Sermon for Evensong & Benediction – Easter 3 Sunday 15 April 2018
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Fr Alan Moses
50th Anniversary of the Closure of the Choir School
Readings: Psalms 149,150; 2 Chronicles 5; Revelation 4
Solomon has completed the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the time of its consecration has come. This house of God, built to be the centre of Israel’s worship, also has a staff of priests, musicians and singers, to maintain its daily round of worship.
Many centuries later, a similar if smaller scale project came to completion here in Margaret Street. All Saints rose on the site of the old Margaret Chapel. It was to be a house of God, a parish church for this part of London. But it was to be no ordinary parish church. Its founders set out not only to provide a model of how a church should be built, but also how one should function in an urban setting.
An important aspect of the Oxford Movement’s programme was to improve the music in parish churches. As well as raising standards of choral music and restoring the use of plainsong, the aim was also to raise the standards of hymnody; replacing doggerel metrical psalms and individualistic evangelical hymns with ones drawn from the tradition of the Church and reflecting the breadth of its doctrine. This would result in Hymns Ancient and Modern and then later, the English Hymnal; both intended to accompany the Church’s liturgy. Just as the architecture and iconography of this building reflected the heavenly city of the Book of Revelation, so too its music would echo that of the heavenly choirs; bringing a foretaste of heaven to earthbound worshippers, lifting their spirits heavenward.
So, as well as a staff of clergy and sisters, it would have a musical establishment with a choir school. This would enable the services of the Book of Common Prayer to be sung daily. So it began and so it was to continue for over a century, surviving the virtual depopulation of the parish, two world wars, evacuation in the second of them, economic depression and huge social change. The choir would be good enough to reinforce that of Westminster Abbey for coronations. It would embrace the modern era, with recordings made and broadcasts on the BBC – there was a direct link between All Saints and the BBC so that the boys could sing for the daily service on the wireless.
All this, until that Easter Day, the 14th of April, fifty years ago, when the boys would sing for the last time. It must have been a strange feeling that day, to be celebrating the resurrection of Christ while at the same time marking the end of an era and an institution.
A sermon like this is not the occasion for a post-mortem. Suffice it to say, that the school’s demise was brought about by a combination of educational and financial factors. A school with no more than 20 boys, aged from 8 to 13, would struggle to comply with government regulations and to find qualified staff.
Before he died, Philip Bennet, who had come from mid-Wales to be a chorister here at the age of eight, and then in adult life had been a parishioner here for many years, sent me a copy of the prospectus which his parents had received. As well as lists of uniform and sports kit required, it informed them that their son, along with the other boys, would have a cold bath each day. They could only be excused this austere approach to personal hygiene if they had a doctor’s note. I later discovered that it was the same cold bath, which they took turns to be plunged into. I wonder if a doctor’s note got you a warm bath instead: I suspect not. Of course, all choir schools in those days were spartan institutions; and most of us who were children in that era grew up without the luxury of central heating.
However, life under this tightly-disciplined regime was not “all work and no play.” Life was lightened by sports and entertainments, outings and treats. Fr. Mackay (whose anniversary we keep this week), a great lover of the theatre produced plays in which one of the actors took the first steps on what would be a momentous career in stage and screen. Later, after his divorce, his name would never be mentioned!
In an almost entirely male establishment, something of the feminine and maternal was provided by the matron. One of my early and pleasant duties here was to host a party for Mary Baddeley, the last matron, on her 80th birthday. One of the guests was Sadie Campbell, whom we also remember this week. A Glasgow lassie, she had been the school’s cook. Not that long afterwards, Mary and I went to her funeral mass.
The finances of the choir school had always been precarious. Even in the days when the congregation of All Saints was much more fashionable and wealthy than it is now, everything seems to have been rather hand to mouth. Each year at the All Saints Festival, in those days a full eight days with High Mass, at 11am – clearly not for those who had to work for a living – and Choral Evensong daily, all with sermons, the Vicar would ascend the pulpit and appeal to make the annual Festival Appeal. This was not, as now, for our mission projects, but to meet the deficit on the parish accounts, most of which was the result of the choir school. Fr. Cyril Tomkinson would say: “It’s not for me my dears, it’s for them” -pointing to the boys.
No attempt seems to have been made to provide an endowment to sustain the school. Looking back at the history, it seems clear that for Vicars of All Saints, the choir school was a recurring source of strain and stress, as well as of glorious music. Peter Galloway and Chris Rawll’s chronicle of the Vicars of All Saints, “Good and Faithful Servants”, says that most had retired or died worn out and dispirited. In the case of Fr. Kenneth Ross, the strain and stress was exacerbated by ill-informed and uncharitable abuse heaped upon him when he took the decision to close the school. He moved to a canonry at Wells Cathedral, but he never regained his strength. One of the great priests of the Church of England in his era was dead within a year, aged only 61.
Well, the present Vicar is neither worn out nor dispirited, but he still has to worry about the finances of the parish and its music; even though the load of responsibility is now much more widely spread. Not long after I arrived at All Saints, I was shown around below decks. Down there in the undercroft we came across a clothes rail with a set of cassocks and cottas wrapped in plastic. They were the ones the boys of the choir had worn. Why, I wondered, had they been kept for so long? Were they waiting for the last days, when old choristers would rise from their graves at the general resurrection to join the worship of heaven? Sadly, the garments were so decayed as to be useless to any other church choir which might have worn them.
The relationship between church and school seemed so symbiotic that many wondered if one could survive without the other. Would the demise of the parish soon follow that of the School? Numbers certainly fell away. We live in an era with much talk of the decline of church-membership, but the 1960s was also an era in which the traditional church was not expected to survive. American theologians had pronounced that God was dead. Reformers bent on reinventing the Church of England in their own image had no time for choral music and regarded Victorian buildings – deeply out of favour with almost everyone except John Betjeman – as a millstone around the Church’s neck.
But God was not finished with All Saints and its music yet. The closure of choir school may have felt more like Holy Saturday than Easter Day, a funeral than a new birth, but there was a resurrection. An adult choir took the place of the boys. Fr. Michael Marshall brought new energy and direction. True, the daily evensong was a thing of the past but the new regime grew steadily in confidence and quality under Eric Arnold and then Dr. Harry Bramma, here with us tonight.
Paying for it all, remains a heavy burden; Fr. David Hope memorably said that the congregation of All Saints in his day seemed to expect “champagne religion at beer prices.” His successor, Fr. David Hutt began the work of establishing an endowment – the Choir and Music Trust – which would support the PCC in funding the music – which is more or less a third of the parish’s annual expenditure. The trust is about half way to covering this; and we hope that further generosity on the part of parishioners past and present will bridge the gap.
The work of All Saints continues in a building and an organ restored to its original splendour, and its music continues as a vital part of that work.
The Church in this land still needs places which are dedicated to the highest standards in worship and the music which accompanies it. It is the vocation of this community to be such a place now and in the future as it was from the beginning. The outward forms may change somewhat, but the inward spirit remains the same.
We look back to the past thankful for those who sang and taught here, for their contribution to the life and mission of the parish; for what many of them went on to do in later life, not least in the wider church and the world of music. But we should not look back with can and should look back then to the past with thanksgiving but not with nostalgia and regret, but to the future in hope.