Picture credit: St John’s Voices
Artillery Row

Disbanding St John’s Voices would be cultural vandalism

Modern bureaucrats should leave our choirs alone

As Britain becomes increasingly secularised, we might ask whether our traditional Anglican choirs still play a valuable role in society.

The members and alumni of St John’s Voices (SJV), and the 11,000 people who have signed the petition calling for it to be saved, certainly seem to think they do. 

This mixed-voice student choir, which sings evensong once a week at the Chapel of St John’s College, Cambridge, has been abruptly informed that the College will be disbanding it. When I asked individual members of this mixed-voice student choir how they felt about this, I was met with an outpouring of affection and of appreciation for their Director, Graham Walker, and all the musical and personal opportunities SJV gave them. Some had never participated in Anglican choral singing before arriving at Cambridge; others cited membership of the choir as an antidote to stressful, and sometimes lonely, student life. The most poignant and saddening of all the testimonials simply reads “please do not disband SJV. It is our home.” To this day I credit my university chapel choir and musical societies for helping me overcome my own innate shyness as an undergraduate. 

No one could reasonably suggest that St John’s College is abolishing SJV because it is not an asset to the college; on the contrary, it is deemed to be one of the UK’s finest mixed-voice choirs. Instead, it’s sadly the latest musical victim of heavy-handed, “stakeholder engagement” that wouldn’t be out of place in the Civil Service.  Did I mention that the Master of the College is a former senior civil servant? 

To the surprise of no one who has ever encountered this management style before, the College appears to have forgotten to properly engage with the stakeholders who actually matter: the students. According to their statement, the College’s “comprehensive review” on its music provision “reflects our students’ feedback on their needs and aspirations.” This claim has left many students mystified as to origins of that feedback. One possible source is a “2-3 minute survey” circulated by the College to students last year which asked if they wanted more of certain music opportunities, but made no indication that these would replace what the College currently provides. I understand that members of the choir have been given no real opportunity to engage with the decision-making process. Moreover, if the powers that be are really so confident that this is what students want, why have they removed the choir’s access to its own social media accounts?

Sadly, the case of SJV is not an isolated incident. You may recall last year’s proposed abolition of the BBC Singers, which stemmed from what the BBC called their “first major review of classical music.” This was overturned after huge public and professional outcry. An equally prescient parallel is the fate of Sheffield Cathedral Cathedral choir which was abruptly scrapped in 2020, because, it was claimed, the music on offer was not diverse enough and the choir was too elitist. This decision was made without any real consideration for the choristers and their parents, who apparently first heard the details in the press.

There should absolutely be space for different forms of Christian worship within our churches and chapels. But all too often, diversity has come to mean a repudiation of our traditions, rather than broadening musical opportunities. 

The indifference of those running Anglican institutions in maintaining choral excellence has extended to smaller, local churches too. Take St Michael’s Mount Dinham in the South West. It may be a masterpiece of Victorian gothic architecture, which has maintained its church choir, but the authorities at St David’s, the church to which St Michael’s is subordinate, have different priorities; ones which may involve closing it down altogether for re-development rather than maintaining its history for its congregation.

there is considerable evidence that enjoyment of choral music is driving this increase

It’s difficult to see who the people behind these numerous, unwanted “reviews” think they are pleasing. Yes, there has been a general decline in attendance of Church of England services, but there has actually been an uptick in the numbers of those attending cathedral services. According to the Cathedral Music Trust, there is considerable evidence that enjoyment of choral music is driving this increase. BBC Radio 3’s choral evensong programme, which has been broadcast weekly since 1926, recently reported its highest listener figures in its history. 30 million people across the world listen to the broadcasts from King’s College Cambridge every year; of which the nine lessons and carols on Christmas Eve is the most popular. The anger at the attempted disbanding of BBC singers, the support for the petition to save SJV, and the success of Sheffield Cathedral’s choir-in-exile demonstrate a steadfast desire to retain the best of our choral traditions, rather than a disenchantment with them.

The effective abandonment of our finest choirs is not as “progressive” as those responsible may think. Talented youngsters who take up Cathedral choristerships in particular are able to receive an exceptional education that their parents would otherwise have never been able to afford. St Paul’s Cathedral, for example, offers 100 per cent scholarships to the cathedral school. A study by Margaret Barrett and Katie Zhukov, which follows the life trajectories of two cathedral choristers, found that the skills they acquired, such as leadership and self-discipline, had a continuing impact throughout their lives.

Fundamentally, our choirs have formed a vital part of English traditions since the earliest monastery which provided education for choristers was founded in the 6th century by St Augustine. To this day, they retain an important presence in our lives — from the local Christmas carol service to the Coronation of the King. 

It is depressing, therefore, that some of those who are leading our choral institutions not only seem uninterested in their preservation, but are indulging in wilful cultural vandalism. 

Anglican choral music remains one of the greatest expressions of divine perfection that humanity has been able to create. The cathedrals, churches and chapels which house it remain a welcome and sociable refuge in an increasingly atomised world for both the singers and those who come to listen, whether they follow the Gospel or not. If modern bureaucrats are unable to comprehend its value, they would do better to simply leave our choirs well alone.  

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