musicians church henry wood window

The Musicians’ Church hasn’t banned non-Christian music, but it has sown confusion

“Absurd and obscene to see a church in London banning classical groups that want to perform non-religious music”, bleated the Humanists on Twitter, knowing full well that the secularist hordes would gather to cast stones of like-minded anti-Christian condemnation. They drove the nails home on Facebook: “If your choral music is not all about Jesus, then you’re no longer welcome to rehearse or perform at this popular church venue for choirs and orchestras.” And so the scorn poured forth: “This is a stupid decision, and I say that as an Anglican”; “..evangelism (sic?) is the ugliest, most vile form of Christianity”; “Very sad and worrying”.

And one of the best responses:

Weird reasoning – but I suppose if they think that music comes from the devil and people who enjoy it are going to roast in hell for all eternity, they don’t want their precious church sullied with it. I hope the faithful have plenty of money to keep the building going without infidels’ money!

The Humanists’ source was the Telegraph: ‘Proms conductor in row with musicians’ church after it bans “non-religious” concerts‘, which piled in a day later with ‘Don’t ban secular music from churches – you can’t tell me God doesn’t love Schubert‘. Even Premier caught on, churning the story with ‘Musicians’ Church bans non-Christian music‘.

And so it became truth: secular media sanctified by Christian media. The Church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in Holborn, London, the Musicians’ Church – where the ashes of Sir Henry Wood, the master builder and originating conductor of The Proms, are interred – has closed its ears to Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A; and to Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No. 15; and to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6; and also to Henry Wood’s ‘Fantasia on British Sea Songs’. After all, what has a trout got to do with Jesus? How does a raindrop magnify God? What are cheerful feelings in the countryside compared to the ecstasy of ‘Thine Be The Glory’? And as for a crass medley of bugle calls, hornpipes and ‘Rule Britannia!’, well, anything that encourages honking and hooters and racist jingoism isn’t very sacred, is it?

And the truth became truer: the vicar of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate, the Rev’d David Ingall, has banned all the devil’s music. Communist atheist Aram Khachaturian out; Charismatic Christian Graham Kendrick in. ‘Adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia’ out; ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ in.

And so on.

And Melanie McDonagh (Telegraph) believes she knows why: “But since St Sepulchre’s joined an evangelical group headed by Holy Trinity Brompton, it says it’ll stop taking bookings from musicians.”

Ah, those pesky Manichæan Evangelicals: what theological ignorance; what crass insensitivity; what a superficial grasp of the breadth and depth of Anglicanism they possess.

Except St Sepulchre’s has not said: “it’ll stop taking bookings from musicians”. The church’s full statement is quite clear about what they are doing and why:

The Parochial Church Council of St. Sepulchre’s, the National Musicians’ Church, recently took the decision to close its hiring programme from 2018. Hiring will continue as previously planned for the rest of 2017, and all existing bookings for 2018 will be honoured.

An increasingly busy programme of worship and church activities has led to ever higher demands on the church space, and the hire space is also shared with the church administration office.

Over the weekend there has been a significant response online and via social media to this decision, and we have been greatly moved by the concern expressed for the musical life of the church. We do wish to re-iterate that we remain committed to our ministry as the National Musicians’ Church. In the coming weeks we will reflect and pray, and consult with members of the musicians’ community about how best to fulfil that ministry moving forward, including particularly Dr. Andrew Earis (Director of Music at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and former Director of Music here at St. Sepulchre’s).

Finally, we are committed to our on-going programme of weekly Choral Worship, and our on-going programme of choral and organ scholarships. We will maintain and develop our excellent professional choir, which recently recorded a new album to be launched in the Autumn.

So it’s a question of priorities on the use of very limited space: it isn’t that ‘secular’ orchestras and choirs are banned; it’s that the church’s own ministry comes first. It isn’t that the Musicians’ Church is ceasing to be a rehearsal and concert venue; it’s that its own Choral Evensong, prayer meetings, discipleship programmes, youth work and ministry to the poor and marginalised come first.

What’s wrong with that?

The church acknowledges on its website: “We also have a rich heritage as ‘The Musicians’ Church’, and are passionate about our ministry and mission amongst the musicians’ community and using excellence in music to the glory of God.”

So they’re hardly going to go out of their way to irritate John Rutter or offend against the ashes of Sir Henry Wood, are they?

The church has musical excellence flowing from its bells (“..of Old Bailey”) through to its north aisle, where a number of distinguished musicians are commemorated. One of St Sepulchre’s former vicars was the Protestant martyr John Rogers, who was burned as a heretic during the reign of Bloody Mary. So the Rev’d David Ingall would scarcely have a problem at all in principle with hiring out the church’s facilities for (say) rehearsals to celebrate the Reformation: “And on Sunday I shall be conducting a series of reflections on the Passion of Christ from composers who were profoundly affected by the spirit of the Reformation — Bach, obviously, but also Schütz and Mendelssohn,” writes BBC conductor Sofi Jeannin in the Evening Standard.

But that’s ‘sacred’ music, isn’t it? It’s about God and Jesus and the glorious theological advancements and spiritual achievements of Martin Luther. It’s not ‘secular’, or concerned with trout, raindrops, or cheerful feelings in the countryside.

And therein lies the distinction which so irked the eminent composer John Rutter:

He said the timing of the decision was “significant” because of the retirement of the former Bishop of London Richard Chartres earlier this year. His successor has not yet been appointed.

