Tony Cummings spoke to Cath Binns and Angus MacGregor of West Yorkshire's CATH & ANGUS MUSIC
If you're looking around for Christmas music, either for gifts or for a musical accompaniment to all your festivities, there are two EPs about to be released which are well worth your investigation. One is 'Acoustic Christmas Vol 2' by Angus MacGregor and the other is 'Chosen' by Cath & Angus Music.
Both emanate not from one of the record companies who each year pour out recordings of ancient carols and dubious Santa songs, but from two extraordinary spiritually-focused individuals who have managed to plant a church which grew out of a pioneering work to take the Gospel to the homeless and hurt on the streets of Halifax, West Yorkshire. Cath Binns and Angus MacGregor visited Cross Rhythms to tell their extraordinary story.
Singer and keyboard player Cath kicked off our talk. "I grew up in Halifax. I have music in my blood because my dad is a musician, and he raised me on music. It was when I was a part of a youth group that I became a Christian. They encouraged me to become part of the worship team and a youth band that we put together as well. Eventually, we would do outreach events."
Cath also did a little recording. A cassette 'Sweetest Love' was released, followed by 'Breaking Through' which came out of an outreach event involving various Halifax churches, though Cath has doubts whether the recording was ever released. Finally, in 2000, an album 'Unknown Lands' was issued. Commented Cath, "It makes me laugh when I listen to it. I like to see where I started and how God has moved me on in my journey."
Cath went to live in the USA and was there for around five years. There, she started working with a Vineyard church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Returning from the States to her hometown, she went searching for a new spiritual home. The singer candidly admitted that the local Anglican church seemed a little subdued compared to her US experiences but visiting there, she renewed a friendship with the drummer in the worship team, Angus MacGregor.
The guitarist, percussionist and producer for Cath & Angus Music took up the story. "I picked up drums when I was about five or six, when I was starting to take an interest in it. It was through the drummer who was already at the church at the time and I would just sit and watch him, totally amazed by what was happening and said I want to do that! So I did. I started having lessons and I still have lessons today in fact. I've been with the same teacher for 11 years! The guitar came along about 10 years ago. I wanted to move to bass, which seemed the natural progression from drums, but I got persuaded to learn guitar, and then bass would come more natural to me, which is what happened actually, which was great. I was so glad I made that decision because I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing now if I couldn't play guitar."
Cath and Angus made a musical connection and began writing songs together. Said Angus, "I suppose we officially became Cath & Angus Music when we released our first EP, 'Overwhelmed', which was back in 2014. That's when we took on the title Cath & Angus Music."
One song on that project, "Closer", is still very much a part of the duo's set list. Said Cath, "It was a song that I wrote at a time that was really difficult for me. I'd been through a lot of grief and a lot of loss and trauma in a small space of time relatively. It was through that time that I became aware of the intimacy that we can have with God. There's a passage in Psalm 147 that talks about God bandaging up our wounds or binding our wounds up. And through that time he showed me what it meant and how close someone has to be to bandage our wounds up, and that we have a God who wants to do that."
'Overwhelmed' was recorded at a studio in Leeds. For the second Cath & Angus Music project, 'Love That Won't Let Go', Angus decided to return to that studio but also to use some of the tracks recorded at his home studio. Speaking about his growing production skills Angus said, "I learned by just doing it. I think that's the best way to learn it. You're not boxed in by all these constraints; you can just try stuff and it fails terribly but you've learnt so much in the process."
Pivotal in the expansion of Cath & Angus Music's ministry has been Saturday Gathering, the Halifax-based fresh expression of church primarily targeted at the vulnerable and marginalised. Said Cath, "Saturday Gathering is for the community people who are homeless, or recovering addicts or they've come out of prison. It kind of came out of our local food bank about six years ago with two other people and we were adamant at first we were not setting up a church. We did not want to start a church. It grew very quickly and the people coming would be on the phone saying 'I can't talk, I'm at church' and we'd say 'It's not church'. Eventually we realised this is church; it's a fresh expression of church. It's great on a Saturday night because other churches in the local area can come and be involved and support if they want. That's when we first started leading worship together, just the two of us, at Saturday Gathering."
