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Church philistines have got high culture all wrong Whatever Sheffield Cathedral thinks, beautiful choral music is not elitist. It's how we approach the divine

Sweet singing in the choir: choristers at St Paul's Cathedral (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sweet singing in the choir: choristers at St Paul's Cathedral (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)


July 30, 2020   5 mins

Matthew Arnold, the Victorian educationalist, did the idea of culture no favours. His defence of “high culture” as the cultivated reflection upon all that is excellent within a society contains — to many modern ears, at least — a worrying elision of high culture and social class. He called it “a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world”. Culture is an unashamedly elite activity for people with enough leisure time (ie money) and intelligence, as Roger Scruton, following Arnold, argued. Posh people go to the opera, learn Latin, read TS Eliot and long, improving novels.

It’s a change — indeed, quite a radical one — from the older idea that posh people must own a grouse moor and have families that date back to the Norman invasion. But nonetheless, Arnold’s celebration of elite culture is readily interpreted in class terms. Which is why a critic like Raymond Williams, who saw culture everywhere, in comics and pop music, was so immediately appealing to a Sixties generation who wished to affirm a much more democratic and egalitarian social order.

This Arnold vs Williams divide is the original culture war. And is why recent events at Sheffield Cathedral have touched such a nerve. Covid has accelerated all sorts of changes in the church, and as such has revealed intentions that slower developments might have obscured. Sheffield Cathedral has sacked its choir, citing demographic changes in the city and the need for a new choir to develop an inclusive and more broadly based repertoire. Basically, the unspoken suggestion is that a traditional Anglican choir singing Stanford in C at Choral Evensong is just a bit too elitist for a working class city like Sheffield. And that is why Evensong has become so poorly attended. Why not get a band in, play a few choruses, bring in the punters?

The reason the Sheffield Cathedral choir story has sparked the interest it has, with editorials in national newspapers and debates on the radio, has little to do with a highly religious northern public clamouring for the glories of the Anglican choral tradition of an evening, after they have done their bit of weekly shopping. Rather, what concerns many is the threat to high culture itself. Didn’t Arnold have a point, however much we might disagree with him politically? Culture should have a higher purpose than mere entertainment. And isn’t it the job of the Church to hold onto that higher purpose, notwithstanding the vagaries of cultural fashion?

Those who are suspicious of high culture within the church make the not unreasonable point that it is not — at least, no longer — the principle function of the church to be a patron of the higher arts. Among other things, we don’t have the money. No, the musical, visual and theatrical culture of the church must bend to one aim only: promoting the message of the Gospel. And if gospel music, or worship songs inspired by popular music does that better, then so be it. We are not renaissance impresarios. Cultural snobs in cassocks must be shown their place. There is a prevailing mood in the Anglican church — often issuing from the top — that feels a little bit like this.

It was Arnold who introduced the insult “philistine” into English from the German where it had been first used in the 17th century by students in a town/gown dispute in the University of Jena. The poor old Philistines of the ancient world were hardly uncultured. They were just the traditional enemies of the people of Israel, and so their name became a common by-word for “the baddies”. Arnold simply re-tooled this insult to suit his argument about culture and, for some reason, it stuck. But what is so wrong with being philistine in Arnold’s sense?

Perhaps this. What the people of Israel understood about God is that God is difficult. When Moses asks God to show himself all he is allowed is a teasing glimpse of God’s back (Exodus 33). If God is to be seen at all, it is, as it were, out of the corner of the eye, indirectly. Even the word God is problematic, with Jews talking about Hashem — the name — or writing God as G-d. When it comes to such a G-d, representation is problematic. That’s why there are no statues or images. God doesn’t present himself that easily. He is shy.

Christians, on the other hand, often feel they have a direct access to God through the person of Jesus. There is no need for cleverness here. Jesus is God, and Jesus has a form and a physical presence. Images are not a problem. God is not shy.

In truth, most spirituality exists somewhere on a spectrum between these extremes. What I have called the Jewish approach can render God all but invisible, at best a distant possibility. By contrast, the ‘Christian’ — especially the evangelical — approach can risk getting all terribly chummy with the divine. This is what a friend of mine calls the “Jesus is my best mate” approach. There is no distance to be overcome. Jesus is with me here, now.

Most of us who speak of God find Him somewhere between these poles. And this is where high culture comes in. Culture — and music especially — is a way of trying to apprehend something that naturally resists apprehension. Culture is the raids we make upon the unspeakable. It’s the thing we use to try to catch a glimpse of this shy God and, just for a moment, to hold Him in our consciousness. That is why Bach is probably the greatest ever theologian. And that’s also why Scruton was on to something when he argued that the origins of high culture are to be found within the realm of the sacred.

Popular culture has no such origins because its primary purpose is entertainment. For many evangelical Christians, that’s all that we need from culture. The trick is to fuse the gospel message with a popular contemporary idiom — it doesn’t really matter which, just one that will reach as many as possible. And at times when the church is waning in popularity those who subscribe to this formula tend to come to the fore. This, as it were, is the Raymond Williams approach to God. Disco God, Love Island God, Grime Eucharists, you name it. And that is where we now find ourselves.

The reason many of us cringe at all this, and believe passionately in the presence of so-called high culture, is not just because we are cultural snobs but because we also think God is difficult and can only be approached indirectly.

I used to have the privilege to sit in choral evensong every weekday evening at St Paul’s Cathedral. The silence would stop me and calm me down. The prayers and readings would slowly format my thoughts. But it was the music that stole for me a glimpse of heaven. And it was often unspeakably beautiful. Contra Arnold, this is absolutely not a class thing. In fact, it’s extremely patronising to suggest that it is. High culture all about how we apprehend the divine — whether at Glyndebourne or in Sheffield city centre.


Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.

