Dozens of Britain's most distinguished musicians are urging a central London church that recently became part of the evangelical Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) network to reverse its controversial ban on non-religious music.
St Sepulchre Without Newgate Church in Holborn, which is known as the 'National Musicians' Church' and is where the Proms founder Sir Henry Wood is buried, last week became embroiled in a row after stopping taking bookings from classical musicians who have relied on it as a rehearsal and concert venue for many years.
Now, the Guardian has reported that Aled Jones, Julian Lloyd Webber and Judith Weir, the first female Master of the Queen's music, are among more than 50 signatories to a letter urging a reversal of the ban, saying they cannot understand why the church is willing to abandon its 'unique national cultural remit'.
The protest comes after David Ingall, the priest-in-charge who moved to St Sepulchre's four years ago from HTB, wrote to professional and amateur musicians and ensembles to say they could no longer make bookings from the end of this year.
Ingal wrote that 'we have been conscious of the challenges of using a space dedicated to worship for non-religious hiring. Our ministry as the National Musicians' Church continues to be a core part of our church's identity and vision ... While its expression may be changing, that underlying vision remains unchanged.'
The musicians' letter, which was sent to St Sepulchre's parochial church council (PCC) and the acting bishop of London, Pete Broadbent, said that the 'abrupt move ... was made without consultation'.
The letter comes as more than 5,800 people have signed a petition demanding the decision be reversed.
According to the Guardian, in 2013 the PCC raised concerns about Ingall's appointment as priest-in-charge, asking for written assurances that St Sepulchre's role as National Musicians' church and as a centre for traditional music and liturgy was maintained.
Such an assurance was provided by the then Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who retired this year and whose successor has not yet been appointed.
Ingall wrote to PCC members at the time saying that he recognised the importance of music at St Sepulchre's and that concerts and rehearsals provided 'a welcome stream of income'.
He added: 'There will be some re-balancing, as some times that were previously allocated to concerts and rehearsals will now be used for worship and ministry. However, I believe the two streams are fundamentally compatible.'
In his 2013 letter to then-PCC members outlining the 'church plant' from HTB, Ingall wrote: 'I will be bringing a team of people with me from HTB and St George's, Holborn. They will form the core of a new Sunday congregation ... I very much hope that over time there will be growing friendship and integration between these new members and the existing St Sepulchre's community.'
The signatories to the musicians' letter, sent yesterday to the PCC and Broadbent, include eminent names from the British music world, such as the cellist Steven Isserlis and composers John Rutter, Weir, Howard Goodall and James MacMillan, along with Jonathan Freeman-Attwood, the principal of the Royal Academy of Music, Colin Lawson, the director of the Royal College of Music and Julian Lloyd Webber, the principal of Birmingham Conservatoire, and Rachel Staunton, the artistic director of the London Youth Choir.
Andrew Carwood of St Paul's Cathedral, Scott Farrell of Rochester Cathedral and Peter Wright of Southwark Cathedral are among more than a dozen directors of music from churches and Oxbridge colleges who have also signed the letter.
Richard Robbins, a chorister at St Sepulchre's who is the founder of Save the National Musicians' church campaign, said the exclusion of musicians from the National Musicians' church was 'the bitterest irony'.
He said: 'Priests are caretakers of the church they are responsible for and should feel that the heritage of a church can continue to be part of its identity, especially in a church like St Sepulchre's, where since the burial of the ashes of Sir Henry Wood [in 1944], has been a place of thriving musical excellence. I understand that churches are foremost places of worship. However, there is a historic role of the Anglican church to act as a community hub; a place for those who have faith and those who have none. To have musicians as part of regular worship is something must churches would welcome and want to preserve.'
St Sepulchre's did not respond to a request for further comment. However, it previoiusly said in a statement: 'An increasingly busy programme of worship and church activities has led to ever higher demands on the church space, and the hire space is also shared with the church administration office.'
The church added that it had been 'greatly moved by the concern expressed for the musical life of the church. We do wish to reiterate that we remain committed to our ministry as the National Musicians' Church. In the coming weeks we will reflect and pray, and consult with members of the musicians' community about how best to fulfil that ministry moving forward.'