St Sepulchre’s in the City of London is known as the National Musicians' Church. Until now, it has, like many other churches, hosted rehearsals and performances of music groups which hire the space.
What makes it stand out is that the ashes of Sir Henry Wood, founder of the most famous music festival in the land, the Proms, are buried here in a chapel dedicated to St Cecilia (patron saint of musicians) which also features stained glass windows commemorating Sir Henry Wood (who started his musical life as a chorister and organist here), Dame Nelly Melba, composer John Ireland and Walter Carroll. Many other musicians are annually recorded in the Book of Remembrance, maintained and celebrated by the Friends of the Musicians' Chapel.
So the sudden decision by St Sepulchre’s to stop taking bookings from music groups from 2018 has sent shock waves through the musical world. Many well-known figures – including John Rutter, Howard Goodall and Judith Weir, as well as large numbers of leisure-time musicians from our member groups – have signed the petition and an open letter urging the Parish Council to reconsider this change of policy. At the time of writing it had collected over 4,000 signatures (including that of Making Music Executive Director Barbara Eifler) in just a few days.
A flashmob protest outside St Sepulchre's Church.
What has caught the public’s imagination about this campaign? Undoubtedly, much can be attributed to the special place this church, and Sir Henry Wood, inhabit in the musical heart of the country.
But there is more to it: if the most high-profile music church in the country can close its doors to music hires – what if others follow?
Churches have long been favourite venues for leisure-time music groups - our latest membership data suggest 40% of groups use churches regularly.
Apart from their generally excellent acoustics, these buildings offer the space needed for a large choir or instrumental group to rehearse, perform and accommodate a sizeable audience. And as you’re never far from a church wherever you live, they also ensure excellent accessibility in terms of location.
The hire price is usually affordable, too, and in turn groups’ bookings contribute considerably to the sustainability of these buildings which through sheer number (and age) often present a significant drain on the Church’s budget. And surely Christian principles encourage those in charge of such buildings to engage with and support their community? Such support works in the opposite direction, too: those that become acquainted with their local churches through activities taking place in them are often the same people then energetically fundraising for a new roof or other repairs.
In the last few years, drastic local authority cuts have further reduced leisure-time music groups’ options in terms of accessible and affordable local spaces, so the significance of churches has grown even further: they fulfil a crucial role in their communities.
That is why, we believe, the outcry over St Sepulchre’s decision has been so significant – and why their policy change should be vigorously opposed. The National Musicians' Church’s actions will set a signal, nationally, around the importance of grassroots musical activity, and around how the Church engages with its communities.
Surely stopping support for groups – which do so much to increase people’s well-being and enjoyment of life, never mind combat isolation and cement good neighbourly relations – sends a wider message not intended by the Church authorities?