The Catholic Church across Yorkshire's historic West Riding since 1878

The Catholic Church across Yorkshire's historic West Riding since 1878

Leeds Diocese: Bringing a Breath of Fresh Air to Cathedral Music

The usually rarefied atmosphere breathed by British Cathedral Musicians as befitting their elevated status was expelled in robust fighting talk and muscular Christianity, as Diocese of Leeds Music gathered together some of the biggest names and most august institutions for a webinar geared to securing the survival of church and cathedral music and schools’ music education in the Coronavirus Crisis.

‘Transformation or Extinction’ was the hard choice put forward by the Catholic team from Leeds Cathedral, led by Benjamin Saunders. His open invitation to ‘Plan for the New Normal’ was taken up by around one hundred mostly Church of England music staff and clergy in a list reading like a veritable Who’s Who of church and Cathedral music from choral foundations across the country, including King’s College, Cambridge, St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and Christ Church, Oxford.

Whatever the ‘New Normal’ turns out to be, the key word is still ‘planning’: whether it be for next month, next term, next calendar year – or an entire generation. In a crisis, a plan of action enables you to take the initiative; without a plan you are hostage to events and abdicate responsibility for decision making to others who may have other, usually financial, concerns.

Whilst in most other church institutions, too-hasty employment decisions meant music staff were the first to be furloughed after the lock-down, the Diocese of Leeds’s response was to retrain all staff and move the six choirs of Leeds Cathedral and eighteen auditioned youth choirs online, rehearsing on their usual days at their usual time.

From the outset, Diocese of Leeds Music, supported by the Bishop of Leeds, clearly expressed their own intentions toward their continuing Mission. As a large and diverse music programme in West Yorkshire, covering both Cathedral, Parish and Schools music provision, the view is strongly held that in times of uncertainty and distress, the Church cannot mothball its charitable aims in the interests of financial expediency. Society will measure our organisations by their ability to adapt and innovate to fulfil their mission, especially with regard to education, liturgical music and support of the young, disadvantaged and vulnerable.

Aided by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales’s decision to allow priests access to celebrate Mass in their own churches, Diocese of Leeds Music put their plans into action even before the lock-down. Working with Communications and a local videographer, a broadcast licence and copyright permissions were obtained and the YouTube channel Leeds Cathedral Live came into being. From Sunday 22 March, daily Mass and devotions have been live-streamed to a worldwide ‘virtual congregation’. Sunday Masses ‘fill’ the Cathedral six times over, and the channel has so far received a quarter of a million views. The Music team’s own YouTube channel now has a similarly international audience for its seven weekly singing sessions for the fifty-three schools and 4,500 young people in the Diocese of Leeds Schools Singing Programme (SSP).

The next stage of the plan was to show that all staff could maintain productivity and fulfil their full time contracts of employment by working remotely, and that all this could be done in a financially responsible way. Coronavirus Emergency grants from the ‘Youth Music’ and various other charitable trusts were sought to support core salary costs, to keep musicians working, rather than the state paying them to be idle.

None of these are simply short-term ‘emergency measures’: the intention is to maintain productivity in the medium term, from September 2020 to Easter 2021 and address the eventuality – and many argue, the possibility – that there will be no public singing or traditional choirs until there is a vaccine and effective treatment for Coronavirus, potentially one or two years away.

In a previous webinar in April, the team had already shared the various technological approaches to the online liturgies, choir rehearsals, and organ and singing sessions. The idea was to keep the children and young people now confined to their homes meaningfully engaged, maintaining a shared group identity, and with all the physical and mental health, academic, social and behavioural benefits which singing together is known to bring.

This month’s webinar’s line-up of distinguished guest speakers included Westminster Abbey’s Director of Music James O’Donnell, Royal College of Organists Accredited Teacher, Marilyn Harper, and Neil Chippington of the Choir Schools Association. COVID-19 survivor and Chair of the Friends of Cathedral Music, Peter Allwood, spoke from personal experience. What is being termed the ‘new normal’ is based in part on learning from other countries’ experiences, such as the plan to reopen churches in Germany, without singing, to limit the transmission of Coronavirus through the air. The very act of singing – projecting moist air from the diaphragm and taking deep breaths into the lungs – is a vector for spreading this virus, as Peter Allwood knows only too well, having infected four other singers before he became symptomatic.

A few ‘tough love’ suggestions were made to keep Church and Cathedral Music resilient in the challenging years ahead, all of which have been for many years part of the ethos of the Diocese of Leeds’s programme of music education and evangelisation through liturgical music.

Leeds’s Diocesan Choirs’ position as one of the most-broadcast choirs on the BBC proves that in representing the congregation it is serving ethnically and socially, a Cathedral choir need not sacrifice quality. Leeds Cathedral Choir School is Holy Rosary and St Anne’s Catholic Primary in the city’s Chapeltown area. It is the UK’s only state primary choir school and is situated in the poorest 10% of wards in the country, with half of all pupils on free school meals and many children for whom English is not their mother tongue. The Choir School’s Choral Director, Sally Egan, spoke of how ‘Lock-down is not creating problems; it’s revealing them. Staff at the school are not only now cooking meals for the children and their families, but also distributing them, as many parents in the area are exhausted by the distances they are having to walk to access food banks’.