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Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Geoffrey Simon Hicking
3 years ago

I simply don’t understand why people want a beautiful culture like Christianity to be destroyed. Sit in Church for one hour a month. If everyone did that you’d have minimal inconvenience for people, they might learn something and Britain’s culture would be saved. That’s less time spent in church than in a mind-numbing board meeting or boring parent’s evening or what ever.

An entire culture that in modern times places an emphasis on tolerance is about to be destroyed for no reason at all. What an utter waste. We do not deserve our culture.

Katy Randle
Katy Randle
3 years ago

It seems that, for some, the idea of beauty itself is elitist and must therefore be destroyed. We lose a lot from such an attitude.

aelf
aelf
3 years ago
Reply to  Katy Randle

Creating beauty requires effort. Creating ugliness doesn’t.

aelf
aelf
3 years ago

There are none so intolerant as the soi disant tolerant.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

The thing is, for Xtianity to come alive in any of its cultural expressions in these (especially, pomo) times, it takes work and life experience. After all, tho children need to be educated in the tradition for it ever to have any chance, Religion is really ‘adults only’ .

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Well said.

I recently attended Choral Evensong in Lincoln Cathedral. Cold, dark, damp, wonderful!
Only about ten of us there, but even a Pagan/Devout Sceptic, such as myself wouldn’t have missed it. Thirty minutes of sheer bliss.

Highly recommended as a therapeutic escape from the madness that is the Great Plague, C-19.

simonclarke74
simonclarke74
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

Evensong at Lincoln is especially transfixing, I’ve found.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  simonclarke74

The climb to the top of the central tower, perhaps the finest in England, is also very rewardingl.

duarenus
duarenus
3 years ago
Reply to  simonclarke74

I agree. Evensong and Choral Mattins at Lincoln are quite transfixing.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

I’m glad you were blessed by it but doesn’t the attendance level explain something of the need for change? (Or was that purely down to COVID?)

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Boreham

It was pre C-19. Does it really matter that the attendance was low? It’s not a cinema or theatre, where numbers are axiomatic to success. Attempting to popularise normally brings ridicule and contempt, however well meaning.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Corby

On one level, no it doesn’t matter. But Jesus’s command was to go and make disciples. Not all those disciples need to be in Lincoln Cathedral but if ALL the churches are empty then his Church isn’t succeeding.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
3 years ago

The idea of the Anglican Church attempting to increase its attendance by clinging onto the coattails of popular music “because it’s relevant”, is as unattractive, transparently insincere and, frankly, desperate as Gordon Brown angling for the youth vote by claiming to like the Arctic Monkeys.

Monica Mee
Monica Mee
3 years ago

What irritates me more than anything is the arrogance and elitism of those like Matthew Arnold, in his day, and so many today, clearly including the authorities at Sheffield cathedral, who assume that classical music, great art, great authors and great poetry can really only be understood by the likes of them, well educated, well connected with lots of friends just like them.

To them, anyone who does not share their many advantages and privileges are incapable of understanding these cultural heights and must be looked down upon and just fed the pap that this elite thinks they are capable of understanding.

Over a long life I have had conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds on music, art and literature and I have attended evening classes with people from all kinds of backgrounds who are passionate about classical music, writers like Dickens and read poetry, including TS Elliot for pleasure.

The actions of Sheffield cathedral have nothing to do with religion. They are all to do with the desire of an intellectual elite to patronise the poor under the guise of good works, while showing their intrinsic disdain of them by judging them too stupid to understand the profundities of great music, great literature or great poetry, or indeed the greatest works in any cultural field.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago
Reply to  Monica Mee

I understand what you are saying, but the aim of a cathedral is not to create a love of great music, great literature and great poetry. It’s to share the kingdom of God and there are times when banal music does that better….

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Boreham

Yes Peter I wouldn’t argue with your point but… As a non – religious person I can still find beauty in the architecture and more in the music associated with the church and I guess many people have a similar feeling. The Church establishment is unfit for purpose. On the other hand the choir’s are an experience that could be experienced by more non church attendees. You never know you could gain an audience if the church was pro-active.

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
3 years ago
Reply to  Gerry Fruin

Beauty is a doorway to the divine, taking us beyond ourselves. It is absolutely the purpose of a cathedral to lift us out of our everyday, self absorbed and ephemeral preoccupations into the realm of the eternal. This is naturally achieved by beautiful architecture, music, liturgy, imagery, poetry. It’s nothing to do with higher education or cultural elitism – beauty bypasses the intellect, it’s immediately recognised and responded to by everyone of whatever economic or social background. It mirrors the deepest and highest longings of the human soul, and it’s the most effective form of evangelisation the Church can use – an entry point at least.

It’s actually the intellectual middle class, not the working class, that demands iconoclasm, innovation,”relevance”, and the tearing down of traditions.

Here’s an example. The Catholic Church in Britain, pre-Vatican II reforms, was largely working class, packed to the doors every Sunday and holy day with ordinary people, young families, labourers, immigrants… and Mass was in Latin, with plainsong, beautiful motets, incense, bells, rosaries, holy water, solemn ritual, the works. All this was swept away in favour of churches that looked like school halls or community centres, worship songs sung badly to the amateur strumming of guitars, banal translation into deliberately unpoetic English, cheap polyester vestments, dumbed-down ritual and the abandonment of identifiable traditions such as Friday abstinence and May processions and so on. And what happened? The working classes and the younger people left in droves. The remnant tend to be middle class and over 60. And where the traditional Mass has been revived, young people who weren’t even born when it was abolished are particularly attracted to it. Why? The consensus is “because it’s beautiful” , “because it feels holy and special” and so on.

The Church of England perhaps needs to take note of this, before wrecking its own traditions.

Steve Wesley
Steve Wesley
3 years ago
Reply to  Monica Mee

I’m in my late 50s and attended a state school in Wythenshawe, the largest council housing estate in Europe at the time. My school actively encouraged our exposure to all aspects of the arts such as you mention. My English teacher enthusiastically brough literature to life, starting a passion which results in my tripping over piles of books as I’veyet to build more bookcases. Music lessons resulted in my learning the piano and the lifetime of joy that has brought.

