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A dream that is dying in Holborn

01 September 2017

Can St Sepulchre’s recover the vision of being the Musicians’ Church, asks Andrew Earis

© Peter Matthews

Resting-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 London

Resting-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 London

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.

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