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Dean defends disbanding of Sheffield Cathedral Choir

22 July 2020


Sheffield Cathedral

Sheffield Cathedral

THE Dean of Sheffield has defended the disbanding of the cathedral choir, announced on Wednesday, saying that it is “in no way a retreat from choral worship”.

The announcement that the present choir was to go was made on Wednesday. The Vice-Dean and Canon Missioner, Canon Keith Farrow, acknowledged that the news would come as a shock to many, but emphasised that the cathedral was not abandoning the distinctive Anglican choral tradition. Rather, it was considering a new model, with the renewed ambition of engagement with the city and the inclusion of all.

“The decision has not been led by finance, and it’s not really been the direct impact of Covid,” Canon Farrow said. “But, like many other churches and institutions, it’s made us focus sharply on our core purposes and what we want for the future as we move forward.

“We’ve got a fabulous long heritage of music-making, and we will be building on that past. In 2019, we had a music review, and one of the options at that stage was to close and restart the cathedral choir. As a result of that and the situation at present, we decided now was the right time to to do that and to look to the future in a new way.”

The cathedral has traditionally drawn most of its young choristers from the city’s two high schools and wants to extend that relationship to more schools and communities across the city. Discussions are continuing with parents; there has been a meeting with the lay clerks, and members of the congregation received a letter on Wednesday.

In February this year, the cathedral appointed a new Master of the Music, Josh Stephens, who had been a boy chorister at the cathedral and was Assistant Director of Music from September 2018. He took up his post on 8 March, but subsequently resigned in June.

Three lay clerks have lost their posts. The cathedral will be recruiting a new Master of the Music, along with a Canon Precentor.

“I know how difficult this will be for many people,” Canon Farrow said. “The first thing to acknowledge will be the upset and grief. People are passionate about music, about choral music, and about cathedral worship.

“Once the initial shock has happened, we want them to feel with us an excitement at the possibilities for the future. . .

“Somebody said to me, ‘Oh, you’ll be wanting guitars and things.’ We’ve said, ‘No we’re not changing the type of music: we are extending our reach.’ Evensong is an act of worship. The whole host of heaven is with us at that moment.”

One of those to express her upset is Kate Caroe, a member of the choir-parents committee, four of whose six children have been choristers at the cathedral.

On Facebook, she has criticised an “underlying management culture” at the cathedral, pointing to the resignation of four directors of music in five years, and complaining about the treatment of Joshua Stephens. His appointment has been greeted with delight, she says, and his resignation left lay clerks, choristers, and parents distraught.

Mrs Caroe said on Thursday that the press had heard about the closure before the choir, which she describes as “an experienced, committed and flexible core of highly skilled singers. . . I want them to make a success of the choir. But they won’t until they deal with the culture.”

The Dean of Sheffield, the Very Revd Peter Bradley, responded to the allegations on Friday. The cathedral took the welfare of staff very seriously, he said, and support had been offered in many different ways during lockdown. “It was absolutely not Chapter’s intention [not to give support], and if that’s how the choir felt, we regret it,” he said.

Negotiating changes in cathedral music was not easy, he acknowledged. The cathedral had been reflecting on it for two or three years, not least prompted by the very low numbers attending daily choral worship. A review was commissioned, and the choir and congregation had contributed to discussions. The Chapter had concluded that a gradualist approach to change was not enough, and that a new beginning would be most effective for everyone.

“Everyone recognised that there was something really significant here that we were not getting right,” he said. “There is a lot of high-quality music-making in Sheffield, and we felt there were real opportunities here for contributing in a much broader way to the life of the city. We didn’t feel we could negotiate within the structure we had. If we were to have something to sustain us 20 years into the future, investment in starting again seemed worth while.”

He went on: “We will reflect on what happened. But I want to be very clear here. This is about raising ambition, building a sort of choir that, instead of trying to replicate Westminster Abbey, is asking how we can use the fullness of the tradition we have to meet the needs of a rapidly changing urban cathedral, in a way that really engages a large number of people in our mission. This is absolutely in no way at all a retreat from choral worship. But it is looking for a new model.”

And he said: “We have set up a ‘lessons learned’ review of the last four years in the music department. We have asked whether there have been issues that we have not responded to well and how we could have worked that differently.”

The Dean will be using his address on Sunday to give parishioners a sense of what the cathedral is trying to do in relation to music in the future.

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