It wasn’t a paternalistic action on their part, rather it was a case of ‘all this is out there, why shouldn’t you experience it?’. I still think back with gratitude to those teachers who introduced me to those experiences, and most importantly led to an enjoyment which thrives to this day. ( Covid restrictions notwithstanding)
I can’t help but think that some bright spark in Sheffield has decided to do the thinking on behalf of the poor plebs, for their benefit of course.

Andrew D
Andrew D
3 years ago

Many of the most vibrant churches/religions are those which have not altered their ceremonies and liturgies for centuries. My reading of the Sheffield case is not so much high vs low culture, but as another manifestation of the C of E’s endless, futile search for ‘relevance’. There’s no escaping the fact that traditionally the C of E has been, to use GF’s word, ‘posh’, although high social status is not to be confused with high culture. The old working classes were dissenters, Catholic (if Irish) or unchurched. Today most people aren’t interested in what the C of E has to say, especially since this usually amounts to a parroting of current BBC/Guardian orthodoxy (as we saw with the bishops’ condemnation of Dominic Cummings). However many people, of all classes, faiths and none, are drawn to the Church’s cultural patrimony of buildings, music and liturgy. Take that away and you’re left with nothing worth having.

jjn1952
jjn1952
3 years ago

I am Roman Catholic, living in the US. If you want to see the end result if watering down your music, just visit any Catholic church . Vapid, “my pal Jesus” songs that have the congregation singing as if they were God (“I the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard My people cry”) or nursery pablum ( and they’ll know we are Christians by our love”- just don’t dare get in my way in the parking lot)
I am not as erudite as the other commenters. Just as we employ different speech patterns in different situations, e.g. I don’t speak to a judge the way I speak to my 2 year old grandson, so music, as an expression of worship, should not be tge same as that played in a bar on karaoke night.

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
3 years ago
Reply to  jjn1952

Absolutely, John Niles. The Roman Catholic Church stupidly made a pact with “popular culture” and rather than becoming more “relevant” actually lost much of its meaning and its spiritual power.

Gerry Fruin
Gerry Fruin
3 years ago

As a journalist you have a very common tendency to quote others quite liberally. Though you do comment on your own view when you do it reads very much how you think non-church people think.
Well I for one strongly disagree. The Church is not poor. The Church during this covid period had a golden opportunity to get out and about, to encourage all groups and areas of our society. So what did they do? Slam the doors shut and whimper cringe making platitudes in an excuse for not engaging with the very needy people who could benefit from a kind words or two. I speak of the Church of England only as my wife is a practising Christian and I see the tears and the trembling bottom lip as for once in 50 years she has to concede my negative view on the attitude of senior clergy may have some value.
As for Sheffield choir – it is symptomatic of snivelling spineless cretins who seem to think their woke view of modern Britain will give them kudos within the establishment.
Well if I’m alone so be it but the sound of a choir in full voice is beyond description, it transcends to a place I don’t have the world’s to describe. It is magic. Money is a poor excuse to destroy something. Couldn’t a tiny amount be spent on encouraging and promoting people to attend these incomparable experiences?

pauline.k
pauline.k
3 years ago
Reply to  Gerry Fruin

Well said Mr Fruin. As a churchgoer of many years, I am disillusioned with the all the churches’ supine following of Imperial College, London and our confused government. After months of lockdown, attending an Anglican service today was utterly depressing. Where is a 21st century Luther, who can stand up to Johnson and co? They are playing a game of blind man’s buff. Help!

zac moxon
zac moxon
3 years ago

I think I respectfully disagree with lots of the article. Here are some reasons why:

1) In high Anglican Church music there’s a great danger of worshipping the music above worshiping the a god who created it. I’m speaking mainly from personal experience, as someone who’s sung well over 500 choral evensongs in the last 4 years, but I know I’m certainly not alone in thinking this. After singing missa papa marcelli I have far more admiration for Palestrina than I do for the Lord Jesus. It’s beautiful, but so is the golden calf in exodus, that doesn’t mean that God is pleased with it. Whenever I hear the comments after a choral service it’s always ‘that composer/soloist/conductor was wonderful, really inspirational’, but I never hear ‘what a wonderful saviour we have in Jesus, so inspirational!’ However, I do hear the latter comments much more often in churches with modern songs that are much more word focussed.

2) High Anglican culture massively downplays the horizontal nature of singing in church (aka the fact that we’re also singing to each other and communally sharing in truths as well as singing praises to God) At the ends of Paul’s letters to both the Colossian and Ephesians churches, When he’s applying his theology to their daily church lives, he really emphasises the fact that Christians ought to sing to each other as we let the truths sink in for ourselves. This seems to mean that hymn singing should be the heart and soul of a churches musical life, whereas high Anglican culture sees it as an add on on festal evensongs. Yes there are plenty of hymns on a Sunday morning, but every church I’ve been to regards the choir anthem as the musical heart and soul of the service, hymns seem to just be mere decoration.

3) High Anglican culture also subtly promotes the idea that the quality of the music affects how pleased god is with the worship being offered. I’ve heard many pre-evensong prayers that ‘we might offer acceptable worship in your sight, o God’ To my mind, it seems that the worship God really desires is a humble, repentant heart, submission to leaders and authorities, showing hospitality, and putting to death our sin.

