A Position Paper by Dr Bernarr Rainbow and others 

Cathedral Choirs  - New Directions

Shock waves reverberated throughout the world of cathedral music in 1991 when Salisbury declared its intention of setting up a girls' choir. Before that date, the daily singing of the offices in our great medieval cathedrals had been, almost without exception, the sole preserve of choirs of men and boys.

Not long after Sarum's debut, however, other cathedrals followed suit. What had once been unimaginable and unimagined was suddenly in vogue.

For some time, unease at what was happening failed almost completely to find expression - though it certainly existed. As the number of cathedrals planning to establish girls' choirs increased, however, disquiet and concern grew into outright dismay.

It was against this background that Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir (CTCC) came into being. Its platform was a simple and uncompromising reaffirmation of the primacy of the all-male choral tradition in our cathedrals and a gentle, yet desperate, plea for a rethink on girls' choirs.

Our cathedral choirs of men and boys are a stupendous inheritance. They are one of the brightest jewels in the Church's crown - a pure and unsullied expression of Her deepest faith. It would be a cultural and spiritual tragedy of incalculable proportions were we to lose them.

And within these choirs, it is the evanescent beauty of the boy's voice, a crystalline cry to a world outside and beyond us, which is able to touch our minds and hearts as perhaps nothing else. For centuries, it has helped lift mankind's thoughts on high, providing poignant comfort and spiritual insight. The contemplation of any action which might endanger a spiritual resource of this magnitude ought to be unthinkable.

The cathedral choral tradition emphasises and cherishes solemn reverence and seemliness. Its appeal to those who have grown up within its ambit continues fresh and undimmed. Many contemporary forms of worship, however, with the accent on informality, create a quite different atmosphere. As a result, many among the faithful feel increasingly bereft and isolated.

A living tradition cannot thrive on nostalgia for the past. Today, however, we are all suffering from a torrent of novelty. The world has been turned upside down and the very earth seems to shift beneath our feet. Even the young yearn for stability. Surely, the Church, in its role as trustee, has a part to play here.

The new girls' choirs seem to have been broadly welcomed. Indeed, one senses a feeling of pride, among cathedral authorities which have established them, at having done the right thing. Others have proved reluctant to speak out. It is only in recent times, however, and with the arrival of CTCC, that an opportunity for debate has presented itself.

We believe such debate is urgently needed. Already, some 24% of major cathedrals have a girls' choir. As we argue below, this is a development which threatens the all-male tradition. The case for keeping to ancient custom is compelling, and it is our strong contention that the full implications of the introduction of girls on to choral foundations, have not been taken into account. Unless careful thought is given to the larger picture, disaster lies ahead.

The Case for the All-Male Cathedral Choir

The phrase 'all-male cathedral choir' has a synthetic ring to it. Until recently, one simply referred to a 'cathedral choir'. That it was all-male was taken for granted. Now that the girls have arrived, we have taken to talking about the 'girls' choir' and the 'boys' choir'. This is unfortunate in that it splits off the adults from the children, whereas previously the choir was seen as a single entity. A linguistic fudge is obscuring a new reality - one which has within it the seeds of disunity. It is CTCC's fear that the introduction of girls' choirs is but the first step towards the total transformation of choral foundations.

There are two sonorities particularly associated with the traditional cathedral choir - the alto and the treble voices. Let us take the boy's treble voice first. Its special nature is appreciated even by those most closely associated with championing the introduction of girls 'A boy's voice is platonic. That doesn't mean it's neuter, because it's above and beyond gender in the same way that Ariel's is. There can't be one of us who doesn't respond to such natural, pure singing. Spiritual things are not fleshly after all - that's the point of them. They are there to help us transcend humanity. It seems then that there is a natural affinity between the pre-pubertal boy's voice and church music. These are the views of Joanna Trollope, a distinguished advocate of girl choristers, and author of The Choir. She is not alone. Similar opinions have frequently been expressed by those directly involved with the new girls' choirs - though perhaps not with such elegance and passion.

Then there is the male alto or counter-tenor voice, an altogether essential ingredient in the English choral tradition. It adds a particular richness to the vast range of cathedral music. Indeed, cathedral music without the alto voice is unthinkable. It is also unsingable - at least, if we wish to remain faithful to the intentions of composers.

By this stage, some readers may be asking themselves what conceivable threat the girls' choirs pose. Surely, they constitute an enrichment, not a dilution of the tradition. Only if the boys' and girls' choirs were merged would there be cause for concern. In fact, most Deans and Chapters, have repeatedly stressed their intentions to keep them separate. It is CTCC's contention, however, that a rather different evolution of the choral tradition is likely to take place.

