Cathedral choirs and church organists under threat?

Articles this week in the Daily Telegraph have predicted a bleak future for Cathedral choirs and Church organists: Cathedrals choirs under threat from Church of England’s squeezed finances; Church organists could become endangered species after tax shake-up, clergy warn.  Whilst neither is exactly breaking news, these feature on-going concerns within the CofE of preserving different aspects of its musical heritage against a background of financial constraints.

Church organists

The piece on church organists results from the decision by HMRC that from 6 April 2013, the special arrangement negotiated with the Churches Main Committee (the predecessor of the Churches’ Legislation Advisory Service) for “local religious centres” (LRCs), e.g. a parish church, was “no longer appropriate and therefore would no longer apply”. This arrangement had applied where LRCs “paid employees less than £100 per year or over £100 per year but less than the National Insurance Lower Earnings Limit”.  HMRC states that “[t]he rules on when to register as an employer and report PAYE information in real time are applicable to all employers. Consequently, an LRC will need to register as an employer and report PAYE in real time if any of the following apply…“.

In short, the problem is the introduction of Real-Time Information (RTI) for employees on PAYE; and that change relates to a far larger issue than payments to occasional volunteers. Much of the driving force behind RTI has been the introduction of the new Universal Credit: Government contends that if the Universal Credit system is to work properly it is essential that HMRC knows what taxpayers are earning from month to month rather than merely carrying out the traditional end-of-year reconciliations.

The Telegraph article states:

“The Rev Dr John Strain, vicar of eight parishes around Compton in West Sussex, said there was an impression that HMRC was targeting the small sums paid to occasional organists.  English choral music is considered to be among the best in the world in part because of the unique tradition of daily Evensong in Church of England cathedrals, sung by choristers drawn from local parishes.


“We have in England an astonishing category of Choral music, recognised by the whole world.  It is exemplified by our great cathedrals and their choirs but it is given its life blood by the way in which music and singing is regarded as central in parish churches throughout the land, there is a symbiosis.  It can’t be supported purely by the cathedrals alone, it needs the tens of thousands of little parish churches to maintain the musical traditions as best they can.”

Dr Strain, who has 15 organists within his 8 parishes, is reported as saying that he already has had players who are retired, saying that it is not worth the red tape to register for PAYE simply to play a few services a year. Whilst the link between playing “a few services per year” in small parish churches, often without a choir, to the English choral tradition is tenuous, the importance of these organists to the musical life of these churches should not be underestimated.  A further point that is not addressed, is the use of organists on an ad hoc basis for the “occasional offices”, mainly for playing at mid-week funerals and often at relatively short notice, when the regular organist is unable to attend.

Cathedral choirs

The article on cathedral choirs highlights Llandaff Cathedral, Cardiff, where six adult choristers and the assistant organist have been made redundant to save an estimated £50,000 towards the cathedral’s deficit of around £81,000.  The possibility of these cuts was first announced in November last year and these were effected in December.  Despite the campaign Save Llandaff Choir, the decision was confirmed in January.  The Cathedral choir now consists of 16 boy choristers, although a budget has been provided to pay lay clerks (i.e. adult choristers) on an occasional basis for weekend services and special seasons, such as Advent and Christmas, to sing with the boy choristers “in order to keep a choral tradition in the Cathedral”.  According to the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), the UK’s professional body for musicians, Llandaff is one of the last cathedral choirs in Wales to employ professional singers.

Budgetary issues are not confined to Llandaff; and the article suggests that almost half of the cathedrals in England and Wales are now seeking help from external charities to keep their professional choirs afloat.  It continues:

“[f]ears have been voiced for the cathedral choirs at Ripon, Bradford and Wakefield, all of which will lose their status heading up a diocese in June when they merge to come under Leeds’ supervision.  For Ripon the loss of the choir would signal an end to more than a millennium of live musical history since the cathedrals’ inception as a small church in the 7th Century”

This is not immediately apparent from the draft Dioceses of Bradford, Ripon and Leeds and Wakefield Reorganisation Scheme, GS 1898 which states:

1. Citation and commencement


(6) Article 8 shall come into operation on such day as the bishop of Leeds may appoint.



7.—(1) Each of the existing cathedrals of Bradford, Ripon and Wakefield shall be a cathedral of the new diocese



8.—(1) The parish church of Saint Peter, Leeds shall be a seat of the bishop of Leeds and be known as the pro-cathedral of the new diocese.

i.e. apart from the possible identification of the Minster church of St Peter, Leeds as the pro-cathedral of the new Diocese of Leeds for West Yorkshire and The Dales, no changes to the cathedrals and St Peter’s, and the congregations they serve, are explicitly mentioned. Nevertheless, such fears are understandable particularly in view of the funding issues facing most cathedral choirs.  The article quotes Professor Peter Toyne, chairman of the Friends of Cathedral Music, who believes that cathedral music is endangered, and other provincial cathedrals such as Derby and Leicester are the most under threat of falling silent. He states

“This year we had applications from 18 cathedrals, that’s nearly half of them, asking for significant sums of money.  And just to give the scale of it an average cathedral choir costs something in the order of £250,000 a year to run. “Now once you start cutting it, take a couple of men out, take a few choristers out, then things start to crumble.”


The issue regarding church organists is clearly the more soluble of the two, and whilst those involved may not wish to become involved in the additional “red tape”, this would seem to be a cost-neutral issue on which the PCC might provide assistance itself or from within the parish.  That of Cathedral finance is complex for which the funding of the cathedral choir cannot be viewed in isolation.  Furthermore, there are a number of facets to the music within a cathedral; in addition to the cathedral choir itself, most cathedrals have other choirs which also sing in addition to the services served by the cathedral choir, as at Llandaff, or when the cathedral choir is not there, (i.e. the choristers are on holiday or on summer tour).  Summer is also the time when visiting choirs sing in place of the cathedral choir, and these are generally from parish churches.

The “choral tradition” of a cathedral is therefore difficult to define: unpaid amateur choirs that normally sing a couple of times per week are clearly different from professionals who are engaged to sing on a daily basis, although they do tend to sing the same basic SATB repertoire, generally decani and cantoris. Substantial numbers visit UK cathedrals every year – the CofE quotes say that they have been to a Church of England cathedral in the previous 12 months[1], although as Choral Evensong is generally scheduled outside visitors’ opening hours, only a small proportion of these actually hear the choir.

This week Truro Cathedral engaged in some creative advertising to encourage attendance at its Ash Wednesday service of Solemn Eucharist and Imposition of Ashes as including “a liturgical performance [2] by Truro Cathedral Choir of Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus with its famous treble solo soaring up to a top C five times”. However, congregation numbers only form one part of the funding equation.

Coincidentally, Prospero (the arts & culture blog of The Economist) has an interesting post on the cultural significance of cathedral music.

[1] Theos, Spiritual Capital, September 2012.

[2] The performance time of Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus of 12 to 13 minutes and when sung during the ashing is often tailored to the size of the congregation, cutting from the end of v8 to the start of v17, i.e. only 4 top Cs in total.