Sheffield Cathedral choir

Sheffield Cathedral sacks choir – because God told them to

The Dean and Chapter if Sheffield Cathedral have sacked their choir, and this has caused a bit of a stir in the media and  consternation on Twitter. They explain:

For some years the Dean and Chapter have been looking carefully at the music offer of Sheffield Cathedral. They have come to the conclusion that there needs to be significant change. This is in order to create a Music Department and Choir ready for the exciting future of the mixed urban community in which we live and work.

With the Diocesan Bishop, Chapter are appointing a new Canon Precentor in August, responsible for Cathedral worship and music. They hope this will bring increased creativity and stability.

Following a review of the Music Department in 2019, Sheffield Cathedral Chapter has decided that a completely fresh start is needed. As a result, Chapter concluded this is the right time to close the current Cathedral Choir.

This decision has not been easy because it will directly impact several colleagues and indirectly impact us all in our close-knit community. However, we believe this is in the best interests of the long-term mission of the Cathedral.

The Canon Precentor will lead the recruitment of a new music team and the development of a fresh vision for our worship. For some time, Chapter has been considering a new model for Anglican choral life here, with a renewed ambition for engagement and inclusion. They recognise that this will require flexibility, imagination and experiment.

Chapter is committed to retaining the distinctive choral life of an Anglican cathedral, drawing fully on our long heritage of music-making. They look forward to working with our partners throughout our City and Diocese to make this renewed vision a reality under God.

This statement is important: they have a vision to serve a “mixed urban community”, they have prayed about it “for some years”, and now they seek to make it “a reality under God”. They seek greater inculturation and the Holy Spirit has led them to sack their choir: the mission is divinely ordained. Those who are pouring scorn on this in the media or tweeting disdainfully from their sanctified laptop pulpits need to consider carefully, for they may be opposing the Missio Dei, the very work of God.

The Anglican choral tradition is a fine thing in deed. It is a magnificent jewel in the Church of England’s crown, eclipsed only by the greatest jewel, which is the Monarchy, and the pearl of great price, which is Jesus. Matins and Evensong are liturgically supreme, and the choir is integral to the transcendent splendour: the music is the mission, and the mission is of God. And the liturgy is inculturated, which is why it endures and flourishes, and also why it adapts to every autonomous Anglican province across the Worldwide Communion. It is integrated and organic; incarnational and culturally variable. An Anglican choir in Zimbabwe sounds different from the one in Egypt; and a choir in Japan sounds different from one in Wales. Just as the gospel becomes inculturated in order that it might be comprehended, so Anglican ways of worship must be adapt to a soil and climate if it is to bring forth fruit.

The Dean and Chapter of Sheffield Cathedral felt that their music ministry had become ‘elite’, which, frankly, is precisely how many parishioners would view its choral tradition. If you’re heavily into ‘grime’, your soul isn’t going to be much moved by Thomas Tallis or Hubert Parry. A church which stands aloof from the pervasive culture ceases to engage with people because it ceases to be shaped by social forces: there is no point trying to win street kids with the music of the ecclesial civil service.

So humility is required. England, like so much of postmodern Western culture, is typified by diversity, fragmentation and plurality. Sheffield Cathedral seeks to establish a music ministry which is diverse in order to minister to the fragmentation and plurality. Applied theology understands culture, and seeks to discern which beliefs and practices are culturally relative. The Anglican choral tradition that works in Oxford will necessarily be different from the one that works in Kirkcudbright: there is no Anglican supra-cultural way of doing worship, no universal way of organising the choir, and no uniform repertoire of anthems.

It is not the job of an Anglican cathedral to rescue a cultural heritage from oblivion, but to redeem culture through inculturation; to embrace all that is good, noble and beautiful, while remaining critical and discerning so that they do not sanctify evil. If the word of God is only ever expressed in a local dialect, then the music of God must be give authentic expression to the common life of the community of God at each particular gathering, in each generation, in whatever country and city. As Article XXXIV explains:

It is not necessary that Traditions and Ceremonies be in all places one, and utterly like; for at all times they have been divers, and may be changed according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word. Whosoever through his private judgement, willingly and purposely, doth openly break the traditions and ceremonies of the Church, which be not repugnant to the Word of God, and be ordained and approved by common authority, ought to be rebuked openly, (that others may fear to do the like,) as he that offendeth against the common order of the Church, and hurteth the authority of the Magistrate, and woundeth the consciences of the weak brethren.

Every particular or national Church hath authority to ordain, change, and abolish, ceremonies or rites of the Church ordained only by man’s authority, so that all things be done to edifying.

You may not agree with the Dean and Chapter of Sheffield Cathedral, and you may believe the decision to disband its choir may be more about bullying expediency (and see here) than the inspired work of God, but each cathedral chapter is free to express its worship in a form which is appropriate to its Christian community in their cultural context, provided that the essential universal Anglican norms of liturgy are respected. Sheffield Cathedral seeks to create worship which is incarnational, separated from the people of the City only by the offence of the cross, and not by any ‘elite’ or alienating character of artistic expression. You may decry the desecration of tradition, but don’t pretend that local creativity isn’t a thoroughly Anglican response to the missional stirrings of the Spirit.