Choristers and canon law

The church choir is generally assumed to be a bastion of inclusivity, acceptance and love for all” – Discuss.

The Daily Telegraph article Church organist quits choir as ‘sharp-elbowed’ members try to push out tuneless older singers prompted a number of follow-up articles in the “religious press” and subsequent comments based upon stereotypical images of church choirs, and little else. However, the Beaker Folk post Troubles with Trebles, captured the inevitable organist-choir-minister-congregation dynamics that are present whenever music forms part of a church service. This post examines these dynamics in the light of the applicable legislation.


The news item concerned St Nicholas, Harpenden where the “professional ‘Director of Music’” (as he is termed on the church website) felt unable to continue in post as a consequence of bickering amongst the some of  the choristers regarding the level of musical competence of some of the longer-standing members of the choir. Since the reports of events vary, the following comments will concentrate on the general issues of music in the CofE that this raises.

Relevant canon law

Music in the Church of England is subject to Canon B 20 Of the musicians and music of the Church and recently the General Synod Legal Advisory Commission issued new and updated guidance: Parish Music: organists and choirmasters and church musicians, (“the Opinion”). This was covered in our three-part analysis: Parish Music Guidance: Ministers and organists; Parish Music Guidance: employment issues; and Parish Music Guidance: Application. The main points of the Church’s provisions may be summarized as:

  • the minister of the parish has a wide discretion over the choice of music in divine service, viz. “the duty of the minister to ensure that only such chants, hymns, anthems, and other settings are chosen as are appropriate, both the words and the music, to the solemn act of worship”, Canon B 20 §3; Nevertheless, he must “pay heed to the advice and assistance of the organist or choirmaster”.
  • with the exception of cathedral or collegiate churches or chapels, the formal appointment of an organist to any church or chapel must be by the minister, which may be subject to the terms of any contract entered into subsequently. Nevertheless, the appointment must be with the agreement of the PCC (Canon B 20 §1).
  • the Opinion states that as a consequence of recent developments in employment law, it is important that the actual contract of employment is entered into between the PCC and the organist. It also stresses that none may be admitted to, or dismissed from, the choir save with the approval of the minister of the parish. 

[In view of the various terms employed to describe the post, the use of “organist” supra, includes “organist, choirmaster (by whatever name called) or director of music”]


Events at St Nicholas, Harpenden, did not concern employment issues per se, although even in the case of voluntary resignation, both parties would be bound by the conditions of the employment contract. It appears as though the main issue here was that of “inclusivity versus performance”, where the outgoing Director of Music took the view that the choir should be inclusive and accommodate include all types of singer, both good and indifferent. This was apparently resisted by a recent influx of singers who “who did not believe those with more enthusiasm than talent should be allowed to take the limelight”; whether or not the newer choir members had a hidden agenda to introduce more complex pieces is not evident form the reports.

The raison d’être of any church choir is to support the worship, and as such the priest is empowered to ensure that this is conducted as he or she deems fit, i.e. “the final responsibility and decision in these matters [relating to music] rests with the minister”. This does not always seem to be the case in practice, but the ability of a small number of choir members to force the issue – against the wishes of the Director of Music, the priest, others in the choir, and presumably, the congregation – seems unusual and would hopefully be the exception rather than the rule. However, the question that does not appear to have been asked is “what is the responsibility of singers who detract rather than supplement the overall sound of the choir/ how the music is received by priest and congregation?”.

So, should the statement “The church choir is generally assumed to be a bastion of inclusivity, acceptance and love for all” qualify for an “Award for Utter Naivety in a Single Sentence”? Most church choirs would wish the statement to be true, and perhaps, over the long term, it may be broadly correct. However, it would be unusual if choirs were not subject to occasional expressions of artistic temperament, or where performance trumps inclusivity with the congregation.

David Pocklington, decani tenor


Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "Choristers and canon law" in Law & Religion UK, 20 September 2017,

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