Ben Saunders says that he very soon came to ‘the realisation that one of the great wheels of history was turning containing all the seeds for the world to become a better or worse place. Aside from the great loss, pain and fear we feel now, the potential for change and the unleashing of creativity is perhaps the gift this crisis is offering us. That ability to learn and evolve; to make things better is surely at the heart of all our work. In church language you might say, ‘Epiphany, Redemption and Salvation’; and in a secular context ‘Innovation, Transformation, and Life’. Eventual extinction is the alternative for any organisation failing to adapt. We can try and maintain the status quo and delay extinction with money from generous donors – but do we not now owe those donors some serious self-reflection about what we do and why we do it before asking for their help?’

The inherent diversity of Catholicism as the ‘Universal Church’ and integrated and ‘holistic’ approach to both the musical and pastoral aspects in the diocese as a Catholic community is the opposite of what many Cathedrals or similar institutions would call ‘outreach’. Ben Saunders believes that ‘the single overriding issue that makes or breaks church music is not just gender inclusivity, ethnic diversity or even social integration but is primarily our ability to address poverty of opportunity by the way we recruit for our choirs. Tackling poverty of opportunity is reaching a child on free school meals, whose parents might initially put no value on them being in a cathedral choir; it is transformational, both for the individuals, and the whole enterprise.’

There is nothing ‘tokenistic’ about the social and ethnic make-up of the six Cathedral Choirs and Diocesan Youth Choirs which enhance worship and broadcasts from their own parishes across the Diocese: in Huddersfield, Halifax, Bradford and Keighley, and Wakefield and Pontefract. The lower voices are a diverse ‘home-grown back row’ of men, and teenaged and adult singers who have come through the ranks of the auditioned after-school choirs, inspired by singing Gregorian Chant, Byrd, Tallis, Monteverdi and traditional and contemporary classical composers’ sacred music to the highest standards: in Latin, English and in their own mother-tongues.

Tom Leech is Director of the Diocese of Leeds Schools Singing Programme which serves most of the Catholic schools across the diocese. With style and energy worthy of the best children’s TV presenters, Tom and Choral Directors, Lucy Haigh and Charlotte Kitson spoke with warmth and enthusiasm about the children who benefit from the online singing sessions which they and the other professional Choral Directors lead on their new YouTube channel.

Other Cathedrals have now responded to Leeds’s ‘Rallying Call’, with messages received including: ‘We are now fully online. Our boys’ and girls’ choirs are attending rehearsals twice a week, and attendance is near perfect. Many of our chorister parents say that what we are offering is so much better that what local schools are providing at the moment!’ and ‘Your argument about charitable purpose has convinced our Dean that the boy choristers need their provision continuing. Given that we use them as key evidence that we fulfil our charitable aims it didn’t end up being as tough a sell as I had thought!’

Saunders believes that the professional sacred music community needs to think about its purpose radically, ‘and by that I don’t mean repackaging a moribund old narrative like “Despite exponentially declining church attendance, Evensong is our fastest- growing service and therefore we hope this might be some sort of base for future growth. Oh, and we also have a cafe, gift shop and lovely buildings that need to be preserved!” We can and must do much better than that. In a secularised country entering a depressed global economy, the planning and choices we make now will affect music making with children for a generation.’

‘Music and spirituality are too important to belong in a niche and churches were built big to be full of people rather than places where social distancing occurs naturally because of a lack of congregation. When those big wheels of history turn, those that do not plan and adapt intelligently are quickly heading for extinction. Now is the time for brave leadership. A golden opportunity to enhance what we have been entrusted with, and to strengthen it. Even if you don’t need to implement the most extreme plan, it’s better to have it in your back pocket. If you aren’t ready to take the initiative then the decision will be taken away from you by those who may not share our passion for giving all children the potential to engage in Cathedral music-making at the highest level.’

The philosophy of first-rate music education for all extends also to the organ. Leeds Cathedral’s Organ Scholars are similarly ‘home grown’, as they number among the fifty pupils of all ages receiving lessons – now also online – from Cathedral Organist David Pipe as part of the Diocese of Leeds Organists’ Training Programme which runs in partnership with the Royal College of Organists (RCO).

For many years now, Diocese of Leeds Music has enjoyed mutually advantageous partnerships with the RCO, the Friends of Cathedral Music, Leeds College of Music and other higher education bodies as well as local schools and other arts organisations. These beneficial relationships have given the Diocese a degree of resilience in this crisis, reducing the vulnerability inherent in having all financial eggs entirely dependent on the Church’s collecting baskets.

The team’s standing as organists and choir directors and their many advisory roles to international institutions are used to enable opportunities at grassroots level. In his role as Artistic Director of the Leeds International Organ Festival (LIOF), Leeds Cathedral Organist, David Pipe, is able to showcase his pupils’ skills and give them masterclass opportunities to learn from the world’s finest organists

Concluding his ‘call to action’, Ben Saunders’ parting shot went to the heart of the often alienating structures and strictures which can detract from the role of sacred music and liturgy in the work of the Church, causing some Christian churches to adopt low expectations of young people’s capabilities, or resort to gimmickry to retain their interest.

‘We are not a buildings preservation society, nor an elite social club but rather people engaged in providing the music for that most radical and revolutionary set of ideas called ‘Christianity’. That’s where survival is and that’s where sustainability is: returning to those truths about why the Church exists; why she is the patron of the arts, a leader in education and the ultimate champion of the weak and vulnerable.’

St Caecilia, Patron Saint of Music
(window at St Robert’s, Harrogate)