None or Both: A Church or a Concert Hall?

by Samuel Mellish

St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate of Holborn, the supposed ‘National Musicians’ Church’ has closed its doors to “non-religious hiring”, undermining a strong history of hosting and nurturing musical talent. Despite previously welcoming groups such as the London Youth Choir, and housing the ashes of the founder of the Proms, Sir Henry Wood, the Reverend David Ingall, Rector of the church, and members of the parochial church council (PCC) have rejected calls by the acting bishop of London, Pete Broadbent; professional musicians, such as Julian Lloyd Webber; and the general public, represented by a petition of almost 8000 signatures, to, as the petition outlines, “reverse and revisit the church’s decision that prevents all musical groups from rehearsing and performing”.

It is undoubted that a church cannot be solely a concert venue, and that in such an instance it would no longer be considered a church, rather a oddly shaped building, with an almost coincidental and convenient layout out from which to host an array of artistic events, a ready made theatre, as it were. But then again, they cannot solely be a venue for the worship of God. Churches have indeed had to adapt to a continuing secularism of Western cultural expression, however, despite their seemingly reduced role, they continue to be safe havens, providing counseling services, mediation advice, hot meals, companionship, educational advancement, as well as centres for artistic expression. The list could easily consume the words I am allotted for this article. To isolate a church from these wider commitments is to undermine its relevance in a society that is increasingly questioning its purpose, whilst also taking away the social vision most pertinently expressed in Luke’s Gospel.

Now Reverend Ingall has certainly not closed St. Sepulchre to the public. Indeed, a quick review of its website uncovers statements such as:

“[t]hroughout scripture we are called to defend and uphold the poor and marginalised in society, and we are reminded that God is passionate about them”

Nonetheless, he and the church’s PCC have undermined the platform from which they would be able to spread compassion and discussions of theology to a diverse and wide audience. Though, despite its importance, this is not simply a debate on relevance within a secular society, where the decreasing number of congregations is met only by the reduction in funds available. It is also a conversation concerning a church’s ability to fulfill its purpose when administering to a small number of congregants, isolated from the public at large. Reaffirming the faith of a small number of believers cannot foster social change. It can only be achieved by continuing to engage with the wider public and politics of the day. In undermining the church’s tradition of hosting concerts, the reverend has lost a connection to world it is his duty to engage with. To not do so, prevents the non-worship activities mentioned above from making a series contribution to our society.

I am also struck by the notion that concerts are ‘non-religious’ from his and the PCC’s perspective. Such a narrow definition of theological expression, mutes many forms of beauty and spirituality. Indeed, if we are inhabitants of God’s creation, then can we not express religion outside of worship, free from the confines of a particular building? Humanity has been far too comfortable to locate God in one place. If we take the holy of holies in the first Temple in Jerusalem as the template for the Abrahamic faiths, we see the focus around churches, synagogues and mosques, as unsurprising. Yet, if we are truly inhabitants of God’s creation, then surely our religious encounter with God can, and should be throughout that world, without exception. On this basis, it is not the role of minsters to determine where we worship, or where and how we choose that encounter with God to take place.

Bishop Pete Broadbent must be commended for his perspective and actions, and certainly the founding of (a tool geared to aiding musicians to find venues) will mitigate some the fallout. However, messages of community engagement and inclusivity will fall on deaf ears until the ‘Musicians’ Church’ can truly be saved.