A couple of years ago I blogged about Voces Cantabiles a choir run by the two sons of a couple who attend St James who played a couple of concerts for the Church, the second of which ended up being by candlelight thanks to a power cut. The choir has gone from strength to strength winning a number of prizes around the world. They also have a smaller ensemble known as Voces8 consisting of just eight singers who have won awards in their own right. Digging around on YouTube I found that they now have their own channel where they are steadily uploading examples of their performances, and showing their range. Everything from this performance of The Lamb by John Taverner – something that I know from experience is fiendishly difficult. At the other end of the spectrum you have their latest video – â€œI’m a Trainâ€?.
Not surprisingly this seems to be another example of a church struggling with change – something I wrote about a few months ago with regards to the goings on in Cambridgeshire and Devon. (I’ve avoided any more comment on the Cambridgeshire case in particular until the dust has settled as it is currently going through the legal process.)
Based on their repertoire, and the list of places where they have previously sung in the eBay listing, you get the impression that the choir of St Stephen’s is pretty good. It is even more interesting when you use Google to dig past the somewhat bland website to the details of the musical tradition and browsing around what is left see how much the choir features – take a look at the page of music and events.
Aside from Ruth Gledhill I have yet to find out exactly why the choir is up for sale, and what the changes are that are causing it to want to sell itself on eBay – Ruth mentions trying to talk to the clergy and choir members, but as yet no further information.
In recent years, we’ve not had much opportunity to demonstrate our traditional British stoicism in the face of the British weather – not so this year. After major flooding yesterday, and with more rain predicted, today was planned to be the annual swimming party and barbecue for the junior choir. There was some speculation that maybe we’d cancel – as you can see from the picture we didn’t!
Here you can see the junior choir happily swimming whilst it pours with rain – and with the parents huddled under umbrellas!
Having said that it was still rather galling when after an afternoon of downpours, just as everybody was leaving the sun finally came out – well for a few minutes anyway.
Today’s Times has run another article about the continuing problems at the church my Grandparents attended in Dawlish. Under the headline â€œChurch choir walks out in revolt over vicars ‘bullying’â€? it reports that the Director of Music who has been in post for twenty years has resigned over the vicar, Rev Jerry Bird, insistence on introducing a restricted contract, ultimately centralising all control with him. As a result the choir have unanimously decided to resign in protest. Another member of the congregation has described the vicar’s attitude as â€œI’m the vicar, do as I say; no opposition or even mild criticism, will be tolerated.â€? Having said that, the situation has given the leader writer on the paper a chance to rewrite some hymns…
The Church Times this week carries a more detailed report, which gives a bit more insight into what is going on. Tom Ambrose, the vicar at the centre of the arguments is quoted as saying the following:
â€œIn general, we pursue things without involving the PCC and live a normal parish life. People who have come to the parish recently have no inkling of what’s going on because it doesn’t affect the parish.â€?
â€œWe operate just like a normal church, except that if I want to do something, I tell people what we’re about, we have a general meeting of ourselves, and then tell the PCC we’ve done it. Since they’ve chosen not to be involved, they get bypassed. It’s just so sad.â€?
He again complains that he has encountered opposition from â€œthe old guardâ€? to a number of innovations he sought to make in the interests of inclusivity.
However, looking at what he has said, he’s left himself in a difficult position, whether he likes it or not, the PCC is the legal body in the Church that represents the laity. The basis on which the minister and PCC is to work is clearly set out in the opening points of the Parochial Church Council (Powers) Measure:
(1) It shall be the duty of the [minister] and the parochial church council to consult together on matters of general concern and importance to the parish.
(2) The functions of parochial church councils shall include –
(a) co-operation with the [minister] in promoting in the parish the whole mission of the Church, pastoral, evangelistic, social and ecumenical;
I’d be interested to find out how his wife was elected Churchwarden, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he used the Churchwardens measure which gives the incumbent the ability to appoint a Churchwarden of his or her own choosing. However, ultimately even with one warden appointed, it can’t get over problems with the PCC. Both PCC and incumbent are vested with some powers, but ultimately one cannot operate without the co-operation of the other.
However, St Mary and St Michael in Trumpington is not alone in having publicised problems. The article then goes on to report on efforts of the Bishop of Exeter, Michael Langrish to calm problems at St Gregory the Great in Dawlish, a church well known to me as it was where my grandparents attended for many years, and in which they both sang in the choir. This story again made the national press.
