Our churches should welcome, not ban, music
In a move that evokes the Puritan repressions of the 1650s, a group of evangelical Christians is attempting to banish concerts from one of the biggest and most historic churches in the City of London. To add irony to injury, the building is widely known – or has been known until now – as the National Musicians’ Church. It is the place where the ashes of Sir Henry Wood are buried (the founder of the Proms learnt the organ there as a boy), and where stained glass windows commemorate the Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba and the composers John Ireland and Walter Carroll (who wrote the charming little pieces you play when you are first learning the piano).
The church is St Sepulchre-without-newgate, Holborn.
Until this month its only claim to notoriety was that its bells were tolled to summon crowds to watch convicts led to their execution at Tyburn. That was a bit before my time, you’ll be surprised to learn, but now it is infamous for another reason. Though its spacious nave and fine acoustics make it an excellent venue for classical music, the many choirs and orchestras that hire it for rehearsals and performances have been informed that, after next year, the church will not be available for ‘secular’ music-making.
The ban hasn’t come entirely out of the blue. Music groups wanting to hire the church say they have been made to feel unwelcome for the past year. Even so, it’s a depressing development that a church with so many musical associations has become so hostile to music-making.
What lies behind it? The short answer appears to be God. Well, his more assiduous cheerleaders on earth, anyway. Like several other London churches, St Sepulchre has been taken over – ‘seeded’, I believe, is the preferred ecclesiastical verb – by a group of evangelical Christians stemming from Holy Trinity Brompton (‘HTB’ to its friends and foes alike). That is another London church, this time in affluent South Kensington, which has become famous as the home of the ‘Alpha’ course [a series of interactive sessions to introduce the basics of Christianity], and thus a Mecca (if I may be allowed to mix up major world religions) for well-heeled West London yuppies who have discovered God.
Absolutely nothing wrong with that, nor with this form of intense, Bible-based worship. The words ‘Christian evangelicals’ have acquired a bad odour because of the lamentable attitudes of some Christian fundamentalists in the United States. But in Britain the biggest crime laid at the door of HTB and the Alpha course, at least until now, is organising painfully trendy supper parties.
It must be admitted, however, that there’s a streak of intolerance running through the HTB brand of evangelical Christianity. It requires adherence to a certain worldview, and a tendency to look down on less fervent branches of Anglicanism as being somehow inferior in their expression of Christian faith. I can quite see how the Htb-trained people now leading St Sepulchre would find it difficult to accept ‘their’ church being constantly used by amateur and professional musicians who – God forbid! – might have little or no Christian faith at all. True, a ban on concerts also deprives a church of valuable income, but that wouldn’t really be a worry to the HTB faction, because the Alpha courses are highly profitable in their own right.
Apart from the music ensembles affected, however, why should anyone else care about this squabble? Well, as someone who has played the organ in a very different sort of London church for the past 40 years, I hope I don’t sound equally biased in the other direction, but to me the HTB attitude seems in some respects contrary to what the Church of England has always stood for – which is inclusivity and the benign acceptance of many different levels and varieties of faith, including those who are near-agnostic or who value the Church for its good deeds in society as much as its theological teaching.
And the one thing this ‘broad church’ doesn’t do is ban people from using its buildings because those people are more interested in making music than in praying. Quite the opposite, and with very good reason. For many people, music is a much more powerful conduit for spiritual emotions than words are. Bach’s St Matthew Passion is the finest sermon never preached, and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis the greatest expression of holy communion, even though it doesn’t involve breaking bread and the sharing of wine. The evangelicals should embrace music’s power – and the unbelievers it attracts into churches – not ban it unless it is watered down into happy-clappy sing-alongs.
Of course, this is just one more chapter in the eternal powerstruggle between clerics and musicians, which was as fierce in the days of Palestrina, Purcell and Bach as it is today. It’s pointlessly stressful for all concerned, so I hope those running St Sepulchre-without-newgate soon change their mind about the value of musical activities in the church. Who knows? The evangelicals might win some new converts.