You are currently browsing the daily archive for August 5, 2020.

While all was quiet in our streets during lockdown, many changes have no doubt been taking place in relative silence.

One of them was Sheffield Cathedral’s decision to disband their choir. The recently hired choirmaster felt he should resign. The choirmaster was not involved in the clergy’s discussions.

It is unclear what exactly infected the minds of the Church of England clergy during lockdown, but some of the ensuing results, such as this, are questionable.

On Thursday, July 23, 2020, The Guardian reported:

In a break with centuries of tradition, Sheffield cathedral is to stand down its choir in order to make a “completely fresh start” with a new team of choristers that reflects and engages with an increasingly diverse city.

A statement published on the cathedral’s website on Wednesday said “significant change” was needed. The cathedral’s governing body, the Chapter, had decided on “a new model for Anglican choral life here, with a renewed ambition for engagement and inclusion”, it added.

Although the cathedral’s music department had been the subject of a review, the closure of the choir was unexpected and is likely to infuriate traditionalists in the Church of England and classical music circles.

Apart from a handful of adult singers, the current choir is drawn largely from schools in the Sheffield area (including private schools) and mainly performs music from the Anglican choral tradition.

Clicking on the link for the Cathedral’s statement produces a pop-up window stating (emphases in the original):

Sheffield Cathedral is your Cathedral

Your Cathedral has seen many adversities throughout history to present time. Now we are faced with overcoming the challenges of COVID-19. 

Sheffield Cathedral is a beacon of hope for the whole community. People have been gathering on this site for nearly 1,000 years. With your support now, people will be able to gather here for many more years to come.

Please help your Cathedral to continue to be ‘A Place for All People’. Thank you.

The Very Reverend Peter Bradley, DL
The Dean of Sheffield

Well, that no longer holds true for the choir or the choir director, it would seem.

The Cathedral’s statement of July 22 reads, in part (emphases mine):

For some years the Dean and Chapter have been looking carefully at the music offer of Sheffield Cathedral. They have come to the conclusion that there needs to be significant change. This is in order to create a Music Department and Choir ready for the exciting future of the mixed urban community in which we live and work.

With the Diocesan Bishop, Chapter are appointing a new Canon Precentor in August, responsible for Cathedral worship and music. They hope this will bring increased creativity and stability.

Following a review of the Music Department in 2019, Sheffield Cathedral Chapter has decided that a completely fresh start is needed. As a result, Chapter concluded this is the right time to close the current Cathedral Choir.

This decision has not been easy because it will directly impact several colleagues and indirectly impact us all in our close-knit community. However, we believe this is in the best interests of the long-term mission of the Cathedral

For some time, Chapter has been considering a new model for Anglican choral life here, with a renewed ambition for engagement and inclusion. They recognise that this will require flexibility, imagination and experiment …

They look forward to working with our partners throughout our City and Diocese to make this renewed vision a reality under God.

Dean Bradley told The Guardian:

“We need to be engaging with people who are part of this changing city. We believe strongly in equality and giving as many children as possible the opportunity to sing at the highest level.”

The appeal of church music was wide but sometimes “presented in a way that can be seen as elitist”, he said.

Bradley acknowledged the decision to close the current choir would “cause genuine grief”. He hoped that some of the existing choristers would become members of a new choir, which will be formed after the appointment of a new canon precentor this summer.

The new choir will continue to perform music from the Anglican choral tradition but will broaden its repertoire, he said.

“This sort of change in our sort of institution can be immensely painful, but that’s not a reason not to move forward. My view is that many cathedrals will be making similar changes over the next few years.

“It’s going to be a bit torrid for us, but we’re not going to sit in a bunker.”

You can see photos and biographies of the men who made the decision here. Perhaps they should consider making a ‘new model’ — borrowing their words — for cathedral leadership themselves. Given their own logic, they could resign.

But I digress.

Back to The Guardian, which says that one professional vocalist who had sung at Sheffield Cathedral was deeply disappointed by the decision:

James Bingham, a former member of the Sheffield cathedral choir who now works for the Irish National Opera, said he was appalled by the cathedral’s statement, tweeting: “It implies that the Anglican church’s rich choral tradition is to blame for its declining influence.”

“Choral music is one of the great cultural legacies of the Church of England,” he told the Guardian.

The idea that classical music was elitist was misguided, Bingham said. “At Sheffield [cathedral], they’re making amazing music on a daily basis in the city centre that is free to everyone.”

As a student at Sheffield university, Bingham had sung as a choral scholar five times a week for three years. Choirs were strong communities bound together by frequent performance and rehearsal, he said.

