Douglas Cowling remembered as passionate ‘connector’ through liturgy, music

Douglas Cowling, composer and four-time Juno Award winner, is being remembered for his contributions to renewing liturgy and worship. Photo: Contributed
Published January 27, 2017

On a Sunday in the Easter season, not too long ago, many among the congregation at All Saints Kingsway, Toronto, preparing to sing a psalm, suddenly noticed something familiar about the tune.

The priest had used a musical setting for the psalm devised by a former musical director of his, Douglas Cowling. The music was not from church. It was the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”-a song that, in typical Cohen fashion, starkly interweaves sacred and secular love.

The priest, Canon Andrew Sheldon, now associate priest at St. George’s on-the-Hill, Etobicoke, Ont., says the congregation’s reaction was unforgettable.

“They suddenly raised their heads-it was like, ‘Whoah,’-they recognized that music, and then, when they had the opportunity to sing the refrain, which was the chorus, ‘Hallelujah,’ that we’re all familiar with-I mean, they were just belting it out,” he says.

“It was proof to me of the wisdom of taking familiar music, and in a sense consecrating that music by adding the sacred lyrics to it.”

Setting the Easter psalms to Cohen’s tune, Sheldon says, was one of the most beautiful things Cowling ever did as a musical director, and it also showed off one of his greatest talents-gathering together resources from diverse sources to create amazing music and liturgy.

“His particular gift was that rather than relying on what was in the book, he would look at each piece of the liturgy…and think of ways to innovate around it,” says Sheldon, who knew Cowling for nearly 25 years.

Cowling died Monday, January 23 at age 66 from heart failure, after a short period of ill health. Though he won recognition outside the church mostly for his work in music-he was a four-time Juno Award winner-Sheldon and others within the Anglican Church of Canada say Cowling will be remembered most of all for his contributions to liturgy.

“He was a very important figure in our church,” says Sheldon, who worked particularly closely with him when Cowling served as his musical director at a Toronto-area church from around 1997 to 2006. “His legacy is fundamentally what I would call renewed liturgies and a renewed worship life in many congregations, and beyond.”

“He had such a heart for worship, and for worship to be beautiful, and for worship leaders to do that heavy lifting of attending to every single detail so that the worship could just soar,” says Canon Martha Tatarnic, rector of St. George’s Anglican Church in St. Catharines, Ont.

Tatarnic says she got to know Cowling partly from working with him to prepare for General Synod last summer. Tatarnic was chair of the General Synod worship committee, and Cowling served as music director. She remembers especially his fondness for details and his great generosity.

“He was so generous with his time, and his energy, and his humour and his creativity,” she says. “He was a funny, funny person-but also very passionate, and opinionated, and he had very high standards in terms of how things should be.”

Canon David Harrison, rector of Toronto’s Church of St. Mary Magdalene, where Cowling was a parishioner, shared with the Anglican Journal the sermon he was to preach at a requiem service for Cowling Friday, January 27. In it, Harrison praises Cowling’s erudition and above all, his role as a “connector” of people, joining them in music and worship.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Douglas was instrumental in forming a whole generation or two of clergy and lay people in his particular vision of liturgy and music,” the sermon reads. “Above all else, it seems to me that Douglas connected the people of God with their voices. He gave voice to those gathered for the liturgy.”

The details of the requiem, according to the sermon, had actually been specified by Cowling himself, and sent to Harrison almost exactly a year before his death.

Canon Peter Walker, rector of Grace Church on-the-Hill in Toronto, founding director of Toronto’s Tallis Choir and brother of Cowling’s wife, Elizabeth, remembered him as “a brilliant and gifted layman-a funny, larger-than-life, sometimes Falstaffian figure…an artful, cultivated renaissance-man-loved by many, especially kids-who served Christ’s reign.”

Born in St. Catharines in 1950, Cowling earned an MA in music at the University of Toronto. He would go on to serve as musical director at a number of Toronto churches, and gave numerous talks and workshops on church music.

His contributions to the world of music, however, went well beyond these roles. In addition to composing, Cowling undertook numerous projects for Classical Kids Music Education, a non-profit organization, including writing five of its audio productions; he won four Juno Awards for this work. He was a regular contributor on CBC Radio.

Cowling also co-authored Sharing the Banquet: Liturgical Renewal in Your Parish.

On January 1, Cowling was named to the Order of the Diocese of Toronto in recognition of his work in music and ministry.

Note: A correction has been made to this story. The Rev. Peter Walker was the founding director of the Tallis Choir, but is not its current director.

Note: The titles of Andrew Sheldon, Martha Tatarnic and David Harrison have been corrected to reflect that they are canons.


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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