Deans and Chapters, like choirmasters and the rest of humanity, come - and they go. However sincere those currently responsible for the choirs may be about keeping them separate, there is no knowing what their successors will decide. If it be asked why they should decide any differently, the answer must be that, as the years go by, they will be subject to a variety of pressures. Cathedral choirs cost vast sums of money to run, and not infrequently questions are asked concerning the appropriateness of apportioning to them such a large slice of cathedral income.

Church revenue is unlikely to grow much in the future, and indeed, a realistic forecast might see it declining dramatically. In such a case, all forms of regular expenditure would have to be re-examined. An amalgamation of the boys' and girls' choirs might then suggest itself as a way of economising.

This could well prove acceptable to the growing evangelical wing in the Church, for whom the choral tradition usually counts rather less. Even in the unlikely event that Church income were to increase significantly, there would always be those who would question the rightness of spending so much money on choirs - of any composition.

It has often been said that one of the reasons choristers do so well is that they sing every day. This continuity and concentration helps produce high standards of achievement. Any diminution of it must inevitably reduce commitment and achievement. York Minster and other cathedrals have already declared their intention of eventually having the sung services shared equally among the boys and the girls. This is likely to be the future norm. It is hard to see, therefore, how standards can be maintained if performance is halved. CTCC fears that we shall end up with cathedrals possessing two rather mediocre choirs rather than one superlative one. If this proves to be the case, amalgamation might be seen as a way to raise standards.

A choirmaster's job, with or without assistance, is very much a full-time one. Playing the organ and conducting the choir are only the more public aspects of it. With the best will in the world, choirmasters are going to find running two choirs a very heavy, extra burden. As the girls take on more of the services. and as cathedral authorities become aware of the increasing onus placed on their choirmasters, the case for amalgamation will seem ever more compelling.

A boy's life as a treble normally comes to a natural close around the age of thirteen. He knows his days as a chorister are at an end. A few fleeting years as a treble are all that he can hope for. Nature knows nothing of 'equal opportunity'. For a girl, it is not so. Indeed, at the age of fourteen, she might at last be getting into her real stride. Why should she not continue singing? She may, indeed, claim the right to do so. In The Report of the Archbishops' Commission on Church Music, In Tune With Heaven, we read: 'The length of time a boy spends in a cathedral choir is generally dictated by his attendance at a preparatory school. If the same rule were applied to girls, they might perhaps have a less satisfactory experience of cathedral music, given the later flowering of their voices. These and other questions will have to be faced as cathedrals open their choirs to girls.' There you have it.

The demand for equal opportunities for the girls can have only one logical outcome. Women too will claim the right to sing in cathedral choirs. Indeed, in some cases, they are already there. And of course, female members of Chapters - whose numbers must be set to grow - are hardly likely to be unsympathetic.

Not all girls continue to sing soprano as they mature into women, so there would be no question of them simply carrying on singing the top line. The contraltos would eventually be vying with the altos. Or perhaps the men would sing with the boys and the women with the girls. Having had to fund girls' choirs, cathedral authorities would be faced with having to find additional funds to pay the women.

All this has the feel of a juggler's nightmare. Pity the poor choirmaster who has to deal with it! The urge to amalgamate girls and boys, men and women, into a single choir will be enormous. Whilst solving one problem, it will create another, since the greater part of the existing repertoire was written for the all-male choir.

Another inducement to merge the choirs can be found in the claim made by researchers that there is no discernible difference between the trained voices of boys and girls. Let us be wary, however, of allowing research unchallenged by academic peers, to convince us, at one sitting, that what has been felt for countless generations, both here and elsewhere - namely, that the boy's voice has a truly exceptional quality to it, with a unique capacity to touch our hearts - is nothing more than a misapprehension from which we are now mercifully relieved, thanks to the Eternal Verities of Science. If people can be persuaded so easily, then many will question the expense and trouble of maintaining two separate choirs.

Whatever the likely scenario of changes, it will involve human emotions. Almost inevitably, the young boy choristers will come to feel that there is something cissy about singing. They are at an age when such things matter terribly. In Tune With Heaven admitted as much when it discussed parish church choirs: 'When girls have been introduced into a formerly all-male top line, most of the boys have disappeared.' We ought not lightly to dismiss fears that the same will happen in our cathedral choirs. And if the boys drop out, where will the future supply of altos, tenors and basses come from?

