One aspect of the political life of America has become a lot clearer in the past few days. Apologists for Donald Trump used to be able to pretend to detect a thin thread of rational thinking in his utterances and his tweets. Many of us were more doubtful that this was indeed the case. Now even his most ardent supporters are finding it impossible to stand by him when he has been revealed as a racist of the most obvious kind. More serious even than that is Trump’s inability to see that even a suggestion of holding such views flies in the face of all the traditions and values of the nation he claims to represent and serve. In the face of the ‘car-crash’ news conference of 15th August, there can hardly be a civilised individual in the Western world who sides with the values and thoughts of Donald J. Trump.
The answer to the question ‘whose side are you on’ is easy to answer when looking at the views of Trump. The free democratic world united to fight and defeat the forces of Nazi Germany in 1940s and no historian has ever risen up to challenge the correctness of that decision. Sadly, few moral decisions are ever as simple as taking a stand against racism and fascism. Now today Wednesday 16th August the newspapers have presented to Christians a new moral question. As far as this one is concerned there may be different answers and responses. But once again Christians are being asked ‘whose side are you on?’ There is acknowledgement that agreement is unlikely in this case.
The church of St Sepulchre’s in the city of London has for decades acted as a special place for the network of professional classical musicians in the capital. They have been permitted to practise in the church, hold concerts and generally treat the space as a friendly one for their task of producing professional music of the highest kind. In return, they have helped to keep the building open by the fees paid. As a former vicar outside London I was always on the look-out for musicians who wished to perform in any of my buildings. The most memorable of these occasions was when a prestigious organisation called Music in Country Churches descended on Lechlade. They arrived complete with their Patron, Prince Charles and laid on a fantastic concert featuring Sophie von Otter, the international soprano soloist. Many lesser occasions took place in that church and other churches for which I had responsibility. All the musicians were thrilled with the acoustics that a mediaeval building can create. Never once, even among my evangelical members, was there any hint that good music of all kinds did not have a place in a building whose primary function is for worship.
The problem at St Sepulchre’s is that the new Vicar has decreed that from 2018 the long link with professional musicians is to be broken. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/08/14/proms-conductor-row-musicians-church-bans-non-religious-concerts/ Although the official reason is that the church, an offshoot of HTB, needs the full use of the building and cannot share it with anyone else, there is clearly a theological agenda. There is, according to John Rutter, the distinguished composer, an implication that non-religious music has no place in the building. In other words a binary distinction is being made between ‘religious’ music and ‘secular’. The former is acceptable while the latter has no place in a house of prayer.
The theological justification that seems to lie behind this story obviously can be argued for. It implies a world view where the clean and the sacred must be kept physically separate from the secular and potentially unholy. We are in other words entering into the world occupied three hundred years ago by the Puritans. No one is suggesting that the Puritans had nothing on their side in terms of theological insight. It is sometimes important to draw boundaries between good and bad and wholesome and wicked. But the Christian perspective that is behind this particular judgement seems very narrow and designed to give the wider church an extraordinarily bad press with people beyond its influence. This negative publicity for the church in London and nationally will be felt for years to come. Is non-religious classical music in some way ever a threat to the gospel? For myself I feel shame that Christian leaders have made this decision. Although I am in no way party to it, I still belong to the organisation which has made this judgement about the role of classical music in our society.
The question of taking a side over the stance of Donald Trump seemed straightforward. Is the question of which side we are on between the Vicar of St Sepulchre’s and the musical world of London equally clear? Does a Christian ever have to decide to exclude what is not overtly designated as Christian? Until Wednesday I had not even realised that this issue of encouraging classical music in a church music in a church building could ever be an issue of faith. Which side, my reader, do you take in the matter?