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Limit of six on amateur choirs ‘unreasonable’

26 May 2021

Dozens are allowed to sing in pubs and stadiums, but not churches


Bowdon Parish Church choir members at the beginning of March 2020

Bowdon Parish Church choir members at the beginning of March 2020

THE tightening of the Government’s coronavirus restrictions on singing, only 24 hours after the relaxation of rules covering the entertainment industry, has caused anger among church choirs.

As bars, theatres, and sports grounds opened up last week, new guidance, applicable to England, appeared on the Department of Culture, Media and Sport website restricting gatherings of amateur singers to just six (News, 17 May).

The Association of British Choral Directors said that the advice “diverges from what we had been led to believe. This update was deeply disappointing for all of us who have spent so much time carefully planning indoor rehearsals, and we are concerned that the guidance for amateur singing imposes unreasonable and unworkable restrictions that other leisure and amateur activities are not currently facing.”

Social-media users reacted in protest. The assistant director of music at Ely Cathedral, Glen Dempsey, posted on Twitter: “10,000 football fans singing in football stadiums, dozens singing in pubs, yet only six non-professionals are allowed to sing in our cavernous cathedrals, churches, theatres and concert halls.”

The director of music at Pembroke College, Cambridge, Anna Lapwood, tweeted: “This is ridiculous and another blow to our industry. . . Why are people allowed to eat in crowded restaurants when choirs can’t meet socially distanced in well ventilated rooms?”

An online parliamentary petition (petition.parliament.uk/petitions/586559), asking the Government to allow choirs of any size to rehearse indoors, provided that social distancing is maintained and Covid-secure measures are in place, had gathered more than 35,000 signatures by Wednesday afternoon: more than three times the number required to force a government response.

In the House of Commons on Thursday of last week, the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, told MPs that he shared the frustration of choirs, but “the decision was made on the basis of very clear public-health guidance.” He hoped that full rehearsals and performances could resume on 21 June, assuming that the final stage of the roadmap was implemented.

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, directed his reproach via the Conservative MP for Mid Worcestershire, Nigel Huddleston. When the junior tourism minister tweeted from the Evesham medieval festival “Our festivals and events contribute so much to our communities and our tourism industry,” the Bishop responded: “Thank you, Nigel. But please enable the Three Choirs Festival to go ahead by lifting the ban on more than six amateur singers singing together inside. It makes no sense in view of the fact that there is no such ban on professionals.”

The director of the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM), Hugh Morris, said this week that the restriction had created “upheaval, not to say uproar”, and he urged all singers to show solidarity in song by joining the Big Music Sunday Service, online, on 6 June from Lichfield Cathedral.

He said that, as choirs were so severely restricted again, the service was “a powerful way for singers to come together, even if that has to be online. The music is rich and varied, and comes from around the world — which seems especially appropriate at this time, as we all come together to support each other.”

The service will be streamed live at 6 p.m. on the day, on the RSCM’s YouTube channel, and will be broadcast on the BBC’s Songs of Praise. Resources are available through the RSCM website.

Mr Morris also said: “We have been doing our best to cut through the ‘white noise’ of all the social-media outcry and focus on doing things which will actually have an impact. That’s included direct conversations with DCMS and other government contacts. We are focusing on helping to show that singing can be done safely, with evidence from different sorts of groups being collated and sent through to them.

“We are not expecting an imminent about-turn — but one can never tell, and the strength and depth of feeling of so many people is very clear to see.”

The Association of English Cathedrals called on cathedral singers — both choirs and individuals — to join the protest. The Dean of Lichfield, the Very Revd Adrian Dorber, who chairs the association, said on Tuesday: “We appreciate public-health concerns, but now that sport stadiums can have fans, pubs and bars are open again, and more and more of us are vaccinated, it seems punitive of the authorities to stamp down on singing, especially on amateur choirs and church congregations.

“There is very little definite, published, and properly peer-reviewed evidence to support these draconian measures. However, where there is evidence, it is that singing brings enormous pleasure and satisfaction to thousands of people, and is a major contributor to personal well-being. We urge the Government to have a rethink right now.”

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, who leads the Church of England’s Recovery Group, said on Monday: “We understand the frustration that many feel at the limitations in current government guidance at this stage, and share the longing for amateur choirs — and, indeed, congregations — to be able to sing without restrictions.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic we have worked with the Government to try to ensure that guidance for churches and places of worship was proportionate, and informed by a detailed understanding of our environments and practices. All along, we have encouraged the Government to be alert to the consequences of our choirs’ continued silence, as well as the loss of congregational singing.”

She said that the group was “reminding” the Government of the “importance of singing to lift our prayers to God”.

The composer John Rutter has launched ChoirGuides, an online choral learning aid to help singers to learn their individual parts and make virtual choir recordings.

Mr Rutter said: “These are exceptional times, and choirs are responding to the challenge in new and inventive ways. We hope this new tool will prove especially useful now and also for years to come, as choirs will always be glad of help learning their music.”

In Scotland, amateur choirs can meet indoors, with social distancing and other measures in place, in Level 1 areas (mostly in the islands), but only outdoors if in Level 2, and not at all in Level 3 (Glasgow area). In Wales, indoor rehearsals of up to 30 people are permitted.

In Northern Ireland, from Monday, groups of up to 15 may rehearse indoors without special precautions. Risk-assessments must be carried out for bigger groups.

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