'You cannot get boys these days, so what choice do we have?' some ask. Recruitment is not easy, but that is no reason to be alarmist. Some cathedrals (and not necessarily the most famous) do exceedingly well in attracting candidates. The towel should not be thrown in. However difficult the recruitment of boys may be now, it will become even more arduous if the choirs amalgamate.

Prospects for cathedral music are not bright where girls' choirs have been introduced - in spite of the energy and devotion of those involved. It seems to us that the future is even less reassuring in those cathedrals where they have mixed the top line or taken on women to sing alto. Rather than enhancing the tradition, they are likely to lead to its demise. The last step along the way will be that mixed choirs will become predominantly female. The parish choirs bear witness of what can happen.

Opposing Arguments

It is said that the all-male choral tradition discriminates against girls and that it refuses them equal opportunity. Joanna Trollope put this point of view with great feeling: 'It is patently morally indefensible to refuse a good voice the discipline and professionalism that's to be gained from an expertly supervised long apprenticeship on grounds of gender.'

CTCC feels a great deal of sympathy with this point of view. We easily appreciate how attractive the chance to sing in a cathedral choir must seem to many a girl. Yet, equal opportunity is a very modern notion. To throw it in as the sole counterweight to all the arguments given above is to get things out of perspective and out of proportion. Even if it were a perfectly valid objection in itself, it would be wrong not to take other arguments into consideration.

'Democracy,' wrote C.S.Lewis, 'is all very well as a political device. It must not intrude into the spiritual, or even the aesthetic, world.' As for the choral tradition, there is a world of difference between having a 'right' to be a chorister and being accorded the privilege. Cathedral choirs are not primarily training grounds. They were never intended as an off-shoot of the educational system. Rather, they serve a function that transcends all questions of equal opportunities, that is, worship through music.

Surely, what is of true importance is that we rest in one equal light before the Lord. Girls and women are not disadvantaged if they do not belong to a cathedral choir. For them, other and different opportunities to develop their particular genius should be sought. It is not by endangering the ancient choral tradition, but by being given their own unique role, that they will prosper. To equate equal opportunity with identical opportunity is to display a fateful lack of imagination.

It has been said that girls as well as boys have a ministry to offer. This is indeed true, but ought that necessarily to imply replica choirs? Ministries and gifts do not all need to be exercised in the same way to be effective. It has also been said that with girls in the choir more young people are involved in the life of the Church. For a while this may be so, but eventually, half of them - the boys- will sidle out through the back door. Too often, moves to 'get more bottoms on pews' (the inelegant words of one distinguished churchman) result in other bottoms getting up, walking out and never coming back again.

Some have welcomed the opportunity to increase the number of services which the new girls' choirs provide. In fact, very few cathedrals have found it possible to do this. Choirmasters and lay-clerks cannot cope with any significant, added burdens. Furthermore, any such developments would necessarily result in extra financial commitments. Rather is it the case, as previously pointed out, that an equal sharing of the sung services between the boys and girls is what cathedrals have in mind.


One by one the things which gave us identity and bound us together as a nation have been whittled away. They linked us to our past, let us know who we were and where we came from. Is it any wonder that so many now feel rootless and lost? The traditional cathedral choir, deeply rooted in our history, is one of the most lovely parts of our heritage. It stands out against the sham, the tawdry, the easy and the repugnant aspects of our age. This is no time, when we are in such desperate need of inspiration, to place it in peril.

CTCC believes that moves to introduce girls on to choral foundations have been ill-thought out and pose an incalculable threat to the tradition. What has taken hundreds of years to perfect is in danger of disappearing within a generation. Of one thing we can be certain: if the traditional cathedral choirs go, they will be gone forever. There will be no bringing them back. On that day, we shall have achieved the equality we so desperately sought, for we shall be at one in mourning the loss of this pearl of great price.

These choirs of men and boys formerly sang throughout Christendom. Today, apart from this country, there are but remnants left. To prevent such a fate happening here, Campaign for the Traditional Cathedral Choir urges Deans and Chapters, and all those with influence, to weigh carefully the arguments we have adduced. At the same time, we appeal for a creative and visionary search for a role for the girls - one sympathetic to their talents and which they may proudly call their own. Let it not be such, however, as to endanger the all-male tradition.

It is still not too late to turn a crisis into a triumph, but if the Church fails to bestir itself, the ancient cathedral choirs' unique legacy of spirituality and beauty, will soon be but a memory. Future generations will be unforgiving.

The approach of the new Millennium provides an appropriate moment for quiet reflection and taking stock. CTCC prays that God may be in the heads and in the understanding of all those to whose sacred trust our choral tradition has been committed.

Organists' Review: August 1997

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