Magazine article The Spectator

Rare Voices

Magazine article The Spectator

Rare Voices

Article excerpt

The Church of England is not known for being tirelessly dogmatic in the face of shifting public opinion, just for being buffeted by it. One such shift in recent years has been how acceptable women are in the scheme of official worship. Clearly, the time of equal rights for women is upon us, yet the issue of female bishops drags on without resolution, much as the issue of female priests did before. There will eventually be a conclusion, and it will be an enlightened one, but for the moment tradition seems to be fighting yet another rearguard action. How is it so easily overlooked that the head of this Church is a woman? At least the papacy is consistent in matters of sex.

It may only be a matter of time before we have women bishops, but the possibility of women layclerks in our cathedral choirs did seem to be a genuinely remote one. Two things militated against it. In our choral tradition it is only the top part that is sung by children, leaving the alto part to be sung by adults (male falsettists). In response to contemporary concerns about equal rights (and falling numbers of applicants) it has not been so difficult for some of our cathedrals to set up girl choirs alongside the boys, and have them sing some of the services. The most famous Oxbridge and London foundations have resisted it, but elsewhere girls are getting an opportunity to join in the action, with advantages both to themselves and to those of us taking part in the annual choral trials for the mixed collegiate choirs at Oxbridge.

We are now interviewing young women with cutting-edge experience of singing the daily services, their expertise more or less on a par with the men.

In the current climate the issue of girl choristers was bound to come up, and is being slowly addressed. But the issue of women layclerks affects so few people that it might never have surfaced. In this category we are talking about only a handful of women who are genuine contraltos, this being a rare voice. We are not talking about adult sopranos, or even mezzo-sopranos, since as long as there are enough under-15 girls applying for choristerships public opinion will never demand that tradition be broken to the extent of having adult women on the soprano part. …

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