Please feel free to disagree, and don’t get me wrong, many evangelical churches struggle with these points too, Hillsong and HTB being examples, but they are problems that have been present for a very long time in high Anglican culture. I’m certainly willing to sacrifice Howells, Tallis and Sumsion if it means more people hear of the Gospel. It’s of far more worth.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
3 years ago
Reply to  zac moxon

I’m a professional musician, and did perhaps the larger part of my musical training under the umbrella of the Church of England. I am also, since my retirement from full-time employment, a Reader (licensed lay minister) in that same church. My theology would be just about as evangelical as it could be within that context ” though what the word “evangelical” means has become very different from what it meant when I was converted, some 43 years ago. (Nowadays it seems to have little to do with the authority of scripture, and plenty to do with being a bang-up-to-date, enthusiastic Christian ” one who probably prefers Hillsong to Handel.)

So I have a profound sympathy for the way you grapple so honestly with the challenges raised by the Anglican church’s range of churchmanship and practice. I especially appreciate your observation that in high-church worship there can be the implication that “the quality of the music affects how pleased god is with the worship being offered.” Even Stephen Layton, one of the greatest choral directors of our time, made the same point, and very persuasively so, in an essay he contributed to the symposium Why I am still and Anglican (2006, edited by Caroline Chartres).

However, I wonder if the “high Anglican” references you make are exactly that? Just as the meaning of evangelical has changed over the last 40 years, so, I think, has the general understanding of what “high Anglican” means. In many ways it nowadays seems less concerned with theology, with a ritualism that has an acknowledged purpose of reinforcing the Church of England’s connections with historic Christianity (especially the early church), than with what one does in the services.

What do you do on All Saints’ Day? If the choir processes in, a censer is swung and you sing [Bonk!] For All the Saints?, you’re high-church. If you sing a few songs from Hillsong and warm up the service with a few contemporary worship songs that you may sing along to, or just listen to, you’re evangelical.

Like you, I don’t have any problems with either culture in particular. But I am convinced that Stephen Layton and you are right when you both stress that what God seeks is the worship of “a broken and contrite heart”. Also, I identify very closely indeed with your comment about Palestrina; and I would even extend that to some of the much more obviously biblical high-quality church music. Does my wonder at the astonishing musical (and theological) insights of Bach translate into wonder at the message being proclaimed? Not always, I have to admit. I am as likely to be thrilled by the compositional virtuosity and imagination, by the way its techniques are focussed on its purpose, as I am by the purpose itself. (That’s not well put; but I think you’ll understand the point.)

One of the greatest problems presented to us in this age is that we are still operating under the legacy of the essentially Romantic perspective that aesthetic and spiritual experience are essentially synonymous. So deeply ingrained is this perspective that it has become seen almost as an essential part of human nature. So I’m very cautious about appeals to high-art, low-art and things like that. What does need to happen is that we do our best ” and that is where an awful lot of contemporary evangelical culture fails, and so much high culture still succeeds. The spirit of contemporary evangelicalism too readily encourages a “I feel therefore I am” culture, rather than a critical ear and mind. Generating a buzz, getting a congregation high on aesthetic experience, is not a reliable way of building up a body of believers “strong in the Lord, in the power of his might.” (Ephesians 6:10)

All this has nothing whatsoever to do with class ” which is where I am in some sympathy with many areas of Giles Fraser’s article. My first ever music pupil came from a working class family where nobody had ever been to college, and many had never attended secondary school. I spotted his ability, I encouraged his parents who, bless them, had receptive ears. To cut a long story short, they did their utmost for him. He ended up as head chorister at what was at that time perhaps the premier cathedral choir in the country outside London; then he became a singer in St John’s College Cambridge; and now he’s the headmaster of a world-famous music school. Teachers are allowed to be proud of their pupils; and I’m very proud of him. His story is a wonderful testimony to the broader, class-mobility values that the English choral tradition’s choir schools offer.

All very complicated. All pretty challenging and difficult. A strongly developed sense of taste is no substitute for a strongly developed, biblically grounded theology of worship and of the role of music in it.

Thanks for taking the time to think so deeply about this issue, which I care so much about, and for taking the time to write so lucidly about it.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
3 years ago
Reply to  zac moxon

I have posted a long reply to you, separately, because it was removed, being “Marked as Spam.” I registered an objection, received an assurance it would be restored; and over a week later nothing has happened. So I’ve tried again. You should be able to find my response if you sort the posts by “Newest”. As Mr Broucek says, thank you for a beautiful post.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
3 years ago

I remember about 30 years ago there was various exchanges of letters in the polite press about how the Church of England should not abandon both the King James Bible and the 1662 prayer book. I believe the late Michael Foot was one such. What became clear was that for these people there were no theological points raised but that these represented high English culture with the C of E had no right to abandon. When pressed, most such luminaries acknowledged, in fact, no religious impulse and no intention to attend services but just the feeling that “they wanted to know that such things were happening”

I am detecting a similar reaction here with this one. As it happens, I have sung evensongs for much of my life in various cathedrals and churches and attended a few as well. I did attend one in Sheffield where, once you take away the choir, clergy and vergers there were only a couple of people there.

Unfortunately maintaining a Cathedral Choir and choir school doesn’t come cheap and the Dean and Chapter do have to decide how far they should maintain a tradition which is not pulling people into the building. The Dean is clearly not very media-savvy but I don’t think he did say that standard Anglican church music was “elitist” nor, so far as I can tell, has he driven T Tertius Noble from the Cathedral precincts. The vast majority of music is sung by people who don’t get paid for doing so.

As Giles Fraser surely knows, the fastest growing branches of Christianity are the evangelical ones, both black-led and others and the Spiritual is a musical tradition dating back at least to Stanford and Parry. There may be other routes to heaven

Paul Morrell
Paul Morrell
3 years ago

Is Christianity safe in the hands of Christians?

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Morrell

Certainly not in the hands of the ‘established’ Church.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago

I think there’s a great danger of muddling beauty and worship

I have a music degree and would like nothing more to worship through the music of Byrd, Tallis, Gabrieli, Victoria, Bach and others. But I attend a church which has modern choruses because they are of greater cultural relevance to our North London area and are therefore more accessible for the majority of people around here. And belonging to a church that is growing, that has people of all ages and which approximates reasonably well to the local ethnic mix is FAR more important to me than my own personal music preferences.

