A lingering controversy continues to surround Westminster Cathedral Choir School and its world-class singers. Months of turbulence have followed the abolition of weekend boarding for 20 choristers: a move which means that the choristers, aged eight to 13, will no longer sing together seven days a week.
Parents and prominent musicians have raised the alarm; at around the same time Martin Baker, the cathedral’s master of music for some 20 years, stepped down.
The choir school took the view that the changes were necessary to improve recruitment: fewer parents, the school believes, are willing to send their young sons off to school for months at a time. The majority of those who choose to have their children trained as choristers wish to bring them home for weekends so that they can spend time with them, the school said.
But critics argued that, as the boys would no longer practise together every day of the week, the choir’s unique sound would be lost from lack of practice, and mistakes would creep into complex Gregorian chants.
Certainly the end of weekend boarding represents a departure from a historic practice – one still adhered to by Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, which continue to insist that choristers who do not practise each day will not sing at Sunday services. Time will tell whether Westminster Cathedral Choir School can successfully do away with weekend boarding and maintain its high standards.
New claims have emerged in the media in recent weeks, however, which have added new vigour to the controversy.
They include allegations of financial mismanagement, gagging orders, and of secret plans to scrap the choir that was founded by Cardinal Herbert Vaughan in 1901 and which occupies, according to a Westminster diocese statement, “a unique and enviable position at the forefront of English church music, famous both for its distinctive continental sound and its repertoire”.
Changes to the school timetable might indicate the closure of the choir as a long-term policy objective, articles have alleged.
Some reports also referred to an investigation by the Charity Commission into an alleged £10 million discrepancy in the choir school’s accounts.
Then came the allegation that archdiocesan authorities had spurned the offer of “an 11th hour deal” from a multi-millionaire philanthropist that allegedly would have saved the cathedral choir from “cultural erasure”.
There have been additional claims in the Daily Telegraph that serving and former staff have been made to sign non-disclosure agreements.
Parents have also raised their voices in recent weeks: Derek Siemens, from Newport in Wales, publicly complained that the changes meant his three chorister sons were forced to leave the school because they could no longer board.
Such reports prompted the archdiocese to publish a lengthy statement on its website in which it sought to rebut the complaints point by point.
For example, the changes to the boarding schedule, it argued, were made simply to ensure the survival of the choir school. There had been a year-on-year decline in applications with just one probationer chorister being accepted by March 2019, it said, while the abolition of weekend boarding led to an intake of seven new choristers by September that year, “the highest number for at least 12 years”.
These are points that Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster is anxious to emphasise. “There is not, and never has been, any plan to close boarding at the school, or convert the dormitories into classrooms,” he told the Catholic Herald. “No financial model has ever required this, nor could it, given the school’s principal and historic raison d’être: namely, to support a world-class choir for the cathedral. The school does not need to move away from boarding to meet its financial commitments.
“I am delighted at the surge in the number of applications for chorister places,” he continued. “This will help to secure the future of the choir. I am proud of the excellent standards achieved by Westminster Cathedral Choir School which plays an essential part in the viability and success of the choir.
“I am determined that this distinguished choir will continue to be of great importance in the mission of Westminster Cathedral for years to come.”
The Cardinal added that the complaint to the Charity Commission of an alleged financial discrepancy had already been satisfactorily resolved.
He said: “I am fully aware of an approach to the Charity Commission from one person, the original complainant. We have addressed all these points in our public statement, which is available on our website. We welcome the opportunity to engage with the Charity Commission to clarify any issues or misconceptions.”
Concerned to dispel anxieties, the archdiocese has invited visitors to its website to read its published accounts so that they can see for themselves that its finances are in good health. But given that a strategic review of sacred music at Westminster Cathedral concludes next month, new questions will inevitably arise. The controversy seems far from over.
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