The disagreements between the current priest-in-charge Rev Jerry Bird and the church focus on styles and times of worship and ministry style, and culminated in a walkout of the choir and organist before the sung Eucharist two weeks ago, and then a formal complaint. Unlike the situation in Trumpington though, things haven’t reached the point of highly expensive legal action, and it does seem that the bishop is encouraging both the incumbent and PCC to move forward.
In both cases the problems seem to centre on the incumbent wanting to grow the Church, and welcome new people by changing the main services. Giles Fraser also picks up on this theme in his column â€œBeware BNP Mentality in the Pewsâ€?. He highlights that all to often newcomers are â€œvery subtly and nicely â€”put in a box and told to mind their place or keep their kids quietâ€?, and are expected to conform to the way things have always been done. He also highlights that most clergy are afraid of â€œthe old guardâ€? as Tom Ambrose described them, and more often than not do not have the stomach for a fight with them. Certainly if the current situations in Trumpington and Dawlish are anything to go by, you can well understand clergy who go for the status quo.
The classic problem is that in general most of the money and time committed to the church comes from long term members, newcomers quite obviously will take many years to become involved as deeply in the Church community. The long term members then feel that because they are giving the most money, and the most time, that it should be the kind of services that they like that should be most important, and that things should be run the way they want. The tension with this is that the way things are done currently, and the kind of services they like are often precisely the things that are putting off new members.
It would be fair to say that we have much the same kinds of people at St James, however as a community we’ve been through precisely these sorts of changes without ending up with the PCC and the incumbent at loggerheads. Over the last year our numbers have gone up by about 15% – primarily at the family services, but there is growth also at our traditional prayer book services too.
I think the key things that have happened at St James is that things have been a process of evolution rather than revolution. So initially the service pattern changed from entirely traditional language services to including contemporary language services once or twice a month. Over time the pattern has evolved again so we currently have a weekly contemporary language Eucharist, whilst maintaining a traditional language alternative on every week. There have been times where the incumbent at the time has wanted to move quicker, but through negotiation with the PCC has changed. A notable example of this is the second Matins during the month when our incumbent at the time wanted it reduced to one. There have also been concessions made to the requests of the traditional congregations, so for example Matins and Evensong have now reverted to using the King James bible for those services after a period when they used the same version as the contemporary services. There are frustrations of course, the big one being that the junior choir are often unwilling to attend both Matins and the Eucharist, but in general things are a lot better than the two Churches that are in the headlines.
It is also important to acknowledge that the so-called â€œold guardâ€? have clearly shown that they understand that whilst they enjoy the traditional services, if the church is to grow we have to provide other services, and as part of that have shown a good deal of flexibility in having their services held at different times than what they had been used to. Indeed many will now say how proud they are of the diversity of services that we put on.
Ultimately it goes back to part of the Parochial Church Council (Powers) Measure, and the key work co-operation. If either the incumbent or the PCC tries to railroad or bully the other, you hit problems. Clergy need to realise that at times the parishioners will move a lot slower than they might like, and to understand their â€œBNP Mentalityâ€? as Giles Fraser puts it, but equally the laity need to realise that in order for their Church to survive, they need to change and grow. To move forward everybody needs to be part of, and support what is happening, otherwise it’s a recipe for disaster.
We’re just back from the performance of A Child of Our Time by Tippett, and Vaughan Williams Serenade to Music. Myself together with several others from St James, and a number of men from the Wokingham Choral Society, were there to bolster the tenor and bass lines of the chorus, which since the chorus was made up of students from Ranelagh and Holt schools, Holt being a girls school, was a little lacking in numbers of boys singing as against the girls. We also had four soloists (although Serenade to Music was apparently written for sixteen) and the Basingstoke Symphony Orchestra. The performance came off pretty well considering the difficulty of the Tippett – as one of the men from the Wokingham Choral Society said â€œWe didn’t quite come off the railsâ€?, and although we came pretty close at times, the choir was able to pull it back on track. Of course, talking to Beth and Becky, who were sat in the audience, they didn’t notice at all the points we went wrong, and thoroughly enjoyed the performance.
All in all it was a bit of a busy day. We went straight to Basingstoke from Church, where we had the usual jam packed Mothering Sunday service. At 2pm we started the final rehearsal – the first time the choir had sung with the orchestra – and went through with that until 5pm. Then we had a couple of hours off before we started the performance at 7pm.