Although it wasn't their original intention, Saturday Gathering has now grown to be a fully-orbed church and, with ordained minister Linda Maslen, they now meet on Sundays as well. Explained Cath, "Linda typically does the preaching and she actually became an ordained minister after we started to do Saturday Gathering. None of us had particular experience with this community; we just had a heart for wanting to introduce them to Jesus. So for a year we rented this building. We cooked a meal, we always had a meal together, we always had a time of worship and initially we watched videos about Jesus and we'd sit and talk about the videos. We'd talk about our weeks over the meal. Then it grew and grew and got to the point where our local council noticed that on a Saturday night the people who might usually be causing some trouble in the town were at church, at Saturday Gathering. One time, instead of locking them up in the cells, the police actually brought someone to Saturday Gathering. Whether they felt it was some kind of punishment, I'm not sure. We've built such good relationships with the council and the police that the council asked us what could they do to support us. And they gave us a building for £1 a year, which meant that we had a base and could begin a bigger ministry. The council also gave us a significant amount of money when they gave us the building so we could employ other staff. It's grown beyond what we could have ever dreamed or imagined."
Cath and Angus' music ministry has likewise grown beyond their wildest imagination. Explained Angus, "We started taking the guys that would come to the New Wine summer conferences for two years, which at the time was in Newark. Then Newark finished and everything moved down to Shepton Mallet so then we took them down there. New Wine started getting involved quite a bit, seeing how they could support Saturday Gathering. Through that connection we started leading at more local New Wine events. They set up a New Wine North in Hollybush, in Thirsk and we were asked if we'd lead worship in one of the venues. And last year we got asked if we'd lead down south at New Wine United conference."
Cath & Angus Music are also beginning to make an impact overseas. "We did a conference in Denmark recently," said Cath. "It all came through contacts. Typically for us we'll lead worship somewhere at a conference and we'll meet people there who will then invite us to come to a conference or event they are doing. That's how this thing in Denmark happened. It was an extended weekend conference over Pentecost where lots of different churches came together. It was fantastic."
Angus spoke about their involvement with Christmas music. He said, "Two years ago, I had this idea of why don't I record some Christmas carols on the acoustic guitar. They sound nice and they're nice background music. Except, I had that idea mid-December, which is way too late. So I sat on it and last year I decided to record it, put a CD together and see what happens."
Lots of people responded favourably to 'Acoustic Christmas Vol 1', and so now a Vol 2 is about to be released by Angus. He spoke about Vol 2's seasonal delights. "This year I've got The Sussex Carol - 'On Christmas Night'. I really like that one. I've done a lot of wacky stuff with that one, which was really exciting. Last year's one was very mellow and really soft and relaxing, whereas this year I've put in a few more lively ones, the Sussex Carol being one of them, so there's a lot of poly-rhythmic stuff happening. I'm doing a couple of the lesser known ones - there's one called 'Es Ist Ein Ros' Entsprungen' which is the German title of 'Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming' which is a really nice German carol."
Cath & Angus Music are also getting into the seasonal fray with 'Chosen', an EP of original Christmas songs penned by Cath. She said, "I was thinking about the traditional Christmas story, which we know so well, and the different characters, but I began to think about if I was that character. Sometimes, in the familiarity, you can lose a lot. So I just wanted to go back, have a look at those different characters again. The EP is trying to draw out the lessons from each of those characters that could help us in this day. The first one looks at the donkey which carried Mary. Use your imagination a bit; in the donkey's mind he was just doing the ordinary and the mundane and he probably felt very small and insignificant. But actually he was carrying a king and he had a great purpose and he was chosen for a specific purpose and hopefully we can get something out of that as well. We might feel we are just doing the ordinary and the mundane but really we are carrying something really great inside of us."
Warming to the themes explored in 'Chosen', Cath continued, "I can't imagine Mary and Joseph would have necessarily had the place where they gave birth to him as their first choice of a place to give birth to a baby and I guess it might have seemed quite messy and not as they had hoped. Yet there was real purpose in that and God was weaving something beautiful even in all the mess and hopefully we can take something from that lesson. There's one about the angels. I wonder about the angels who sang to the shepherds and announced the birth: how long did they know that that was going to be their job? Were they getting really excited about it? The last one is from the perspective of Joseph, how he felt when he found out Mary was pregnant and it went against all convention. And again this was not part of his plan yet he stays faithful and devotes himself to Mary and to God."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.