Sheffield Cathedral Choir

Sunday 26 July: Address at the Cathedral Eucharist, The Very Reverend Peter Bradley, Dean of Sheffield

In place of a sermon this morning, I would like to tell you what is happening with our Cathedral Choir, and why this is happening. I would also like to set Chapter’s decision to close the Choir in a wider context, which I hope that you will find helpful.

Sheffield Cathedral Choir – What’s Happening and Why

During the past few years, there have been some real high points in our choral life, such as the live BBC TV broadcast on Easter Day in 2018, and the Advent and Christmas Carol services this past year. However, for many years only two or three people, and sometimes no one at all, have attended Choral Evensong on weekdays; fewer people are now attending Choral Evensong on Sundays too. Our worship is offered primarily to the glory of God, but it must surely give us pause if we put such great effort into our choral music, and only a handful of people join us for this. In contrast, attendance at cathedral Choral Evensong nationally is very strong, with rising numbers. We are aware too, that despite some really good work, recruitment to the Choir has been weaker than we would have hoped.

Towards the end of 2018, Chapter decided to commission an external review of our worship and music. You might recall that every member of the congregation on our electoral roll was asked to contribute, and there was widespread consultation of choir members and choir parents, the Diocese, and the civic community. Chapter received the review report in early summer last year.

It was very encouraging that contributions to consultation showed broad agreement. To summarise the findings:

  • We want a choir that is full – which has not been the case for some time
  • We value our choral tradition here very deeply, but we want the choir to be singing at services with much larger congregations
  • We want greater flexibility, experimentation, and imagination in our worship
  • We want to raise our ambition for excellence in singing, so that once again we will be one of the best, if not the best, cathedral choir in the UK
  • Members of the congregation want the choir integrated much more fully into the life of the congregation
  • Our Diocese and Bishop ask for better provision for Diocesan services, not least in light of the new Diocesan strategy
  • Members of the congregation – very strongly – want systematic provision for choral worship every Sunday of the year

To achieve all this, Chapter was recommended to consider closure of the Choir, restructure, and begin again with a fresh vision. In our discussions, we have also been considering these additional questions:

  • Will recruitment be stronger if we extend our reach, and work with a wider group of schools? As “a place for all people” we have been asking ourselves if our new choir can better reflect the diversity of our city.
  • What might a more flexible provision of music actually look like? Should we be considering entirely new ventures, such as a short Sung Eucharist on Friday lunchtimes when the city centre is full of people?
  • Should we begin with a choir solely of choral scholars, from which we can build up our provision? Do we need more choirs?
  • How can we make proper provision for boys whose voices break? Would this be a VI Form choir for young men and women?
  • Are we able to offer choral Evensong at 17.00, when the city centre is much fuller, rather than at 17.30 or 17.45?

That is already a long list but as we reflected, Chapter discerned two further issues:

  • It has become impossible to go into a mixed sex school and only audition younger boys, or older girls. Schools rightly require parity of treatment, and so do the Cathedral’s own values. Does this mean that we should have a single choir of younger children? Or one choir of boys, as at present, and one of girls at the same ages?
  • We were already aware of the challenge of live-streaming but following COVID it is clear that we will need to live-stream all major services. How we can best live-stream choral worship in our building is not obvious, and in any case we will need to find significant new funding for the equipments such as permanent microphones and cameras

As I say, this is a long list, and it has become clear to Chapter that if we are to renew our choral life so fundamentally, an incremental approach is unlikely to be successful. We came to the view that it would be best to close the Choir, reflect, recruit and plan, and then systematically build our choral worship in a new way. The decision by Chapter to close the Choir was unanimous.

Chapter keenly understands that many people have found this decision painful. We know that it has caused real grief, not least to those who are currently members of the choir and their parents, but also to many in the congregation and the wider community. We know too that this decision may mean that colleagues who have worked here for many years may be made redundant.

However, Chapter is required to plan for the long term, and it is our prayerful discernment that a new beginning is in the best interest of the Cathedral’s mission. We fear that if we do not take this opportunity our choral life will simply decline.

Sheffield Cathedral Choir - The Dean Speaks

This morning, I would like to reiterate Chapter’s and my own thanks to the whole Choir community, children, young people–and the parents who have so generously supported them–Choral Scholars, and Lay Clerks. I know too that the whole congregation will join me in this thanks and appreciation. Our hope is that all the children and adults who have been members of the Choir will continue to be regular members of our worshipping community, and we hope that many of them will consider joining our new choir (or choirs).

You will have heard in the press concerns about bullying. I cannot, for legal reasons, comment on these, except to reassure you that any complaints which have been raised are taken with great seriousness by Chapter, and will be dealt with through our robust official procedures.

Chapter also consider that this is the moment to review our provision for safeguarding in the Music Department. Therefore, in early July, Chapter commissioned a lessons-learned review of safeguarding in the Music Department during the past five years. Chapter has committed to publishing the executive summary of the review report. This is likely to be during the autumn.

Please note that, unlike many other churches, Chapter is not seeking to reduce our investment in choral music. Finances remain very tight, but Chapter is actually intending to maintain our current funding, and indeed hopes to increase music funding with the help of our funding partners. We are keeping national partners briefed during this whole process. I say this again: we are not seeking to save money, but to invest more.

Our decision to make a new beginning for our choral life has certainly not been taken because of COVID; we had been discussing a fresh start for some time. Nevertheless, Chapter’s view is that if we are ever to restructure, now is the time to do so. In light of COVID many civic services in the autumn will not now take place, and even under optimistic projections we are not confident that sustained choral training will be possible at all during the autumn.

It would, perhaps, have been easier to announce the end of the Cathedral choral tradition, and some commentators have understood that this is actually what we are doing. To reiterate, the Anglican cathedral choral tradition will remain fundamental to Cathedral worship in Sheffield Cathedral. The changes we are making will not diminish our choral life; rather, they should be understood as a sign of confidence in the long term potential of choral music in Sheffield Cathedral.

Chapter’s vision is that by raising our ambition under God for inclusion and excellence, and by taking the many new opportunities we now discern for the development of our music, we will best fulfil our vocation to be “a place for all people” in service of our Diocese, city, and region.

Sheffield Cathedral Chapter

The Very Reverend Peter Bradley DL, Dean
The Reverend Canon Keith Farrow, Vice Dean

Canon John Biggin, Treasurer
Canon Jack Cooper
Dr David Fletcher
Mrs Pam Liversidge, DL
Mrs Angela Rees, Churchwarden
The Reverend Canon Julie Upton
Mr Roy Wheeler, Churchwarden