“The cathedral choir still holds a big place in my heart. If this had happened while I was still there, I would be heartbroken.”

I agree. I sang in my church’s choir as a teenager, and it was a very close-knit group of people, young and old, male and female.

This was the Cathedral’s tweet on Saturday, July 25:

Good.

You can read more disappointed reactions here.

Another tweet, by way of reply, posted a link to the petition ‘Save Sheffield Cathedral Choir’. When I wrote this post at the end of July, the count of signatories went up and up as I was reading the petition.

The petition explains that the choir is already quite diverse:

In recent years, Sheffield Cathedral Choir has made great advances in encouraging the role of women and non-binary members among the lay clerks and choral scholars of the choir. It also supported a girls’ choir and a Schola Cantorum, serving university student communities. Cathedral musicians, past and present, led the Cathedral’s outreach work which took music across the city. Notably, this included the Sheffield Cathedral Sing! Project, which worked with 2,000 children from 30 primary schools each year, including children of mixed heritage, disabilities, and of socio-economic disadvantage. Through this work, cathedral musicians connected meaningfully with schools from some of Sheffield’s most disadvantaged areas.

The petition also takes exception to the accusation about privately-educated choristers:

Regrettably, the Dean and Chapter’s statement also advances a misleading argument regarding the proportion of choristers at Sheffield Cathedral that were privately educated. Over the last 20 years, privately educated children have typically constituted a minority of the choristers at Sheffield Cathedral. In fact, we are aware that the Dean and Chapter were seeking to establish a formal partnership with Birkdale School, a private school in the city this year. These actions seem to be at odds with the Dean and Chapter’s statements.

The mother of one of the choristers wrote a lengthy explanation of the background to the choir situation on Facebook. That post is a copy of a letter she sent to the Church Times. The Master of Music — choirmaster — who has since resigned was a recent hire. Excerpts follow.

See what changes lockdown can produce:

This is my understanding of what has happened, from my vantage point as a choir parent since 2011:

There was a very short review (perhaps two days?) last summer, but changes were made and the choir went from strength to strength from September 2019 to March 2020, evidenced in Chapter’s unanimous decision to appoint Joshua Stephens as Master of Music, taking up his post on 8th March to everyone’s great delight. However, with the onset of coronavirus, Mr Stephens was furloughed and the cathedral failed to communicate this to any of the choir. Mr Stephens allegedly experienced harassment from the cathedral management and silence from the clergy while furloughed. This was not unusual behaviour for the cathedral as others have experienced the same in the past, but lockdown sharpened the focus and made it more evident. I made a formal complaint but little action was taken, and Mr Stephens resigned at the end of June stating that he was not compatible with the prevailing culture in the cathedral. Chapter accepted his resignation without talking to him to understand his motives. Lay-clerks, parents, and choristers were distraught and begged Chapter to initiate mediation. But instead they decided to close down the choir and start afresh, with no encouragement to ex-choir members to be part of the new vision.

The lady posting on Facebook said that the choir had been considering a tour in Berlin, a wider recruitment programme and a means of providing continuity for boys whose voices were changing.

The clergy apparently did not care too much about the choir during lockdown, although the choristers’ parents did their best to maintain morale:

The choir was energised and optimistic, but during all the pressures of lockdown as well as the fire at the Cathedral Archer Project, the clergy admitted that the music department had “slipped through the net”. Nevertheless choir parents and layclerks kept up morale amongst the choristers with zoom parties on the theme of different composers each week, but there was no communication at all from the cathedral to the choir from the last choir rehearsal before lockdown until 24th June when the Dean talked about bringing Mr Stephens back off furlough and preparing to start up again.

BUT:

Mr Stephens was not copied into that email and he resigned the following day.

HMM:

The fourth Director of Music to leave Sheffield cathedral in five years.

His departure precipitated other resignations:

The cathedral’s Head Steward has also since resigned in protest, as did the leaders of the 100-strong Toddler group last year, and as has one of the choir chaperones, stating that she feels unsafe and unsupported.

Wow.

The first the choristers and their parents found out about the disbanding of the choir was through the media:

Indeed the press heard about it before even the choristers did!

Something is very wrong with the Church of England. They have used coronavirus to make rather unwelcome changes. Our churches are now becoming increasingly politicised.

Instead of offering succour to those who had a hard time getting through lockdown and the loss or illness of loved ones, they have turned their attention to the prevailing cultural movements of the day, rather than to our loving Saviour and merciful God our Father.

How un-Christian. How unbiblical.

I hope to post an update when I find out more news.

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