Before the letter arrived informing neurosurgeon’s daughter Anna Jellinek that she was no longer a welcome member of the cathedral choir where she has sung for more than two years, the teenager thought this year could not get any worse.
With her private school closed since March because of coronavirus — and GCSEs, prom and end-of-year celebrations cancelled — one of the things keeping the 16-year-old going was the prospect of soon reuniting with her fellow choristers at Sheffield Cathedral.
The problem? The 30-strong choir has been deemed elitist and not diverse enough to reflect Sheffield’s ‘mixed urban community’.
Cathedral officials have decided that what it needs is not white, middle-class youngsters, like Anna, but a new group of singers.
Pictured front row sixth from left is Arty Rozenberg. Front right, Anna Jellinek. Middle row fourth from right is Emma Caroe. Anna had sung for the choir for more than two years before she was told it had been disbanded
Her mother, Laura, 55, who has devoted 20 years of her life to helping the choir — and is now supporting the hastily assembled Save Sheffield Cathedral Choir campaign group —was as distraught as her daughter.
‘Anna was utterly shocked when I read her the letter. She said: “No, I don’t believe it. But why?” I said: “Sweetheart, I don’t know why. They haven’t given any clear reason. But don’t worry, my love, we will do our best to fight.”
‘She was tearful, we both were. I gave her a hug. It’s upsetting as a mother seeing your daughter so hurt and it made me realise how much this means to these young people, something the cathedral has misjudged.
‘Everything familiar has been stripped away from them during lockdown and now, bang, no choir. Anna believes the decision was made without any thought for how she and her fellow choristers would feel. I told the dean that I thought the way they had handled it bordered on cruel.’
The Dean of Sheffield Cathedral Reverend Peter Bradley is pictured in 2017. Each choir member was sent a letter telling them the cathedral choir had been closed
That wasn’t the only criticism Laura has levelled at cathedral dean, the Very Reverend Peter Bradley, since the bombshell letter was sent to all current choir members last week.
‘I sent him an email after Sunday morning service saying: “I cannot find God within this place,” ’ she says. ‘That’s a terrible thing to say, but it’s really how I feel and I have been a practising Christian all my life.’
Each choir member received the same letter from the governing body, the Chapter, which stated: ‘Following a review of the music department in 2019, Sheffield Cathedral Chapter has decided that a completely fresh start is needed. As a result, Chapter concluded this is the right time to close the current cathedral choir.’
The statement says they want ‘significant change’ as they get to grips with a ‘renewed ambition for engagement and inclusion’.
The dean has said that church music could sometimes be ‘presented in a way that can be seen as elitist’, and there is a suggestion that the new format may consist of several choirs.
Kate Caroe is pictured with her children Emma and Peter. Emma, 17, has sung in the choir for six years and hoped to secure a choral scholarship to study maths at Clare College, Cambridge
Vice-dean Rev Canon Keith Farrow said ‘we want to reach out to young people who have probably never thought to join the cathedral’ while recognising that such an overhaul would cause a ‘sense of grief’ for some.
Which many people are reading as: their white middle-class faces no longer fit.
Half the choir attend local state schools, while a third are home educated. There have been active drives to recruit elsewhere, which have not always been successful.
So, could there be anything else behind the shock decision to disband? Speaking to parents and insiders, it would seem relations between the choir and cathedral management have been hitting some off-key notes for a while — and many suspect ‘diversity’ is being used as a ploy to wipe the slate clean.
For his part, the dean took to the radiowaves last weekend to denounce the choir further by criticising their singing ability.
In an interview on Radio 4 he reiterated his commitment to disbanding the choir, before he was asked if it was ‘any good’.
He said: ‘Every dean always thinks their own choir is the best but we believe we should be raising our ambition and be the best choir we can be in Sheffield and South Yorkshire — and I don’t think we are there actually.
Anna Rozenberg (pictured), whose son, Arti (right), 13, has sung in the choir for two years, is also baffled by the implication that the choir was an exclusive club for the super-privileged
‘Cathedrals believe in excellence. We want the cathedral to be singing at a quality that is thrilling — and that’s not the case at the moment.’
So toxic has the atmosphere become that Laura, together with the parent of another chorister, submitted a complaint claiming the choir’s most recent director of music, Joshua Stephens, had ‘allegedly experienced harassment from the cathedral management and silence from the clergy while furloughed’ prior to his resignation in June.
The cathedral has acknowledged receiving complaints, back in April regarding allegedly intimidating behaviour towards musical staff and volunteers, and the dean has ordered an external inquiry.
Among the allegations is that a member of staff received a 45-minute threatening phone call at midnight from a cathedral official.
