Sheffield Cathedral

Vox Populi, Vox Dei

Disbanding Sheffield Cathedral’s choir shows how the Church of England is losing its voice

Artillery Row

Last week Sheffield Cathedral announced to the world that it would be disbanding its choir. It was doing so, the Dean claimed, in order to offer ‘a new model for Anglican choral life here, with a renewed ambition for engagement and inclusion.’ He declared that the move was necessary to engage with the growing pluralism of Sheffield, and to expand the diversity of both the membership of the choir and its musical repertoire.

Soon enough it was picked up in the press as a war between ‘diversity’ and ‘tradition’, another chapter in the culture wars, with progressive apparatchiks waging war on ancestral institutions.

But over the past few days this narrative has steadily fallen apart. Choir parents, members and supporters came forward to say that they had only learned of the decision to disband the choir from the media, and that the choir had always championed an increase in the diversity of its membership and a widened engagement with the populace. Furthermore, the announcement followed months of little to no communication from the Dean and Chapter, at an incredibly difficult time for choirs, when many are struggling to maintain communities bound together by regular practice and performance during lockdown.

The Dean’s two stated aims – greater diversity of membership and repertoire – have not stood up to scrutiny. He went back on his initial statement about the latter, saying that traditional choral music would continue. But his claim that the choir was largely composed of children from two private schools has been shown to be false, with two thirds of the choir’s members drawn from outside the private education system. Those involved with the choir do not report any disputes about diversity, but rather a long period of confusion and chaos, with less and less communication from the Cathedral, and three directors of music leaving in as many years. Finally, allegations of bullying, including an abusive late-night phone call, have been levelled at the Cathedral by individuals associated with the choir, and the Dean has been forced to announce a formal independent investigation into these accusations.

Lockdown has been hard for everyone, but for many members of the Church of England it has been an especially trying time, exacerbated by a growing sense that the leadership of their church does not know how to respond to the modern world, nor how to reconcile its sustained traditions with a changing and increasingly complex and heterogeneous Britain.

The leadership of the Church of England has adopted the techniques, language and thought processes of professional management consultants

To gain some insight into what was going wrong in Sheffield Cathedral I spoke to Nick Cox, a former lay clerk at Sheffield Cathedral, the director of the ‘Sing!’ outreach project at Sheffield Cathedral until 2017, and currently a member of the ‘Save Sheffield Cathedral Choir’ organisation that is challenging the claims made by the Dean, and calling for the current choir to be saved.

Quite soon a very different picture emerged from the culture war story of the press. Nick had spent nine years doing outreach for the choir, working with over one hundred and forty primary schools and thousands of children from every socio-economic and ethnic background across the city. He was at pains to emphasise his organisation’s commitment to diversity, saying that ‘the more diverse a choir is, the better that choir is’ and going into detail about the work the Choir did in his day towards achieving this goal. Nick regarded Sheffield as having been at the forefront of widening engagement and diversity only three years ago.

So what went wrong? Nick wouldn’t speculate on what had happened since his departure but was blunt about how he regarded the Dean’s statement, describing it as a ‘smokescreen’ and suggesting that the Dean and Chapter were ‘spinning their own story’ to the press. He describes having been on a ‘zero hours contract’ and his frustration at the failure of the Cathedral leadership to make the role a permanent and formal one after his departure. Since then the project seems to have been allowed to slowly die, and by 2018 had halted altogether. When I asked Nick about the makeup of the choir itself he revealed that not only was the cathedral’s claim to the press that the choir was largely drawn from two private schools incorrect, but that only last year the Dean himself had been in communication with a local private school in the hopes of creating exactly the sort of permanent link he seemed implicitly to criticise in his remarks to the Guardian.

The picture that emerges is disturbing but also familiar – a choir with declining numbers, its main outreach programme allowed to wither on the vine, a toxic atmosphere between clergy and choir, and a Cathedral leadership desperately trying to shift the blame for its failures onto the choir, under the cover of a supposed pursuit of more equality and fairness. The leadership of the Church of England has adopted the techniques, language and thought processes of professional management consultants, selling the dubious idea that drastic internal reorganisations can correct long term declines in numbers and output.

As extreme an example as Sheffield Cathedral may be, it isn’t unique, with desperate consolidations of dwindling resources being dressed up as radical and creative new programmes, and senior clergy chasing relevance by trying to latch on to whatever modish idea they think can reinvigorate the Church’s fading image. What this has led to is not only very poor decision-making, but a growing alienation between laypeople, junior clergy and the senior leadership of the Church of England. Public statements are intentionally opaque, platitudinous and contradictory; moral leadership has been abandoned in favour of managed decline.