And whilst beauty and peace are PART of Christianity, they are not the only part – Jesus isn’t nearly as “meek and mild” as the old hymn claims.,..

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Boreham

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Boreham

Since Christianity is all about something and someone from 2,000 years ago, what is the relevance of the modern?

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago

The gospel message is unchanged but needs to be expressed in a way that makes sense to its hearers. That’s why Paul says, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews” etc.

And it’s not clear to me why music from the 17th, 18th or 19th century is any closer to how things were 2,000 years ago than something written last week…

Hilary LW
Hilary LW
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Boreham

It’s the QUALITY of the music that’s important, surely. There are many wonderful modern composers of sacred music – James Macmillan, Arvo PÀrt, John Taverner, to name but a few – but the majority of contemporary so-called “worship music” is just so poor, so lazy in composition, so banal. I take issue with your implication that skilled, beautiful, serious music doesn’t “make sense to its hearers”. What nonsense. You don’t need a classical education or a music degree to be moved by a Bach cantata or a lovely psalm setting sung by a trained cathedral choir. What sort of “sense” do you mean? The fundamentals of life are these: we are born into this world, we suffer grief and loss and pain, we experience love if we’re lucky, and joy, and we decline and die, and through that we yearn for meaning, fulfilment, and connection to what is beautiful, good and eternal. And that hasn’t changed over the centuries, or among classes of people. Popular “worship” music, however well-meaning, just doesn’t address those fundamental crises and longings – and increasingly, neither does contemporary Christianity. There’s nothing wrong with getting together with friends for a nice heartwarming sing-song, but that should never, never replace the music that reaches deep inside us and transports us to eternal realms…that “makes sense” to our souls.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

I am a Prebendary of Hereford Cathedral and relish every opportunity I have of sharing in the worship there. The blend of sublime music and majestic architecture lifts me into the worship of Almighty God in a profound and beautiful way.
But so does the worship of contemporary songs and hymns. I am deeply moved by the words and music of groups like Hillsong,Elevation Worship,Bethel and Rend Collective. They draw me close to the Father heart of God and enable me to experience the love of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately this article does the Church and the Gospel a great disservice in perpetuating the tired,negative and destructive division between the old and new,the elitist and popular in worship. Our spirituality can be wide enough to be embraced by both as channels for the worship of Our Lord.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago

Amen. Let’s have variety in worship

pauline.k
pauline.k
3 years ago

You have saved me from expressing what I was going to say. Is it not possible to have both forms of choir? Perhaps expense precludes this, but remember the words Ancient and Modern. Surely there is room for both, funds permitting.

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
3 years ago

I don’t mind GF having his own view on Jesus and the Church. But he is absolutely not an expert on Moses, the Philistines, or Judaism. Some clergy think that wearing a dog-collar gives you the right to diss Judaism. Well, it doesn’t!

First of all, the Jews have given more to music than any other people. We all know that Giles favours the BBC – Radio 4 more often than not. But if you tune into Classic FM, you will hear that most of the music themes, composers and performers are Jewish – and gloriously so.

As for the Philistines, they weren’t ‘poor old’, they were vicious and nearly destroyed the Jewish people. GF and readers may not care about this, but others are very concerned about his tendency in the Church. GF’s approach is luckily now being questioned even within the Church.

And maybe that is why I have just been asked to input into Anglican clergy training myself. Some people want a connection with Jews who know their stuff. And that’s why I’ll be teaching about the real Exodus, and not GF’s delusionary approach, in which Christianity is inevitably superior and Judaism ‘old hat’ to be replaced by man worship.

And you may be very surprised to hear that I’ll actually be using music and song as part of my course on Exodus, Psalms and ‘meeting G-d in the Bible.’

Today is the Fast of Av, the most mournful day of the Jewish year, when we lament all the tragedies that have befallen us starting with the Destruction of the Temple. Let’s hope that some good can come out of the 2000 year-old hatred of Christians for Jews – they wanted to destroy us, but we have survived – and whether Sheffield Cathedral Choir continues or not (and let’s hope that something can be done to repair the hurt that has been caused), Moses, music and Psalms are all Jewish in origin, and no amount of misinformation from self-appointed experts will ever destroy what we have given to the world and continue to do so.

And by the way, what on earth does the Jewish community have to do with Sheffield Cathedral – nothing? It’s the continuous use by the Church of England of anti-Jewish tropes – someone has to put a stop to this 2000-year history of the teaching of contempt against the Jewish people, which is why I continue to contribute to this website.

So, to sum up. GF is simply spouting rubbish. He does not represent the truth. He has consistently used Jews and Judaism for his own ends. The truth is that much of civilization has come from the Hebrew Bible, Jews and Judaism.

GF and others may not like it, but it is the truth – the truth that I will be teaching and singing to trainee clergy. Let’s hope that the result will be a far kinder, all-inclusive and loving Church than the one that GF represents.

And maybe in future choirs of all kinds of music will continue to thrive in the Church – when the new generation of Anglican clergy and lay readers are made aware that there is an entire Jewish tradition which has been been deliberately suppressed by the Church and its spokespeople. No wonder Wiley and his ilk get away with defamatory rubbish, when representatives of the Church of the land continue to get away with misrepresentation of the facts.

Sarah H
Sarah H
3 years ago

Ouch. I reread the piece given your tirade and I don’t see the hostility to Judaism which you seem to conjure up. Whether you mind that he has a view is simply impertinent, ‘stay in your lane’ demands have no standing, claims that the ‘Truth’ comes more from Jews is tendentious and futile. I thought Dr Fraser was acknowledging the continuity. Christianity encompasses both Old and New Testaments as far as I understand. You seem to be demanding the Old Testament as the sole preserve of Judaism so ‘hands off’. That one won’t be resolved below the line on Unherd and it seems odd to raise it here. You don’t appear to be spreading peace and understanding in your role with the Church so I’m scratching my head on that. As a politely respectful non-believer within a Christian culture, I am presumably disallowed a view but I thought Dr Fraser’s piece was doctrinally fairly neutral. I clearly don’t hear the ‘dog whistle’. It is disappointing to see your focus on division, what divides us rather than what connects us (even us non-theists), an all too current theme in identity politics. Is that part of your job? How odd.

