BRITISH CHORAL HERITAGE AT RISK IN PARISH CHURCHES
What is your experience? I would like to know of examples, either from your own experience, or particulars you may know second-hand:
where a choir has been disbanded, or is being eroded by significant actions (ie other than just the difficulty of recruitment)
where there has been positive change, either by reversing active erosion, or by starting a choir from scratch with the intended aim of rejuvinating or supporting a choral tradition.
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Here is my ten-point analysis of the present situation:
1. Many churches with a strong choral tradition and a large congregational, have had choirs disbanded in favour of a 'worship band'. Major examples of the latter are the London churches of Holy Trinity Brompton and St.James Muswell Hill. Many churches and ‘church plants’ have sought to emulate these two examples. Added to these are the many churches which have been closed, where choirs once thrived.
2. Meanwhile the continuing tradition of British choral music in school and concert venue is being eroded by cuts in education. Many opportunities for singing and music education in schools have already been lost to extra English and Maths, in a knee-jerk reaction to league-table-driven timetabling and funding. The recent studies citing evidence for the positive effects of musical training on intellectual development (more particularly than emotional and social development) have been ignored by many head teachers, local education authorities and politicians. Positive successful and ongoing work with childrens’ choirs is being left to organisations that work outside of the church and school context (e.g. The Voices Foundation, The London Youth Choir and The Oxford and Cambridge Singing School).
3. Fewer and fewer churches are maintaining choirs capable of performing music of real beauty and complexity, e.g. Tudor polyphony, as much of it is in a number of voice parts that would stretch most choirs that maintain just a regular 4-part choir. Most pieces are between 5 and 7 voices, with two notable examples stretching to 19 and even 40 voices (Robert Carver's 'O Bone Jesu' and Thomas Tallis's 'Spem in Alium' respectively – not expecting regular use in a church service though, although I have conducted the latter in a morning service at Pilgrim Hall, and sung 8th choir 2nd bass at a wedding!). Among other genres of great beauty heard in concert but rarely in worship, are Bach motets and Venetian polychoral music.
4. Positive examples of the reversing of the trend in Parish Churches are now few and far between. I know of St.James Milton in Portsmouth, St.Mary’s Ware, St.Mary Redcliffe Bristol, StPeter’s Collegiate Wolverhampton, Christchurch Priory, Croydon Minster, Grantham Minster, St.Mark’s Hamilton Terrace, St.Philip’s Norbury, St.John the Divine Kennington and St.Peter’s St.Alban’s - that maintain a vibrant choral tradition involving children, young people and adults. And churches that maintain a robed choir in healthy co-existence with a worship band: St.John’s Keynsham, All Saints Marlow, St.Andrew's Oxford, Bromley Parish Church, St.Mary’s Wimbledon, Holy Trinity Kendal, St.Nicholas Harpenden, St.Peter’s Staines, Bath Abbey and Beverley Minster. It is worth noting how many of these are minsters and Greater Churches, and not ‘normal’ parish churches.
5. Examples of churches where one group views another group’s worship style uncharitably are still, after the well publicised 'worship wars’ of the last decade in the USA, alarmingly many.
6. Examples of training that fosters a 'both/and' approach in theological colleges and universities are to be found, but there are not enough. However, the cultural variety of weekend and day courses offered by the RSCM is encouraging.
7. The label ‘cathedral-style worship’ has in many places become thoughtlessly attached to choral music of beauty or complexity, to such an extent that the ministry of such music is subsumed into what many regard with suspicion as ‘elitist’ culture, rather than allowing it to ‘reflect the beauty of God’ and to ‘minister and heal’.
8. The ‘Sing Up’ initiative was good for cathedrals and some ‘Greater Churches’ (abbeys, minsters, priories and collegiate churches), but did not benefit ‘normal’ parish churches much – simply due to the fact that if it had targeted normal parish churches as well as cathedrals and Greater Churches, the funds allocated during the term of the project would have been so dissipated so much that the benefit of the project would have been negligible.
9. Some Parish churches that have an on-going choral tradition have benefited indirectly from the Sing Up project simply by emulating the practicalities, particularly the partnering of schools and churches, with a church music director being also paid as a school singing teacher. Pioneers in such choral outreach are Leeds RC Cathedral and Bath Abbey; and examples of parish churches that have followed their example are St.John's Keynsham, All Saints Marlow, St.James Milton, Portsmouth and St.John the Divine Kennington.
10. Church choirs that don’t maintain a junior division are in danger of not building for the future. Some maintain a pragmatic approach by either paying choral scholars, or by simply being in an area where students can be recruited (who have already been trained as junior choristers elsewhere), or in an area where amateur choirs abound. They are also neglecting essential pastoral work with children, youth and families.
My own ‘both/and’ approach, was firmly set in stone in my second post at Waltham Abbey. It was the subject of one of the target studies in ‘Ten Worshipping Churches’ (ed. G Kendrick: MarcEurope 1986).