Richard Mor­ri­son

BBC Music Magazine - - CONTENTS - Richard Mor­ri­son is chief mu­sic critic and a colum­nist of The Times The Richard Mor­ri­son col­umn

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.