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Farewell to Sydney

MICHAEL DEASEY, in his 25th year as organist of St Andrew’s Cathedral, Sydney, is calling it a day. His spiritual life and that of the cathedral are, he says, moving in different directions.

At 58, he has a new appointment as Precentor and Director of Music at All Saints’ Cathedral, Bathurst, also in Australia. He is to be made deacon at Petertide. It was the Bishop of Bathurst, Richard Hurford, representative of the Guild of Church Musicians in New South Wales, who planted the seed in his mind, he says.

“I’m moving from the capital to the country, to this very rural city of about 30,000. There’s no choir school, no long tradition — more of a country church, with a small adult choir that needs building up.”

In Bathurst, he can look forward to an early sung eucharist on Sundays, followed by a less formal service later, with a band. He looks forward to encouraging both styles of music. The tradition, he says, is middle-of-the-road Anglican.

Since Easter, Mr Deasey has been in England with a party of 16 of Sydney’s 20 boy choristers, and 16 singing men. They have been singing for services at Westminster Abbey, All Souls’, Langham Place, in London, and Canterbury, before visiting Brussels and Paris.

For Mr Deasey, a visit to England brings back memories. Born in Sydney, the son of a parish rector, he studied at the Sydney Conservatoire, and trained as a teacher, before spending two years as deputy organist at St Andrew’s Cathedral. In 1969, he came to England to study and teach, and served as organist of St John the Divine, Selsdon, in Surrey. In 1973, he moved to Canada, where he ran a large choir of boys and men at St Peter’s, Brockville, Ontario. In 1981, he returned to Sydney.

“I’m on my fourth Archbishop,” he says. The first, Marcus Loane, also Primate of Australia, was succeeded in Mr Deasey’s second year by Donald Robinson, “a great encourager of cathedral music”. Then followed Harry Goodhew: “an Evangelical, but moderate. Everybody loved him.” The present Archbishop, Dr Peter Jensen, arrived in 2001. He left the cathedral alone until he appointed his brother Phillip as Dean in 2003. Under him, cathedral life has changed dramatically.

Sunday-morning worship, Mr Deasey says, used to be “very classic Evangelical Anglican morning prayer, except once a month, when there was a choral communion. The choir would sing settings of the Te Deum, and even the Creed.”

There was a movement towards modern liturgy, but the services remained mainly choral. The choir has a small repertory of Latin pieces, and one Dean in the 1980s wanted orchestral Masses; so then the choir used to sing Mozart and Schubert. Congregations at Sunday evensong, Mr Deasey says, declined during his time as organist from about 100 to about 40, before it was ended last year. The choir now sings on Sunday evenings at half a dozen or so churches in the diocese.

Following the example of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, the boys now sing matins on Wednesdays, at 8.15. The service is taken by the head of the choir school. Shifting the choral service to the morning has trebled the congregation. Thursday choral evensong remains of the Radio 3 type — it was broadcast by the BBC at the start of the Sydney Olympics. The new Dean hasn’t touched it, Mr Deasey says: “That’s why we can do tours.”

But choral music in the cathedral on Sundays has now shrunk to one or two items at most. The Australian Prayer Book has been replaced by a Sydney service, sometimes called “Prayer, Praise and Proclamation”. “There is a structure to it,” Mr Deasey says, “but it doesn’t have the beauty of the old structure.”

The Dean preaches for 30 to 40 minutes. “He has a great gift of speaking. His content is often deliberately provocative. For example, in the early days, he said, ‘This cathedral is not a sacred space: it’s just a building, like a rain shelter. That table there is just a dinner table.’ He had wheels put on it, and has it wheeled out when it’s not in use.”

Dean Jensen has abolished liturgical colours, and disbanded the processional vergers, many of whom were young, says Mr Deasey. “Anything to do with ceremonial he regards as pompous. He wore a black gown, because, he said, that’s what was worn in the 17th century. He is a neo-Puritan, though I don’t think he would use that word to describe himself.”

Dean Jensen has replaced west-facing with north-end celebration, and has invited the congregation to say the prayer of consecration with him. “He’s got a horror of what he calls ‘priestcraft’.” On one Sunday early on, the choir stood for the Gospel, and the Dean called out, “The choir will please sit.” Now there isn’t always a Gospel, or it may precede the epistle. On the other hand, the Dean has not taken exception to traditional hymns.

A tour to the United States was cancelled for the choir last year, because it was to sing at places that had supported Gene Robinson’s consecration. “When I proposed this tour,” Mr Deasey says, “they couldn’t say no. There had already been a lot of anguish. I wanted to go to the most high-profile places: I knew the Succentor of Westminster Abbey, and the organist at Canterbury. But I didn’t know that the Dean [of Sydney] was going to come over to England and insult the Archbishop of Canterbury!”

Dean Jensen is “actually a very shy man, not totally at ease with people who come from a different tradition”, Mr Deasey says. “I would say he’s abnormally shy for someone in his position. He’s never been other than cordial to me — extremely cordial. One to one, he’s very gracious; when he’s on a public platform, he seems to become a different person.”

Part of the Dean’s thinking, Mr Deasey says, is that “if you are a real Christian, you have to be unpopular with the world — because you’ve got to stand up for something and tell people off. I find that very strange, because someone like Billy Graham is one of the most admired men in the world.”

The cathedral is now a split community, Mr Deasey says. “That’s the worst thing about it. A lot of people have left, and a lot of people have carried on. New people have come in, and congregations have gone up rather than declined. But people have left in anguish, or stayed in anguish, and the hierarchy is unmoved by this. Change has been such that it has been implemented without enough charity, in my view.”

Mr Deasey says: “Bathurst came out of the blue at the same time as things at St Andrew’s were going in one direction, and I found I was going in the opposite direction in my spiritual journey. It was very providential.”

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