So church music is now elitist?

So church music is now elitist?


norman lebrecht

July 28, 2020

From Sebastian Milbank’s thoughtful analysis in The Critic of the choir demolition at Sheffield Cathedral:

At the root of what is happening in Sheffield is not misguided idealism or commitment to diversity on behalf of the Dean and Chapter, rather it is fear and elitism. The Dean, a high church Anglican raised on elaborate traditional liturgy, seems at once terrified of the modern world and lacking in confidence in his own Church and its traditions. In describing traditional choral music as ‘elitist’ we import dangerous and unfair prejudices about who that music is for, suggesting that high cultural choral music belongs only to the white middle class.

The greatest threat to both positive diversity and our musical tradition is the setting of this legacy two at war with one other, also valid ones. If we want our traditions to be passed on, then we should also want as many different kinds of people to appreciate and be a part of them as possible. And at the same time if we want a harmonious and successful multicultural society, we need to develop and share traditions in common. Behind the faux radicalism of so many clerical statements lies the worst kind of conservatism, a view of all change as a threat. It is ironically for this reason that many church leaders react to change with cowardly compliance, hoping to outrace the pace of alteration. Not surprisingly, bumbling Anglican bishops do not successfully retreat before the incoming tide of progress and end up flopping around in rapidly dampening trousers as dry land recedes before them. What they fail to see is that the changes in our society potentially make the Church of England all the more relevant as something strikingly and attractively different if only Anglicans can respond intelligently, are not afraid to criticise the more dubious innovations, and present their own solutions rather than relying on those of secular society….

Read on here.


  • Eric says:

    The Dean of Sheffield Cathedral gave a bizarre interview to John Pienaar at Times Radio the other day. There’s a complete transcript of it here:
    The Dean laments the fact that they haven’t been singing enough of the Anglican Tudor repertory and that he wants “to bring all of it back into use.” Yes, all of it!! Then he singles out Roxanna Panufnik as “an English, woman, composer” as someone they could be singing. Embarrassing interview – beyond belief.

    • Edward says:

      what garbage he spouts. If there are concerns about the breadth of repertoire, all that needs to happen is the Precentor can have a chat with the Director of Music and say, “how about a bit more Byrd, and it would be nice to have some contemporary rep occassionally”, the Director of Music can then use their knowledge of the repertoire to choose appropriate pieces for the choir to sing. Not a major problem. And saying that they hope the new choir will contain some of the old choristers begs the question why get rid of it in the first place. If this is the kind of fuzzy thinking that manages the Cathedral then no wonder they’re in such a mess

  • Adrienne says:

    Once again, an art form is assessed according to the identity of its supporters rather than its intrinsic qualities.

    Elsewhere on this site, we have a humbling performance of Mendelssohn’s Octet, composed when he was 16, at a time when grime artist Wiley (who appears to have no understanding of his own limitations) can be defended by some for making anti-semitic comments.

    I don’t think the gulf between extremes has ever been wider. We should be very concerned.

  • Richard Slack says:

    No one loves traditional Anglican Church music more than I do, I have sung a lot of in my life. I have also been to a choral evensongs midweek in Sheffield, and also in other cathedral where, once you take out the choir, clergy and vergers there are about 2 people left. The function of the church is to spread the Word and the Dean and Chapter have to find ways of doing so and their music should be one of them. The Cathedral holds many services a week and can provide different types of music at them. A cathedral choir costs money and cathedrals don’t have much of it so they need to plan how they do.

    • Andrew says:

      Evensong is music sung in worship of God. It matters not whether there is another audience but Him. That’s one of the beauties of the tradition: it happens because God is worthy of worship. So much of the current mess arises from a lack of faith – often among clerics – and seeing worship as a mere branch of showbiz valued by the metric of bums on seats and conforming to the secular fashions. It’s for Him. That we get to listen in is a bonus.

      • M McAlpine says:

        Sorry but this is nonsense. To worship a congregation must feel in tune with what is being done. Traditionalists have always reacted against change – from the time Isaac Watts composed his first hymn.

    • Howells of Indignation says:

      Whilst I don’t disagree with this statement, I don’t see how abolishing the current setup in its entirely helps achieve this laudable aim. The majority of people affected are children, for goodness’ sake. It’s hardly like the church is overflowing with them.

  • R. Brite says:

    Thanks, I now need brain bleach for that image of bishops “flopping around in rapidly dampening trousers as dry land recedes before them”!

  • Nik says:

    I’ve read the article linked to above, and I’m still none the wiser as to the objectives behind the dissolution of the choir. If there was so much diversity/outreach stuff happening already under the existing setup, then what exactly are they hoping to achieve by starting again from a clean slate?

  • Alank says:

    Just another example of a decadent western civilization determined to commit cultural suicide. This version of a Maoist revolution will also have an unhappy ending.

  • Counterpoint says:

    I cannot comment on the Sheffield situation specifically, but it all looks symptomatic of the lack of leadership in the Anglican Church over the last 50 years. The similarity of the Church of England to the BBC as organisations that aspire to be soft, left of centre is interesting because let’s be candid, the historic and natural constituency of both is the white actual or aspirant middle class. Yet, both organisations have fallen out of love with that constituency and push it away at every opportunity in service of the mantra of ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’. That the UK’s cathedral choirs, which are so admired throughout the world for the quality of performance of a vast and ever growing repertoire, could possibly be under threat from within is a national disgrace. To term choral music elitist because it requires a commitment to perform and to appreciate it on the part of practitioners and listeners is to completely miss the point. As a previous post has pointed out the ability to recognise the intrinsic quality of one thing against another is under serious threat from the insidious social influencers who monopolise and dictate current debate.

  • Jack says:

    “The Dean, a high church Anglican raised on elaborate traditional liturgy, seems at once terrified of the modern world and lacking in confidence in his own Church and its traditions.”

    This encapsulates all that’s wrong with the Anglican Church and why, sadly, it’s in steep decline.

  • Edgar says:

    If the Dean’s reflections on Music mirror the quality of his theology – oy vey!!!

    He’d do better to follow St. Francis, who recommends preaching at all times, and “only with words when it is necessary”. Oh well….

    Better to not sing at all in these COVID-19-times. (And, instead, perhaps make good use of it and look for a new Dean…?)

    • Andrew says:

      The St Francis quote is bogus. No record of it before the 19th Century – and St Francis was pretty keen on using words (even preaching to the Sultan during the 5th Crusade).

  • fflambeau says:

    Probably 90% of all music, not just classical music, is elitist.

    So what?

  • Edgar Self says:

    I look in vain among church leaders for any trace of spirituality. What J see is politicians, hucksters, careerists, self-forgiving money cadgers, smug televangelists in crystal palaces. Volttaire, where are you? “Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with th entrails of the last priest.”

    The same old clutch of scribes, Pharisees and hypocrites once driven from the Temple with the money-lender and Bingo idolators. Do they still pray you out of Purgatory at so much an inch? Dante was a true’s invention of Purgatory, a convenience unknown to the Bible godsend to the ledgers of the Church. ehich unlike Nature’s do not have to balance. Purgatory was an inspired resource not occurring even to the author of the Apocalypse. Do we need another Savanarola, and a St. Francis rather than a Pope Francis, despite his Jesuitical protestations nd humility in choice of name for the Vicar of Christ? Are two popes now quite enough, as they were not at Avignon?

    Anglican and Catholic love of regalia led to charges of good or bad theatre. Toilers at Episcopal Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill called it the Big Top. Flamboyant organists Ted Worth and John Fenstermacher stood in for steam calliopes, and hhe surreal saga of Bishop Pike wandering off into the Negev desert with a case of Coca Cola and a female acolyte, to die in rather less than 40 days and nights, added a Breughelian touch.

    Alan Watts festooned shreds of renegade Catholicism, then defrocked Anglican, and finally Zen guru before coming to a predictable bad end himself, living in Mill Valley and lecturing on Jean Varda’s houseboat in Sausalito, where I saw him, and heard him on KDFC alternating with Paul Tillich on the quidity, i fnot liquidity, and the thisness of suchness Zen bones and half-baked koans. My Blockfloete teacher at UC Berkeley was even named Bonhoeffer, after the Berliner Protestant marty. Religion was then inescapable.

    It would help if Anglicans could decide if they pray to God or Henry VIII. A pity to lose the English Book of Common Prayer, for they have done those things they ought not to do, and have not done those thy ought to do, or heard the comfortable words of St.John. It’s been downhill since Becket and Woolsey. Imagine having cardinals Richelieu or Mazarin as prime minister today. On the other hand, we might do worse, and have done.

    I don’t mean to pick on Anglicans; I was a paid singer in an Episcopal branch of the Church of England in America, and could single out Mormons except that they have a better Tabernacle Choir and put a gold statue of an angel named Moroni atop their state capital. I sympathise with the a-Gnostic skeptic who lamented that there ought to be a God. And of course there is, but He is elusive though not above harges of culpability from His creatures, who created Him in their image.