ClassicFM is an all-Jewish station now? Gosh. Not dialled in for a while but that claim surprises me as does your general and rebarbative public hostility to GF.

Mark Corby
Mark Corby
3 years ago

Gosh, that’s a bit ‘over the top’! You make poor old Giles sound like Adolph Hitler.

Don’t you also mean Radio 3 not 4? Incidentally Radio 3, for some extraordinary reason is dominated by German composers, in contrast to your assertion about Classic FM.

Finally, which destruction of the Temple does the Fast of Av commemorate?

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
3 years ago

I am a little intrigued at your comments (and if I didn’t read them correctly please forgive) of most of the music on ClassicFM being composed by Jewish people? Mendelsohn certainly is CFM territoryas would be the Strauss family though not many think of them as Jewish. (The Third Reich did and shortly after the Anschluss travelled to St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna and changed Johann Strauss’s birth register entry-the idea of banning the composer of the Blue Danube Waltz was unthinkable). Meyerbeer might make it to ClassicFM but not Mahler or Schoenburg or the various early 20th Century composers grouped in Prague, Vienna Berlin and who either escaped or perished; perhaps Kurt Weill might make it

Gerry McElearney
Gerry McElearney
3 years ago

I think I must have read a different article to the one you’re tearing to bits. The earlier replies to your post say more cogently than I could why your post is a bit bemusing. Any time I’ve heard Dr Fraser mention anything to do with Judaism I feel as though he been entirely respectful. I’m surprised no one has mentioned his family situation; he is married to a Jewish woman and by his own account, is bringing up his children accordingly.

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

Wrong on almost every count. Xtianity is an Hellenic religion using Judaic narrative material -much as the Greeks historically took up and incorporated mythic material from all over the Mediterranean, … much as Judah plagiarized Egyptian, Canaanite, and Mesopotamian material, …and Christianity would go on to do.

August Press LLC
August Press LLC
3 years ago

May I suggest a further idea: It isn’t just the end product (i.e. Evensong) that matters (which it does!)–the process of preparation matters dramatically as well. The training of the choristers, with active support of a community of families, the development of organists (which is a long process, trust me I know about this…), the ongoing work of creating repertoire for choirs and churches, the ongoing sustaining of hymnody for congregations, the transmission of the huge inheritance of music and culture from one generation to the next–the list stretches on. All of this matters enormously.

Contemporary ‘worship’ music is a business–relentlessly pursued by some very able business people–for profit, and relies upon a constant ‘turnover’ of repertoire, month by month, year by year, to continue to fuel cash flow. It also seeks to either supplant or eliminate the traditions–witness the Getty’s newest project entitled ‘Evensong’, which has nothing to do with Evensong, save the product title. I write these words from Nashville, one of the world’s centres of this activity, and do not exaggerate.

In the interests of transparency, this firm proudly competes against this trade–and actively supports the process that allows Evensong to flourish. Not seeking your business here, but actively encouraging one and all to support the ongoing artistic legacy of Christian worship.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago

I have a lot of sympathy with what you say about the conveyor belt of modern worship music where even something 5 years old is considered “retro”. On the other hand, we are perhaps blessed than we have a LOT of people writing songs to the glory of God at the present time. I fear you’re right to say that some are in it for the money, but some of the greatest church music down the centuries has been written by people of doubtful allegiance to the gospel and who are we to say that the Holy Spirit is not able to use them….

Caroline Martin
Caroline Martin
3 years ago

When the Church of England, and of Wales, tries to make services more accessible, easier to understand and does away with the beauty of The Prayer Book and choses to sing dirges rather than hymns I think they lose us. And if in our Cathedrals they disband choirs they will lose us more. They will have dumbed down too far. And we will not go to church any more at all.
It is as if they think we are dim. It is an insult to new comers and disadvantaged people to think they are incapable of appreciating choral music and its great beauty. Perhaps they think the Cathedrals should be dismantled too? After all they a funny shape with pointy bits going up into the sky.

Peter Boreham
Peter Boreham
3 years ago

Choral music and cathedrals are indeed beautiful but they are not the main thing. The church didn’t have either for many centuries…

Caroline Martin
Caroline Martin
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Boreham

Yes, it had then the advantage of simple unadorned prayer.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
3 years ago

The following post was deleted because it was “Marked as Spam”. After registering a complaint, nothing has happened in over a week. This is becoming a major problem on UnHerd. So I’m trying again.
*******************
Originally posted as a reply to Zac Moxon, whose very engaging post appeared eight days before this re-post.
********************
I’m a professional musician, and did perhaps the larger part of my musical training under the umbrella of the Church of England. I am also, since my retirement from full-time employment, a Reader (licensed lay minister) in that same church. My theology would be just about as evangelical as it could be within that context ” though what the word “evangelical” means has become very different from what it meant when I was converted, some 43 years ago. (Nowadays it seems to have little to do with the authority of scripture, and plenty to do with being a bang-up-to-date, enthusiastic Christian ” one who probably prefers Hillsong to Handel.) As you say, the most important thing ” far, far above the kind or quality of music we use, is whether people hear the Gospel.

So I have a profound sympathy for the way you grapple so honestly with the challenges raised by the Anglican church’s range of churchmanship and practice. I especially appreciate your observation that in high-church worship there can be the implication that “the quality of the music affects how pleased god is with the worship being offered.” Even Stephen Layton, one of the greatest choral directors of our time, made the same point, and very persuasively so, in an essay he contributed to the symposium Why I am still and Anglican (2006, edited by Caroline Chartres).