The choir were seated in a balcony above the stage, which gave us a good view of proceedings, especially where I was sat in the front row of the tenor and bass section, right in the middle. During the break I snapped off a picture of the view from my spot in the choir. Seating wise the arrangements were as I described in the rehearsal earlier in the week. Richard, the other visiting bass and I managed a lot better to hold our line against the visiting tenors on the other side, and the young Casanova on the other side actually seemed to click into focusing with being sat in the Anvil – as I mentioned before he seems to be pretty talented when he was concentrating! Amusingly, in the break this time he was flirting with a couple of the Holt alto’s – even serenading them singing over a mobile phone, spurning the Ranelagh soprano’s he was flirting with on Tuesday. Actually, I shouldn’t make too many jokes about it, as my first girlfriend was in a choir with me many years ago, and I don’t know what stories may come out if I persist!
It was a little cramped in the choir stalls, but significantly less so than the chairs in the Ranelagh school hall. However, I did come pretty close to knocking my copy down onto the heads of the percussionists below at one or two points standing up and sitting down. It was also a bit of an eye opener seeing backstage at the Anvil too, and certainly gives me a much greater appreciation of the amazing performances that the Basingstoke Tappers put on every year – it was bad enough with all of us, and we didn’t have any costume changes or large bits of scenery. Incidentally, they’ve just released the tickets for the next Basingstoke Tappers production, which after a break last year, again includes the Chosen Few Big Band. I have to say that the previous times they have appeared, Beth and myself have been some of the last sat in the auditorium – whilst various of the audience seem to make a run for the car park once the dancers are off, the band has for their previous appearances played on for a bit, and it is really fantastic with the acoustic in the Anvil to hear a live big band in full swing. (Excuse the pun there…) Anyway, there are more details of the upcoming Basingstoke Tappers show on their website.
Apparently, the reason for the choice of the Tippett was because it was a long standing ambition of Stephen Scotchmer the conductor, and head of music at Ranelagh, to perform it. I have to say that although it was certainly dramatic, it’s not really my cup of tea to listen to if I had a choice. However, it certainly helps though to hear it complete – during rehearsal you don’t really get the whole picture without the parts sung by the soloists. It also helps to read the background notes about the piece to properly understand it. Alongside that, I often find that I really enjoy live performances of a great variety of music, even if it’s not something I’d go out an buy on CD, or listen to on the radio. There is always a definite buzz in hearing live music of any style – and the full orchestral versions of the spirituals are fantastic. The Vaughan Williams which has each vocal line splitting into three parts (so twelve part harmony) is something that needs a big choir to do, and sounds fantastic with the orchestra.
Anyway, despite the complications of the work, singing at the Anvil was certainly a memorable experience, and something I’d want to do again. Hopefully we’ll get an invite to have another go in two years time!
So tonight we had a couple of surprise visitors at Choir Practice. Andrew had been dropping hints all night that there were going to be a couple of extra sopranos coming along, and it didn’t really click who it was until they walked in!
Rachel and Kathryn appeared part way through the adult practice, and were down from their home in Scotland on part of the grand tour of the country that will be familiar to many young people considering going to university. Having interviewed at Cambridge earlier in the week, Rachel is going to be interviewing at Royal Holloway tomorrow for a place on their music degree next year.
Thinking about it, it’s actually been a while since we’ve seen them – Kathryn’s husband is a University Professor, and they originally came to Finchampstead from Scotland when he did some work in industry, heading back north of the border when he return to academia. Although they were only with the choir for a relatively short time they made a big impression, with Rachel singing a solo at our UK wedding celebration in 2001. Since they had both contributed towards the organ fund during their time here I thought they’d like to see and hear the finished article (even if the reeds are decidedly out of tune at the moment due to the cold) – so I took them both over to the Church and powered up the organ. Rachel had played the instrument previously, and she tried a few stops initially and I don’t think she noticed much difference – then she opened the swell box, and a big grin spread across her face! Although the volume has become rather an issue with certain people in the congregation, it certainly makes a great sound now.
Anyway, whilst it would be great if Rachel ended up at Royal Holloway as she’d only be a 20 minute train journey away when we needed extra help in the soprano line, I suspect that if she gets offered a place at Cambridge, that may be where she’ll end up. Certainly Danni, one of our alto line who started at Kings this term seems to be absolutely loving the experience. Whatever happens, it was great to have them visit, even if only for the evening.