Ysenda Maxtone-Graham

Why is Sheffield Cathedral’s choir being disbanded for ‘inclusivity’?

Why is Sheffield Cathedral's choir being disbanded for 'inclusivity'?
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The Dean of Sheffield, the Very Revd Peter Bradley, comes across as a likeable man of sound mind and brisk sense of humour. Of his own liturgical tastes, he assures me, ‘drums and guitars are not my tradition. The London Oratory is more my world, musically speaking. I cannot say too strongly how committed I and the cathedral are to the Anglican choral tradition and evensong.’ As for his current portfolio, he says, ‘I’m Acting Precentor at the moment. I wish I’d been paid for it. God knows I’ve earned it.’

Thursday was a frantic day for the poor man, as he fought to explain to the nation’s outraged press the cathedral’s announcement that they’ve closed its renowned 40-strong choir of men, boys and girls, and are about to appoint a new Canon Precentor who will work on creating ‘a music department and choir ready for the exciting future of the mixed urban community in which we live and work’ and ‘the development of a fresh vision for our worship,’ with ‘renewed ambition for engagement and inclusion’. What we want to know is, why on earth is he disbanding the choir he already has, that produces, to a professional standard, the very thing he is so ‘strongly committed’ to?

‘There’s been a decline in recruitment over the last few years,’ he explains to me – which is exactly what the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster also claimed when he emasculated Westminster Cathedral Choir last year. I don’t quite buy it, in either case. ‘We want to draw more people into the life of the choir.’ So, they’re planning a different kind of recruitment? By ‘more’, I think he means primary-school children and non-professional adults from all over the city. Lovely and diverse. All very well, in theory, but in practice every cathedral relies on its core choir: a small regular set of highly trained singers who turn up on time, every time.

In mid-conversation with me, the Dean said, ‘Sorry – I’ve got to stop. I’m late for a redundancy meeting.’ Sheffield Cathedral doesn’t sound the jolliest place to be at the moment.

Can the Dean and his Chapter be surprised that many of us, who treasure the Anglican tradition of daily choral sung services in our cathedrals (in normal non-Covid times) are sceptical when we read Sheffield’s abstract-noun-ridden press release – full of propaganda words, ‘refresh’, ‘renewed vision’, ‘exciting future’ and ‘in the best interests of our long-term mission’? It’s a textbook example of contemporary Anglican-speak: wishy-washy but somehow chilling in its bland avoidance of detail.

We might be overreacting from sheer dread that all cathedrals are about to find themselves desperately short of money this autumn and will decide that their choirs are an easy cut. The Dean assures me that Sheffield is not short of money and will not be cutting down on the choir budget, just spreading it more widely.

I put my scepticism to a friendly, down-to-earth woman called Liz Hudson, who works at the cathedral and was also fielding telephone calls. ‘Honestly,’ she said, ‘we put out a mission statement about a fresh start, and everyone thinks that means it’s going to be worship bands from now on…’ She assured me it’s not, but then she said she used to work at Leicester Cathedral and they did have a ‘praise band’, and it’s not either/or; cathedrals can have both…

That is surely what’s going to happen in this ‘exciting’ experimental new future. And far more people will turn up to the well-advertised evangelical services than the non-advertised traditional choral evensongs, and the cathedral will gradually phase out the evensongs. That’s what we all see coming, with much horror, because it’s always an easy option for any institution to dumb down to get the numbers up. The Dean assures me that dumbing down is exactly what he is not planning to do. ‘I want us to do more music by contemporary composers such as Roxanna Panufnik.’ Well, we’ll see.

What we’re up against here is today’s cathedral deans and canons wanting to ‘make their mark’. There are too many clever people living in close proximity in tied housing during a pandemic, with not quite enough to do. They set up Zoom summits and invent roles for themselves. Spare us.

A ‘chorister mum’ at Sheffield Cathedral wrote vociferously to the Church Times this week saying it had all been terrible and unhappy at the cathedral recently. Four different directors of music in five years; alleged harassment of the Director of Music Joshua Stephens from the cathedral management; no communication whatsoever from the cathedral to the choir between the months of March and June; and in June Stephens resigned, stating he was not compatible with the prevailing culture in the cathedral.

Was it true that relations between the cathedral and choir had broken down, I asked the Dean? ‘That is not my perception of how things were,’ he said. ‘It is other people’s perception. Lockdown has been difficult. It’s been quite an exhausting time…’

Exhausting, yes, but also desperately sad for the choristers and lay clerks, who long to get back to singing Purcell in G minor on a Tuesday evening but are now, suddenly, in this brave new world of inclusivity, redundant.