However, I wonder if the “high Anglican” references you make are exactly that? Just as the meaning of evangelical has changed over the last 40 years, so, I think, has the general understanding of what “high Anglican” means. In many ways it nowadays seems less concerned with theology, with a ritualism that has an acknowledged purpose of reinforcing the Church of England’s connections with historic Christianity (especially the Roman church), than with what one does in the services.

What do you do on All Saints’ Day? If the choir processes in, a censer is swung and you sing [Bonk!] For All the Saints, you’re high-church. If you sing a few songs from Hillsong and warm up the service with a few contemporary worship songs that you may sing along to, or just listen to, you’re evangelical.

Like you, I don’t have any problems with either culture in particular. And just about all the faults on either side have their equivalents in the other. Stephen Layton and you are right when you both stress that what God seeks is the worship of “a broken and contrite heart”. Also, I identify very closely indeed with your comment about Palestrina; and I would even extend that to some of the much more obviously biblical high-quality church music. Does my wonder at the astonishing musical (and theological) insights of Bach translate into wonder at the message being proclaimed? Not always, I have to admit. I am as likely to be thrilled by the compositional virtuosity and imagination, by the way its techniques are focussed on its purpose, as I am by the purpose itself. (That’s not well put; but I think you’ll understand the point.)

One of the greatest problems presented to us in this age is that we are still operating under the legacy of the essentially Romantic perspective that aesthetic and spiritual experience are essentially synonymous. So deeply ingrained is this perspective that it has become seen almost as an essential part of human nature. So I’m very cautious about appeals to high-art, low-art and things like that. What does need to happen is that we do our best ” and that is where an awful lot of contemporary evangelical culture fails, and so much high culture still succeeds. The spirit of contemporary evangelicalism too readily encourages a “I feel therefore I am” culture, rather than a critical ear and mind. Generating a buzz, getting a congregation high on aesthetic experience, is not a reliable way of building up a body of believers “strong in the Lord, in the power of his might.” (Ephesians 6:10)

All this has nothing whatsoever to do with class ” which is where I am in some sympathy with many areas of Giles Fraser’s article. My first ever music pupil came from a working class family where nobody had ever been to college, and many had never attended secondary school. I spotted his ability, I encouraged his parents who, bless them, had receptive ears. To cut a long story short, they did their utmost for him. He ended up as head chorister at what was at that time perhaps the premier cathedral choir in the country outside London; then he became a singer in St John’s College Cambridge; and now he’s the headmaster of a world-famous music school. Teachers are allowed to be proud of their pupils; and I’m very proud of him. His story is a wonderful testimony to the broader, class-mobility values that the English choral tradition’s choir schools offer.

All very complicated. All pretty challenging and difficult. A strongly developed sense of taste is no substitute for a strongly developed, biblically grounded theology of worship and of the role of music in it. And again, what matters above all things is whether people hear the Gospel.

Thanks for taking the time to think so deeply about this issue, which I care so much about, and for taking the time to write so lucidly about it.

****************
P.S. I completely agree with you about the centrality of hymns.

zac moxon
zac moxon
3 years ago
Reply to  Martin Adams

Thanks very much for your kind remarks, Martin. Let me respond to some of your points

Yes let’s be crystal clear on what we actually mean by the term evangelical. It’s fundamentally to do with substance, rather than style, aka salvation by faith, authority of scripture and the sufficiency of the cross. Let’s also not forget that the BCP, and pretty much all hymns by Newton, Watts, and Wesley are all thoroughly evangelical. It’s certainly not a new-age pop movement. (I myself prefer the term reformed, but only because the word evangelical has far too much baggage these days)

Let me clarify my use of High Anglican. I don’t necessarily mean Anglo Catholicism per se, although yes it does indeed have its own issues, but more any tradition within the church which uses ‘high art’ (western classical music, choirs, Byrd, Lassus, PÀrt). And, as I argued earlier, the theology behind this is that a) music needs to be of a sufficient quality to be pleasing in Gods sight, and that b) the way that worship happens is that people come closer to the divine through comprehending the beauty of the music, as Giles argues.

Through this model, music has such a high status that it almost becomes a mediator from humanity to God. The implications of this become a) we are further away from God through the grind of daily life and b) that Jesus didn’t quite do enough on the cross to bring humanity to God. Yes we can feel great and deep feelings of joy, sadness, and terror when we sing and listen to music in church, but this not making us one inch closer to god. Giles is right to point out that Jews will often regard God as a very distant figure who daren’t be approached. Well yes, when you have no messiah, you have no mediator to God other than sacrifice, and goodness me I’m glad that we do have a mediator. We have full access to God through Jesus, we can approach his throne of grace with confidence. We can really call him ‘abba’ father.

One of the big messages of the New a testament is that God dwells in believers all the time, even when they don’t feel it. This the best counter argument to your notion of ‘I feel therefore I am’, and boy it must be one of the most glorious truths in the whole of the Christian Faith.

It’s interesting that you bring up Bach. He is one of the very few classical composers that actually helps me devotionally, rather than just stirring up admiration for the music. When you hear the opening of St John passion, Those piercing suspensions combined with the relentless driving force in the strings, like a ticking clock, it helps you appreciate so much the anguish that Jesus must have going through in his final hours before his death. What a rare gem Bach was!

robert scheetz
robert scheetz
3 years ago

The basis of it all is paideia, passing the cultural heritage from the old to the young. And since SS is no longer taught, -the educational institution is formally and financially disallowed, and pop cult has only levity for it, the cultural heritage of Christendom is, except for an ever dwindling minority, dead. The young have neither the hermeneutic skills nor the inclination to attempt to grasp the meaning of the Culture’s quest for Meaning.
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Shaun Clarkson
Shaun Clarkson
3 years ago

The Dean’s statement from Sunday emphasises a commitment to continuing the choral tradition: “We want to raise our ambition for excellence in singing, so that once again we will be ne of the best, if not the best, cathedral choir in the UK”
https://www.sheffieldcathed

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
3 years ago

This article by Rowan Williams and me might go part way to answering the abuse I’ve now received from readers for knowing something about my own religion, as well as about the history of Christian-Jewish relations (so-called).

https://standpointmag.co.uk

aelf
aelf
3 years ago

‘Inclusivity’ excludes more than it includes.

