The late Dean of Winchester, Trevor Beeson, lamented in his published diaries that “although Winchester Cathedral and Close look very prosperous… unlike many other ancient cathedrals we have next to no income from property. The place was truly fleeced by the nineteenth-century Acts of Parliament”. Beeson’s diaries reveal him to have been a CEO as much as a straightforward cathedral Dean and clergyman, constantly wrestling with financial matters of one sort or another concerning his ancient building (and its lack of sufficient funds): here dredging up money to upgrade the stonework, there battling with recurring floods in the crypt. 

The jewel in the Cathedral’s crown in Beeson’s time, as (just about) still today, was its choir. For the choir few expenses were spared. Beeson recognised investment in the choir as investment in the key means available to him of maintaining contact with an increasingly secular age. The beauty of the Anglican choral tradition would be recognised by all and sundry, regardless of their faith commitments — and it was essential to keep it alive and kicking, indeed actively leading the way, in the cathedral’s engagement with life beyond the Cathedral Close. For its part, through performances on TV and radio, and through recordings, concerts and foreign tours, the choir would bring renown to the cathedral for all the right reasons: for its musical excellence, for its continuance of a great tradition, for its articulation of Christian culture. It would ensure Winchester would be known, at home and abroad, as a haven of timeless music and worship.

That was the Winchester of the 1990s. Today, alas, a somewhat different tune is being hummed amongst the ranks of the cathedral’s Dean and Chapter. The talk is of funds being diverted away from the choir and into other areas of cathedral life, including other start-up choral groups within the cathedral. Rumours that the whole choral foundation in the cathedral is under threat have abounded. It is not difficult to see why: the ranks of the lay clerks (who stood at a full complement of 12 in Beeson’s day) have shrunk to a minimal level (now just 7, perhaps soon 6); boy choristers are also numerically down. The choir looks threadbare — and communication about why this is so, and how the problem will be solved, has been non-existent.

Then there is the treatment of the current Director of Music, Dr Andrew Lumsden, who recently announced he will be leaving his role after 22 years in post, this summer. Sources in the Cathedral Close paint a picture of bullying, micro-management and control-freakery gone wild, with Lumsden the most recent victim. The musical life of the cathedral is being abrasively dictated not by the Director of Music himself (a surprise, given his job title), but by managerially-minded clergy who are keen to pursue their own ideas for musical innovation at the cathedral. This picture is complicated by the fact that the cathedral Precentor’s wife is the Church of England’s HR director. Staff throughout the Close reportedly run scared of her husband, who takes his role to involve direct and uncompromising oversight of all members of the choir, including the choirmaster.

If the treatment of Lumsden has reportedly been a matter for cathedral lawyers, so too has the treatment of the cathedral lay clerks, professional and highly skilled singers who have recently been informed that they are now categorised as “worship leaders” (rather than professional musicians) who do not qualify for additional pay in the event of public broadcasts of their singing. Other cathedrals make no such insistence. At Winchester, the desire to cut costs in this way understandably leaves the noses of a generous, though not exactly generously remunerated, community of choral singers a fair distance out of joint.

Read it all in The Critic