filled me in on the ecclesial skills and understanding I needed. I waded through a varied Church music repertoire, honed my liturgical liaison skills, was surprised and bemused by petty, aggressive competition between Church music factions, took part in a program that established a fair fee structure for accredited Church Cantors, and managed to sort out the musical wheat from the chaff. I discovered that being a Cantor involves not only liturgical singing, but also substantial pastoral liaison, choir section leading, liturgical conflict resolution, keyboard accompaniment, making therapeutic music CDs and singing in hospital chapels to assist chaplains, and arranging and composing Church music and liturgies in collaboration with Church communities and music directors. Oh, and of course, sound system checking / adjustment, liturgical animation of responses and communal singing, and producing computer music scores on demand.
Twenty one years later, the art of the Church Cantor has been revived in Australia, with classes for Cantors of sll ages flourishing in many Churches. Although the quality of Cantor instruction varies, much progress has been made in reviving communal worship through music. Yet although most committed Church Cantors in Australia are female, formal clerical recognition of female Church Cantor ministry has been slow to catch up. In most mainstream Churches there is no reason why female Cantors cannot be liturgically commissioned. After completing my tertiary Cantor training ( 2 years of theory, residential schools, Church music history snd form, liturgy, assignments, viva voce examination, practical examination, and a local Practicum with portfolio) through the UK Guild of Church Musicians, I was commissioned as a professional Church Cantor by Archbishop George Carey and Cardinal Basil Hume in 1998 at Christ Church Cathedral, Newcastle, and awarded the ACertCM Cantor (UK).
Female Church Cantors in Australia (and worldwide) are a brave, long-suffering and competitive breed. All the Australian women Church Cantors I have met have a genuine desire to serve and honour God rather than themselves. A few are paid, but most are volunteers, who pay for their own tuition. A favoured few, such as June Nixon and Kathlleen Boschetti, have achieved remarkable heights of Church music mjnistry in Australia. So It grieves me (and also God, I think) when ill advised, self-appointed Church music critics accuse all female Church Cantors of impious self-aggrandizement, rail against women in ministry, and declare them unwanted. Their negative criticisms are ridiculously unproductive.