“I know Richard Chartres was a great friend of music and he would have been the first to say ‘come on’. But he is gone and so there’s nobody else,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

He said: “What this current vicar seems to be saying is that music is OK so long as it’s part of a worship service. The concerts that take place in just about every church in the land, they’re not OK, and rehearsals are not OK either.

“That flies in the face of the Anglican tradition.”

In a letter sent to groups which used the church regularly, priest in charge the Reverend David Ingall said the church had become “conscious of the challenges of using a space dedicated to worship for non-religious hiring”.

If that wording is an accurate quotation, it was an ill-conceived and ill-phrased letter, for it conveys to respected, honoured and God-gifted musicians that their performance is not worship; that their art is somehow unacceptable when (or because) it is ‘non-religious’. And so the Rev’d David Ingall is presuming to separate sheep music from goat music, when King David said: ‘The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein‘ (Ps 24:1); a theology of creation which was reiterated by St Paul:

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake:
For the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.
If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake.
But if any man say unto you, this is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that shewed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof:
Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man’s conscience?
For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?
Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God (1Cor 10:25-31).

There is no sheep music and goat music: God is in all art whether it is ‘religious’ or not.

To John Rutter (and, indeed, to the 5,780 people who have so far signed the ‘Save the National Musicians’ Church‘ petition [just a tad overstated], demanding a re-think on the church’s decision), the Rev’d David Ingall appears to lack the most basic understanding of the nature and purpose of music (and, indeed, of all artistic creation). As TS Eliot explained:

The LORD who created must wish us to create
And employ our creation again in His service
Which is already His service in creating (‘The Rock’).

The nature of God was and is to create, and we, in His image, possess the same impulse. God made Schubert’s trout and Chopin’s raindrops and Beethoven’s hills and streams. When the artist paints them or writes poems about them, they transport us directly into God’s preeminent cathedral of Divine worship; not to worship creation, but to honour the Creator. When the composer, orchestra or choir drench our souls with the transcendent glories of this creation, it is literally a wonderful thing: a thing of wonder, love and peace. God is glorified not by ‘religious’ music, but in the excellence of all music.

See, I have called by name Bezaleel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah:
And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship,
To devise cunning works, to work in gold, and in silver, and in brass,
And in cutting of stones, to set them, and in carving of timber, to work in all manner of workmanship (Ex 31:2-5).

Note that God did not call Bezaleel to work on The Temple because of his ‘right’ theology or because he would ensure that the name of YHWH was woven literally into the fabric of the building. God called him because he was filled with the Spirit of God, and his craftsmanship was intricate and wonderful.

Imagine a world in which the only paintings which were deemed to glorify God were those which portrayed Christ; or the only sacred theatre was that which told Bible stories. No Turner, no Monet, no Picasso; no Shakespeare, no Chekov, no Shaw. Just Sistine Chapel ceilings and Pre-Raphaelite pastiche. And lots of medieval Mystery Plays played over and over again. King Lear out; church sketches and skits in.

The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts are a festival of awe and wonder: they do vastly more to glorify God than so much modern ‘Christian music’, which is often banal to the point of artistic offence. Dirge-like hymns and mundane 1980s choruses confine Christians to third-rate apprehensions of Divinity. It is not the mention of God or Jesus which makes music holy, but its capacity to inspire the human spirit to transcend the sort of officious myopia with which St. Sepulchre’s is now tarnished.

God is as much in a Chopin prelude as He is in a Handel oratorio. He is rarely to be found in the hearts of people whose revel in dividing sheep music from goat music, and that is the missiological error which the Rev’d David Ingall has made, for he leaves the world wondering what constitutes a “non-religious hiring”?

May a Muslim or Jewish group hire the space because they are religious? What about Scientologists or Seventh Day Adventists? By ‘religious’, do they mean specifically ‘Christian’? Why not just say so? And if so, on what basis are they assessing the denominational qualifications of belief and practice which constitute ‘Christian’? Must they be Trinitarian? Must they know their Patristics? Or is it sufficient just to invoke the name of Jesus? If so, can he simply be a prophet, and not a priest and king?

What if the hirer believes Jesus was basically a good man? Is that ‘Christian’ enough? Or must they be church-goers? And what would that prove?

What if the Royal Shakespeare Company wants to hire the space to rehearse Julius Caesar or Dr Faustus? Would they be refused because Julius Caesar is secular, or admitted because Dr Faustus is religious? Or would they simply be declined because the RSC is a secular company? Is it the play which makes it a ‘religious hiring’, or the people? May a Christian company rehearse secular music? May a Christian music group hire the space to rehearse their band’s U2 repertoire? What if it that repertoire consists only of One Direction covers? What if a secular boy band wants to rehearse ‘Personal Jesus’ or ‘Jesus is Alright’ or ‘Jesus Just Left Chicago’? And it gets very complicated at Christmas, doesn’t it? Are they saying that Sir Cliff would be welcome to rehearse ‘The Promise’ (yet to be released) because he’s a Christian and the song’s all about Jesus, but they’d turn away whoever wins The X Factor unless they’re re-releasing ‘Hallelujah’? Or does the X Factor winner have to be a Christian? Or does Simon Cowell have to convert?

Is the Christian mission all about words? May not God speak in quavers and crescendos? Is Christ never to be found in a “non-religious hiring”?