OVER the past two weeks, we have seen more than 6000 signatories on a petition, a letter in The Guardian from many of the UK’s leading musicians, and national and international press coverage about the closure of St Sepulchre’s, the National Musicians’ Church, to sacred and secular concerts and rehearsals (News, 25 August).
It is a building that has touched many lives over the years, from those who have relatives with names in the Musicians’ Book of Remembrance to those who have sung at the annual St Cecilia’s Day service as young choristers, and the hundreds of amateur and professional musicians who rehearse and perform there each month.
I first became associated with St Sepulchre’s as an undergraduate, and was privileged to be Director of Music for 15 years. Over that time, we built up an exciting programme of musical activity with worship at its heart. We developed choral and organ scholarships, an occasional St Sepulchre’s Festival, and produced recordings and broadcasts.
Throughout this period, we worked with the diocese of London on large-scale building projects that brought the church facilities up-to-date, created new spaces, and helped to fulfil its ministry as the National Musicians’ Church. We welcomed many choirs and orchestras to rehearse and perform, and warmly encouraged members of these groups to take an active part in our worshipping life.
When the parish priest retired four years ago, we worked closely with the diocese of London to draw up exciting plans to expand the musical ministry of St Sepulchre’s further by setting up a Musicians’ Church Trust to look after the building and grow the activity. There was much energy and excitement at the time as we explored the question of what “National Musicians’ Church” actually means. Was it a historical monument or a living church? It felt as if St Sepulchre’s was coming of age.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0Suddenly, things took an unexpected turn of events. We were notified of the appointment of the Revd David Ingall from the Evangelical church of Holy Trinity, Brompton, together with a planted congregation of sixty. The Bishop of London felt that St Sepulchre’s needed a rebalancing of activity to give a stronger focus on Christian worship.
The PCC wholeheartedly agreed with the Bishop’s vision, but found it difficult to believe that a church-plant was the best way to achieve this, and struggled with the idea of appointing a priest with little musical knowledge to be in charge of the National Musicians’ Church.
The new congregation arrived in September 2013. Despite a challenging transition period, we worked hard with the new leadership to explore ways of making old and new work together. Contemporary worship services began and took place alongside a traditional choral evensong. We were excited by the idea of St Sepulchre’s as a beacon of hope that brought together different parts of the Church, in the same way as it already embraced such a diversity of music.
There was a gentle rebalancing of external rehearsals and concerts to make space for new worship activities. The Bishop of London put in place a Bishop’s Mission Order to protect and safeguard the music programme. We were optimistic for the future.
But, from early on, there were seeds of anxiety. In particular, there was unease regarding those music groups and concerts that, up to this point, had been welcomed with open arms, but were now being seen as less acceptable, owing to the new leadership’s interpretation of Christian teaching.
Gradually, PCC members left and were replaced with those from the new ministries. The “Henry Wood” meeting- and rehearsal-room was restyled the 24/7 prayer room. And the church was used for a whole host of new activities, including a notable youth event with caged football in the church nave. Many felt that this was deeply unfaithful to the legacy and history that had been inherited.
© Peter MatthewsResting-place: Sir Henry Wood conducting at the Proms, in the St Cecilia window above his grave in St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, where he learnt the organ. Photo from Who’s Buried Where In LondonIn a recent letter to hirers, the church leadership explained that the current changes are to make space for an expanded programme of worship and church activities. It is a commonly held belief that the arrival of a church-plant always breathes new spiritual life into a building, where a planted congregation of sixty soon becomes six hundred.
This has not, however, become the reality at St Sepulchre’s, where the Sunday congregation is rumoured to be shrinking, not growing.
Place that in sharp contrast to the huge groundswell of support for St Sepulchre’s as the National Musicians’ Church. I firmly believe that this outpouring is not just an attempt to keep St Sepulchre’s as an affordable rehearsal and concert venue, but a cry for a real spiritual home for musicians.
So, how do we move forward? The leadership of St Sepulchre’s has expressed a desire to continue to be the Musicians’ Church. But how can it do this if it closes its doors to nearly all of those who call it home? For me, there is no distinction between concerts and worship: it is all “church”. It is hard to argue that Bach’s St John Passion or Mozart’s Requiem is any less of a spiritual experience than a church service.
With the recent reaction to events, St Sepulchre’s needs to realise that it has a huge missional opportunity in front of it, if only it is brave enough to grasp it. Whether this is possible with the current leadership is unclear.
St Sepulchre’s now has to decide whether it is going to withdraw into a narrow theological ideology, or whether it is brave enough to embrace an inclusive vision for the whole church and be a leader in a new model of church partnership.
And this question applies to Holy Trinity, Brompton, too. Is it to be perceived as an inward-looking planting church, imposing its will on other, weaker churches? Or could this moment mark its coming of age, leading the way in a new and exciting future of churches with a broad theological outlook, working together for the good of all?
I truly believe that through this we could still see the “beacon of hope” that we envisaged four years ago, an inclusive church that welcomes all and a place where all traditions can thrive and work together — with worship at its heart.
Dr Andrew Earis is Director of Music at St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, and former Director of Music at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate.