The closure of Sheffield Cathedral Choir has caused much controversygeograph/Chris Downer

Last month, Sheffield Cathedral disbanded its cathedral choir in attempts to supposedly better serve the city’s “mixed urban community”; the Dean argued that choral music is “presented in a way that can be seen as elitist”. This decision has sparked strong reactions: some people are outraged, some say good riddance. Even considered articles on the issue have been harshly criticised.

In light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, the concept of diversity has recently come under close scrutiny once again. Movements such as ‘Decolonising Music, Cambridge’ are part of a wider academic trend challenging pervasive structural racism, an ugly by-product of Europe’s colonialist past; earlier efforts at diversity no longer hold up. Oxbridge chapel choirs are an integral part of this country’s choral tradition, both in their own right and as a training ground for future professionals. How far, then, are they diverse and accessible?

“Oxbridge chapel choirs are an integral part of this country’s choral tradition”

The short answer is not very. There are four female and one BAME DoMs (Director of [Chapel] Music) across the 23 chapel choirs in Cambridge. The music performed is similarly homogeneous: virtually every celebrated choral composer is white and male, including evensong staples such as William Byrd, Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Howells, and even modern composers such as John Rutter and Eric Whitacre. This is not a criticism of the people within this tradition; even notorious groups such as the John’s Gents are individually lovely. The problem, instead, is structural.

Some musicians have argued that choirs provide important opportunities particularly to people from low-income backgrounds. To their credit, this is partly true; however, there are some important caveats. As ‘Decolonising Music, Cambridge’ notes, initiating more non-elite people is largely futile if there is no top-level diversity. Additionally, despite a few exceptions, the well-known cathedrals are attached to fee-paying cathedral schools, and even chorister scholarships aren’t equal; at Ely Cathedral, for instance, boy choristers typically get 50% off school fees while girls only get 33%.

Choral services are typically a passive musical experience for the congregation, and so it is unsurprising that some clergy question their liturgical value. In many ways, a choral evensong is as much a performance as an act of worship, with hymns frequently being the only element of communal singing. Furthermore, Anglican choral music is rooted in British imperialism of the 1800s and 1900s. Choral evensong thus retains overtones of the glory days of the Empire, its racism and sexism included. Attempts at modernisation often appear to threaten this tradition. The reservations of Sheffield’s Dean about serving the modern community are therefore not as ridiculous as some may argue.

“The English choral tradition is well-loved and an integral part of British culture, not just for white, elite men.”

However, an outright removal of choirs- such as at Sheffield- is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The English choral tradition is well-loved and an integral part of British culture, not just for white, elite men. Evensong numbers are rising even as wider church attendance falls, and within Cambridge, the many chapels all manage to sustain their own congregations. They also provide social spaces where people from diverse backgrounds can share their love of music. Through choir, I’ve made friends with Natscis, Classicists, Lawyers, Medics and foreign Erasmus+ students among others. It is therefore wrong to get rid of this tradition solely because it is ‘out of its time’ - that, indeed, is part of the charm.


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Efforts to combat the gender divide have been happening for many years now. The student-run Minerva Festival has previously set up evensongs with all-female composers and hosted choral composition competitions for women. Unfortunately, by selling itself as all-female, such an initiative paradoxically risks reinforcing the ‘exoticism’ of women composers. A more nuanced approach, pioneered by Cambridge DoMs Sarah MacDonald and Anna Lapwood, is to feature a female composer in every evensong. With time, this approach could pave the way for similar actions from other choirs. In light of BLM, a greater push for racially diverse composers is also highly likely.

Sheffield’s decision also seems to be motivated by more than just diversity, occurring immediately after the resignation of the Master of Music Joshua Stephens. Conflict between musicians and clergy is nothing new: in 1849, the famous organist and composer Samuel Sebastian Wesley wrote how the music profession feels “that the Clergy either systematically disparage music, or at best view it with a cold side glance”. These tensions continue as strongly as ever, with high-profile casualties including at Westminster Cathedral. With officials at Sheffield being accused of harassment towards the musicians, it is hard not to suspect that official statements of diversity hide other motivations for disbanding the choir.

Ultimately, there are no quick-fix solutions to these issues of diversity and accessibility. Of course, church music is also a reflection of the church, a relatively conservative institution which is also coming under scrutiny from BLM groups. I cannot propose solutions, nor perhaps is it my place to. Diversity is not merely about conforming to modern societal expectations, it is about allowing the very best in this tradition to emerge. What I want to achieve here is open, nuanced discussion; we need to move on from reactionary think-pieces.

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