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Angela Tilby: Cathedrals should prize their choirs

17 May 2024


CATHEDRAL choirs are one of the glories of the English Church. In cathedrals with monastic foundations, choirs replaced the monks who had sung the daily offices. These choirs survived the Reformation, largely because of Queen Elizabeth I’s love of church music. What we expect today from Westminster Abbey and King’s College, Cambridge, and many other cathedrals and collegiate foundations depends on that tradition. It cannot be taken for granted, through. It survives today through a delicate ecology of raw talent, disciplined training, professionalism, and collaboration.

There are recent examples where this ecology has broken down. I can think of several newly appointed cathedral finance officers whose first move has been to try to cut back the choir. One cathedral precentor I know was asked to justify the “free concert” of choral evensong.

And clergy have not always been as supportive as one might suppose. In 2001, John Dudley Irvine was appointed Dean of Coventry after a curacy at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and an incumbency in London. He made it known (was it a joke?) that he had never actually attended choral evensong, and he seemed to see it as his primary responsibility to run Alpha courses.

Coventry recovered from that, but it is not unusual to find newly appointed cathedral clergy who argue for greater diversity, in ignorance of the network of community relationships that already undergird the music provision. Delicate community links, once broken, cannot easily be re-established. In the three cathedrals that I have been involved with during my ministry, the choirs have been more obviously socially and ethnically diverse than either the clergy or the congregation.

The charge of elitism is serious but misguided. The extraordinary diversity of music at the King’s Coronation required the Abbey Choir to be at its heart. Most directors of music I know are prepared to negotiate changes in the repertoire when appropriate. Such changes should not be imposed, however, but negotiated as between partners.

Many of the church musicians I know personally are involved with music in local schools, offering the chance of a musical education to those who would not otherwise get one. Cathedral choirs are points of congregational growth, as chorister parents start to attend worship to support their children.

Cathedrals also help to resource parishes and vice versa. I can think of an example, in Hertfordshire, where an enterprising incumbent, supported by a gifted organist, started a children’s choir from scratch by going out into the community and making an invitation to try singing widely available. The choir became good enough to tour cathedrals, and the congregation grew to support them.

Good music is not a luxury. It helps the Church to serve the community, prioritising genuine and organic growth over some of the cost-cutting, anxious, self-promoting strategies that cathedrals and larger churches can sometimes be tempted to initiate.

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