Bishop of St Albans speaks in support of the UK performing arts sector

The Bishop of St Albans spoke in a debate on support for the performing arts sector in the UK on 30th March 2023, advocating for a long term settlement of grants to support the arts and emphasising the cultural and social value of the arts sector:

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, for securing this debate and share the concerns of many other noble Lords about the challenges facing BBC musicians and the need to support small venues and touring programmes. The case has been made eloquently.

I am also grateful for the Library briefing, but I note that it begins—as has already been quoted—

“In 2022 music, performance and visual arts contributed an estimated £11.5bn to the UK economy.”

Have we really reached the point where we primarily describe the arts by the financial contribution that they make? Can we not imagine a world where the House of Lords Library produces briefings which say that, in the past year, 39,000 people had their minds opened and changed because of the plays they saw at the National Theatre; scores of people entered into the grim reality of migrants because they went to something at the National Theatre and then came back and signed up to some campaigning organisation to support them; and 40,000 people felt that they touched eternity in that breathtaking silence at the end of the Rachmaninoff “Vespers”? Can we not somehow talk about enriching the human soul? That is surely what it is about. We cannot and must not measure the performing arts primarily in financial terms but in the way that they expand our imaginations, unlock our sympathies and confront us with alternative realities that take us out of our comfort zones and demand that we engage with them.

In the few moments that I have to speak, I want to focus on one specific section of the performing arts: church music. The world has never considered the UK to be an especially musical nation—others can sometimes be rather rude about us. Yet, when you look back over the past 150 years, you can see that many of our greatest composers—Gurney, Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Howells, Walton, Parry, Stanford, Tavener, Rutter and so on—started out singing in church choirs. Most of them did not come from privileged backgrounds. Often their fathers were church organists and their earliest compositions were hymns and anthems. Without church music, most of them would never have become composers. That tradition continues today among popular contemporary musicians, such as Ed Sheeran, Annie Lennox and Chris Martin of Coldplay—he was a chorister in the Exeter Cathedral Choir.

Take our Anglican cathedrals, which currently employ over 100 professional musicians and are involved with 4,000 choristers. Catholic cathedrals, other large churches and some Oxbridge colleges also employ more than 100 professional musicians. The National Schools Singing Programme, run by the Roman Catholic Church, has already expanded into 27 of the 32 Catholic dioceses, reaching more than 17,000 children in 175 schools. The Royal School of Church Music engages huge numbers of people through the “Voice for Life” scheme, designed to help people discover what their voice can do. The RSCM medal scheme takes choristers step by step through the various singing exams. A new initiative, Hymnpact, is a scheme designed to connect churches and schools, which is being piloted in my own diocese.

The St Albans Cathedral chorister outreach programme was developed in partnership with the Hertfordshire Music Service. Funded by Sing Up, the national singing programme, it was designed to encourage church choristers to work with primary school-aged children to enjoy singing. It has so far worked with more than 80 primary schools in west Hertfordshire, involving more than 6,000 children. The results have been so impressive that my own cathedral, in partnership with the Hertfordshire Music Service, continues to fund it even though the funding stream has officially ended. It has now been running for over 15 years. Two or three primary schools join the project every term for 10 weeks of singing teaching in schools, with up to about 90 children, followed by a concert in the cathedral to sing with the choristers at the end of the project.

None of this is funded by the state. In some limited cases, it has been helped with some seed-corn funding to get it going. It is absolutely right that in this debate there will be calls for proper long-term funding for professional musicians, actors and dancers. I support that. We need a long-term settlement which will enable this vital area not just to survive but to flourish and grow in our nation. However, at the same time, I ask the Minister: will he and his colleagues take a fresh look at the whole breadth of the creative and performing arts? There are many areas where, with some modest but consistent grants, we can see quite extraordinary results in our performing arts, such as what is happening through grass-roots singing in our churches and schools right across this land.


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