The tragedy of the situation in Sheffield is that choirs are a unique and pure expression of the animating spirit of the Church of England. Whilst the modern age seems to deal in atomised individuals and undifferentiated anonymous crowds to be nudged and manipulated, choirs offer something very different. In a choir no one voice predominates, no single person can claim ownership, but everyone takes an active part in what is produced. The phrase ‘Vox Populi: Vox Dei’ reflects this form of collective wisdom, in which the will of God is revealed not by any one selfish will, but rather emerges through a common process of discernment, of diverse hearts and voices joined together in a single whole. Choirs do not consciously evangelise; they do not make arguments; they do not declaim doctrine. Rather they produce a thing of sheer beauty for the sake of God and give it freely to the world.

In describing traditional choral music as ‘elitist’ we import dangerous and unfair prejudices about who that music is for

I went in search of the role of the Anglican choral tradition today by speaking to Paul Provost, Rector Chori of Southwell Minster. Paul said that ‘choirs were living in fear that drastic things were going to happen,’ caught between ongoing financial pressures and the lockdown. Like everyone I spoke to or read, he was at pains to emphasise how open choirs are to widening participation, but he powerfully made the case that the charge of ‘elitism’ badly misrepresents choirs in cathedrals. Outside of school visits they represent the largest youth ministry in the Church of England; most choir families have no significant background in the church before their children enter the choir; and most choristers have little to no musical training before they begin. Many musical careers are born in church choirs, one of the very few areas of life where children of all ages work alongside professionals.

Choirs can be extremely demanding, requiring significant investments of time and energy by both children and their families but the rewards for all concerned are immense. Moreover, an enormous amount of brilliant choral music continues to be written in Britain, sometimes of a highly experimental nature. The idea that Anglican choral music is a niche relic is nothing short of farcical.

Thus the folly of the Sheffield decision from Paul Provost’s perspective is that ‘cathedral or church music is as successful as it is because it’s organic. It has grown and continues to grow. It’s not designed to do what it does, it’s just part of its nature. Music isn’t for me an addition to worship: it is worship. Music is the most perfect expression of the resurrection; it’s putting together the past in the present and changing the future of people there.’

At the root of what is happening in Sheffield is not misguided idealism or commitment to diversity on behalf of the Dean and Chapter, rather it is fear and elitism. The Dean, a high church Anglican raised on elaborate traditional liturgy, seems at once terrified of the modern world and lacking in confidence in his own Church and its traditions. In describing traditional choral music as ‘elitist’ we import dangerous and unfair prejudices about who that music is for, suggesting that high cultural choral music belongs only to the white middle class.

The greatest threat to both positive diversity and our musical tradition is the setting of this legacy two at war with one other, also valid ones. If we want our traditions to be passed on, then we should also want as many different kinds of people to appreciate and be a part of them as possible. And at the same time if we want a harmonious and successful multicultural society, we need to develop and share traditions in common. Behind the faux radicalism of so many clerical statements lies the worst kind of conservatism, a view of all change as a threat. It is ironically for this reason that many church leaders react to change with cowardly compliance, hoping to outrace the pace of alteration. Not surprisingly, bumbling Anglican bishops do not successfully retreat before the incoming tide of progress and end up flopping around in rapidly dampening trousers as dry land recedes before them. What they fail to see is that the changes in our society potentially make the Church of England all the more relevant as something strikingly and attractively different if only Anglicans can respond intelligently, are not afraid to criticise the more dubious innovations, and present their own solutions rather than relying on those of secular society.

The choirs of the Church of England are its voice, and perhaps its greatest voice: a voice raised up in worship of God, that demands nothing, echoing that of the angels about the throne of God. It is a voice heard and loved by every kind of person, by untold millions every Christmas as people around the world tune in to the choir of Kings College Chapel. Church choirs do not need to be justified by anything other than this pure act of worship, but if they did, the list would be (as we have seen) very long indeed. The threat to that angel-joining voice comes from those who should be the human voice of the church, the senior clergy and bishops, who have allowed the prophetic voice of Christ to fall silent, and have hidden behind the comforting mantras of organisational bureaucracy and PR.

Far from being just an aesthetic or intellectual failure, this directly leads to the unchristian and degrading treatment of those who have given most to the Church of England.

The petition to save the choir can be found here.

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