Glyn Reed
Glyn Reed
3 years ago

“Contra Arnold, this is absolutely not a class thing. In fact, it’s extremely patronising to suggest that it is.”
Indeed. The dumbing down of our culture is extraordinarily patronising and misguided.

Dr Irene Lancaster
Dr Irene Lancaster
3 years ago

I tried to post an article written by former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams and me on the use of antisemitic tropes used by Anglican clergy, but it has not been permitted.

The fact is that this sort of Marcionism is so rife in the Church that you don’t even notice it when it sits up and bites you. GF has a history of anti Jewish abuse in his writings and broadcasts and features in Antony Julius’ book, Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Antisemitism-Semitism in England.

Attacking the bearer of bad news is not the best way of dealing with antisemitism. This is why I’ve agreed to help train the next generation of Anglican clergy. I have however been warned in advance that, given the ghastly state the Church is currently in, I will find it an uphill struggle. But we weren’t put on this earth for an easy life, and when asked to contribute in a positive way, what else can one do ….?

paul.arnesen
paul.arnesen
3 years ago

‘I think this statement needs to be set as an essay question: ‘Popular culture has no such origins because its primary purpose is entertainment’ Discuss. I think this because on reading it my immediate felt response was that this is a gross overgeneralisation. I think of George MacLeod and his efforts to connect the Church with the urban poor, which led to the formation of the Iona Community. And arising out of that, I think of
the work of John Bell and The Wild Goose Worship Group. John Bell uses traditional folk tunes, as well as composing new ones, not to entertain people but to help them find their own musical, singing voice and to use it to connect with the divine.

K Sheedy
K Sheedy
3 years ago

I tend to listen to beautiful ecclesiastical music on spotify, I’m a big fan of the genre. I also listen to pop thrash, I’m a big fan.
The issue with the church is not the music, it is the irrelevance to everyone not prepared to make Sorren Kirkegard’s ‘leap of faith’.
A tolerant Humanism is a much more useful philosophy for an educated populace. But we should keep the beautiful buildings and music. They don’t have to mean anything.

kathrynlord22
kathrynlord22
3 years ago

I think this an interesting article but I think the music issue is a red herring. I am hearing both sides of the discussion and it appears that both Dean and Chapter and ‘Save Sheffield cathedral choir’ are agreed that we need beautiful choral music.

I have yet to hear an honest reason why the Dean and Chapter have decided to close the choir. Perhaps they don’t even know themselves. “š”š

I think it is clear that the real problem is the way the cathedral is organised and decisions have been made. Having recently left the Church of England after being a committed member of a church in Sheffield for 30 years it is clear to me that the problem is wider than what is being experienced in Sheffield cathedral. The Church of England needs to be reorganised. The issue is about control and power. May I recommend Reinventing organisations by Frederick Laloux which, although is not written from a religious perspective, seems to me to be a ‘Kingdom of God’ or Jesus way of organising people – including people of faith.https://http://www.reinventingorganization...

Dan Poynton
Dan Poynton
3 years ago

I’m with you Giles – the other day I went to a born-again service and started craving for Palestrina and austere Gothic cathedrals by the second song (I also had this terrifying vision of God’s eternity being this – continual happy-happy watered down 80s rock anthems). But beware making statements like “Popular culture has no such origins because its primary purpose is entertainment”. The Beatles, Radiohead, Prince? Even Beethoven & Mozart had their pop phases (and big ones) – even if they didn’t fair so well in later life (thankfully, judging by their later work). And what about the original sex-symbol popstar Liszt? I know you redeemed yourself with your mention of Glyndebourne at the end, and I know you were only talking in general terms (not the great exceptions as above), but such statements only serve to further turn off people who do not know this music.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
3 years ago

‘Posh people go to the opera, learn Latin, read TS Eliot and long, improving novels.’

Who are you calling posh? I do all those things, and my dad was a sales clerk for the Co-Op. You seem as bigoted as your opponents in this.

zac moxon
zac moxon
3 years ago

In Giles’ fairness, just because he writes those words doesn’t mean that he’s endorsing them. He’s just just saying that that was part of the original culture war.

A newspaper is not pro-terrorism if it reports on an ISIS bombing.

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

After 12 years of catholic school I can state that
God Is dead
Or if he is not, he has got better things to do then dealing with the likes of us
You never have to go to church again now

duarenus
duarenus
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

I attended two Catholic schools. They were both dire and I didn’t learn anything about Catholicism there. Today I am a Catholic in spite of the “Catholic” education I received – for I perceived that Catholicism was something bigger than the surrounding fallenness, indifference, and amorality – that it was/is something that moves and captures the soul through sublime works of art, in music, and the lives of heroic charity led by a few shining exemplars, known and unknown, but mostly unknown. To conflate Catholicism in its sublimity with the broken and vile institution we see is a category mistake.

This sublimity can help us all on the path of healing – it can help us stop looking at the world from the perspective of our wounds and pathologies, in an act of life-affirmation.

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago
Reply to  duarenus

It’s all about guilt and shame
There is no uplifting in religion just suppression

sam.poulton
sam.poulton
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

I’m not a Catholic, but Jesus took all my guilt and shame upon himself at Calvary. I now live free from these horrendous burdens, quite the opposite of the suppression you speak of. He did it for you too, hand the guilt and shame over to him, start again, live right and your soul will be set free.