For more than 70 years, the Church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in Holborn, London, has been known as the National Musicians’ Church. Its north chapel commemorates eminent British musicians, with the ashes of Sir Henry Wood – the founder of the BBC Proms, one of the world’s foremost classical music festivals, who learned to play the organ in the church’s chapel – lying there, beneath the St Cecilia window. It has, up to now, also acted as an important concert venue and provided welcome rehearsal space for both amateur and professional musicians.
This August, however – according to the Guardian – Rev David Ingall, the priest-in-charge at St Sepulchre for four years, wrote to various musical ensembles to inform them that they could no longer make bookings from the end of the year onwards, since there would thenceforth be a ban on “non-religious hiring” of the facilities.
In an online statement on its official website, the church confirmed that the hiring programme was to close from 2018, stating that “an increasingly busy programme of worship and church activities has led to ever higher demands on the church space, and the hiring space is also shared with the church administration office”.
This has taken place despite the St Sepulchre parochial church council (PCC) having – back in 2013 – raised concerns about the then appointment of Rev Ingall as priest-in-charge and having asked for assurances that the church’s role as the National Musicians’ Church and as a centre for traditional music and liturgy would be maintained – assurances which were indeed given, at the time, by Richard Chartres, then Bishop of London, who has since retired.
This has led to more than 50 leading figures from the music world signing a letter (sent to the PCC and to the Acting Bishop of London, Pete Broadbent) urging the reversal of this decision. The letter claims that “this move was made without consultation” and that it contradicts the assurances given in 2013.
Eminent composer and conductor John Rutter – one of the signatories to the letter – stated, according to The Telegraph, that he felt that musicians had been “betrayed” by the decision. He also told the London broadsheet newspaper that “what this current vicar seems to be saying is that music is OK so long as it’s part of a worship service. The concerts that take place in just about every church in the land, they’re not OK, and rehearsals are not OK either. That flies in the face of the Anglican tradition.”
A petition with the same aim as the musicians’ letter, entitled Save the National Musicians’ Church, has also been signed by more than 7000 people to date.
The church leadership has stated, on its official website:
“Over the weekend there has been a significant response online and via social media to this decision, and we have been greatly moved by the concern expressed for the musical life of the church. We do wish to reiterate that we remain committed to our ministry as the National Musicians’ Church. In the coming weeks we will reflect and pray, and consult with members of the musicians’ community about how best to fulfil that ministry moving forward, including particularly Dr. Andrew Earis (Director of Music at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and former Director of Music here at St. Sepulchre’s)”.