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Sheffield Cathedral choir comes to an end – wasn’t there a better solution?

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James Knell
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Last week, Sheffield Cathedral announced that it was disbanding its choir. A new choir is to be setup after the cathedral stated that in its current form it did not meet the needs of a “mixed urban community” and should be more diverse. In a statement, the Cathedral Dean said that “significant change” was required in its music department and that this necessitated a “completely fresh start”. The decision has impacted close to twenty boy and girl choristers, as well as several adult members and lay clerks. The choir has appeared on radio and television and performed at venues across the world.

In response, a letter was penned by parents stating that “We support the cathedral’s desire for increased diversity but see that as no reason to close the choir.” We couldn’t agree more. 

Whilst it is fair to say that cathedral choirs have not traditionally had a reputation for being bastions of diversity – yes most are white, male, and privately educated – this somewhat misses the point. Does it actually matter? Who really cares? Do we watch choirs perform to enjoy stirring choral music or to satisfy our curiosity about the demographic composition of the choristers?

Let’s be clear, if you want to attract new people and make the whole outfit a little more dynamic and appealing to a broader section of the local community, this is a perfectly sensible thing to want to do. It would be naïve to think that a group of posh kids is not off-putting or perhaps even intimidating to potential new recruits from less well-off backgrounds – that is a fair assumption. But to deprive the current roster of the thing they love – a first class musical education and opportunities to perform, in order to appeal to a “mixed urban community” (whatever that actually means) is a short-sighted decision. It’s one driven by a desperate desire to be seen as doing the politically correct thing and it shows a real lack of leadership by Sheffield Cathedral. This again plays into the woke narrative that to appeal to one audience you must discard of the other.

This smacks of little in the way of imagination and much in the way of knee-jerk reaction to the recent Black Lives Matter protests and all of the accompanying self-imposed guilt-tripping and grovelling of insufficiently woke corporations and organisations. Terrified of being perceived as inadequately “inclusive”, the cathedral’s response is simply to tear everything down and start over again. The problem with this approach is twofold. First, the choristers are being punished in the name of political correctness and missing out on their musical education – axed by executive decision from above for what crime? Being too white? Choral singing is something they love, have loved for years and have taken pride and joy in performing for the local community. Is it fair for that to simply come to an end?

Second, this is a missed opportunity. This was a chance for Sheffield Cathedral to showcase the city’s diversity, in its totality, instead – convinced the woke side of history is the right one – it has decided to pick one side and ignore the other. Instead, why could they not have started another choir or expanded the current one? This is a decision that will alienate and anger existing worshippers and make the choristers themselves feel undervalued and dispensable at a time when the cathedral should be sticking up for them.       

Some choristers are from private schools, yes. So are lots of kids who play tennis, rugby and row on the weekends. Should sports teams be disbanded by the same logic as the choir? Isn’t it eminently more sensible to simply expand, to add more teams, to do more outreach work at local schools, to see whether it is the activity itself that could be made more appealing than the demographics that should be targeted? Indeed, what is particularly interesting is that Sheffield Cathedral choir can hardly be accused of being exclusionary – two thirds of the younger members are either state or home-educated but that seems not to have irked the higher-ups too much. 

This is a classic example of it’s either one or the other – either you keep a talented established choir OR you have urban diversity. By any measure, this is odd. Especially in as large and diverse a city as Sheffield where it should not be beyond the capabilities of a large, respected and well financed institution such as a cathedral to cater to multiple tastes. In one way it is quite insulting and more than a little snobbish to assume that the diverse people of Sheffield are unable to fully appreciate choral music – that it is somehow inherently elitist and therefore unappealing to the masses.

Ultimately the solution to all of this is really very simple. The position of chorister should go to the person who has the best voice – privately educated, state educated, white, black or Asian. It’s really a very simple criteria, unless of course that is, you’re playing politics. 

James Knell

Research Director

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