A small galaxy of music stars, all of whom as far as I can tell have been concerned in making sacred music, have protested against an evangelical vicar’s decision to ban what he regards as non-religious music-making from the church to which he has recently been appointed (www.theguardian.com/world/2017/aug/23/uks-leading-musicians-fight-church-ban-on-secular-bookings-aled-jones-judith-weir). He says the hallowed premises should be devoted to “worship and ministry”.
Banishing music from consecrated ground is perverse enough – and how one extricates the spiritual from the non-spiritual I don’t know - but this is no ordinary parish church. The Rev David Ingall is the lately installed incumbent of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in London, known for more than 70 years as the National Musicians’ Church: its north chapel commemorates eminent musicians, and the ashes of Sir Henry Wood, founder of the Proms who learned to play the organ in this very chapel, lie there.
But more than that, it is a music venue with a huge reputation among professionals and amateurs for performances and as a rehearsal space – London is particularly sparse in orchestral space with decent acoustic. The music is also an important source of revenue for the parish.
“Our vision is for St. Sepulchre’s to be a place where music and musicians are valued and appreciated, a space for musicians to use, and a place where they can encounter God” says the church’s website. Yet no music is programmed there after the end of September, and instead the church is hosting evangelical Alpha courses. The Anglican evangelical wing has also got an organ removed from a Hertfordshire church recently because it is taking up space that could be better used for ministry.
With churches being available for music making, the works of composers from Hildegard of Bingen and Tallis, through Bach and Handel to John Rutter and Judith Weir would probably never have happened and it’s impossible to imagine a world without them. Churches were, are and should always be centres of culture, almost the only places up to fairly modern times where you could hear public performances of music, where churchgoers could see the finest sculpture and painting and hear the most accomplished oratory.
I’m not qualified to judge how pernicious or not this new zealotry in the Anglican church is, but anti-art zealotry is in the zeitgeist, from Donald Trump’s abolition of the National Endowment for the Arts to IS’s destruction of Palmyra. It has to be abhorred, and the spiritual nature of art and its place in the oldest contemplative environment of all must be acknowledged and safeguarded.
The difference between spirituality and religion is a conversation that is also beyond my competence, but nothing has got me closer to the former than Mozart’s Requiem, the last work written, it is said, for the acoustic of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna by that reputedly most venal of geniuses. It will be one of the last works performed at St Sepulchre’s if this ban is allowed to prevail.