One former employee said: ‘This is not about diversity or inclusion. Big strides have been made in that respect in recent years.
‘It’s a smokescreen for something wider. Relations between the choir and cathedral management have turned sour.
‘People should be questioning why there have also been five directors of music in four years, frequent changes that have been unsettling for the choir, who worked happily with them all.’
The dean this week said the cathedral took the welfare of staff very seriously and support had been offered in many different ways during lockdown.
Discord in the cathedral: Members of Sheffield choir pictured during a performance in 2015
Nevertheless, a campaign group, made up largely of former members of the choir, is seeking advice about the legalities of the closure.
As well as the choristers — aged from eight to 18, who receive a meagre income of £20 a month — and choral scholars (students at Sheffield University), the choir also has three adult male singers, one of whom has been a member for 23 years, in part-time paid clerical roles.
They are going through redundancy negotiations and therefore not at liberty to speak publicly.
A change.org petition to have the cathedral’s decision overturned is well on the way to attracting 10,000 signatures in just ten days.
A statement from the group describes the decision as ‘reckless, short-sighted and opportunistic’, and says they are challenging the decision ‘on the basis of unfair dismissal on three grounds: Lack of clear reasons given; spurious claims around diversity and inclusion; and the cynical timing of their announcement, without sufficiently notifying employees, during the choir holidays, and in the middle of a global pandemic.’
Laura, who worked as a nurse and then a midwife until her third son, with husband David, 62, was born 21 years ago, has spent much of the past 20 years doing voluntary work for the cathedral and its choir.
All three of her boys were head choristers and Laura chaperoned them to rehearsals and services five days a week.
She feels ‘bereft’ at being so abruptly dismissed from duties.
‘I find the suggestion of elitism particularly distressing,’ says Laura. ‘Yes, a few of the children come from private schools but I don’t think it matters where children come from or what their background is.’
Another theory is that the choir has been struggling to make up the numbers.
A change.org petition to have the cathedral’s decision overturned is well on the way to attracting 10,000 signatures in just ten days. Pictured, Sheffield Cathedral
Despite ongoing efforts to recruit, it has fallen some way short of the ‘40-strong’ traditionally expected.
Emma Caroe certainly doesn’t fall into the privileged category. The 17-year-old has sung in the choir for six years and hoped to secure a choral scholarship to study maths at Clare College, Cambridge.
Emma was home educated until she was 13 and, since then, has attended state school in Sheffield. Her brother, Peter, 11, who is also a member of the choir, is home schooled.
Now, she fears she will be out of practice for university entrance auditions next year.
Her mother Kate says: ‘Both children loved choir. It was the thing they missed most during lockdown. It’s definitely hit them harder because of the callous way things were done.
‘It’s particularly hard for Emma, knowing that her last time singing with the choir — which has been such a big part of her life — went unmarked. We didn’t even take photographs.
‘I agree that they need to broaden their recruitment because they are very low on numbers but this is not the way to go about it.’
Kate, 44, a full-time mum and husband Chris, 45, a civil servant, have six children and had hoped their younger sons, aged six and four, would later join the choir.
Anna Rozenberg, whose son, Arti, 13, has sung in the choir for two years, is also baffled by the implication that the choir was an exclusive club for the super-privileged.
She relocated to Sheffield from her native Estonia, with husband Dmitri, 37, Arti and daughter Alisa, six, in 2017.
‘We were raised in the Orthodox church but the choir has been like a family to us,’ says Anna, 32. ‘We spent Christmas morning, Easter Sunday, so many special days watching Arti and the choir at the cathedral, and it really helped us to settle in and feel at home.’
Although there was no mention of it in the letter, the dean has since said that auditions for the new choir will be open to former choristers (pictured)
Being so warmly welcomed was especially appreciated as Arti felt bullied at his primary school.
It was seeing the ‘beautiful uniforms’ of the other students at private Birkdale School which led Anna to put Arti in for the entrance exam. The fees were beyond their means, so Anna and Dmitri were delighted when their son was offered a place and a bursary.
Arti was ‘devastated’ to be given his marching orders from the choir in such ‘a cold and formal way’.
‘They’ve closed the door on them, and that’s not the kind of behaviour I want my children being exposed to,’ says Anna.
Distressed Arti wrote his feelings down and asked his mum to share them on Facebook: ‘We worked really hard: All the rehearsals and four hours every Sunday rehearsing and singing. When lockdown started I could not wait to get back again, until Sheffield Cathedral Chapter decided to get rid of us.
‘I’m completely broken and feeling that all the effort we have made means nothing. We are diverse and from different social and ethnic backgrounds.’
Although there was no mention of it in the letter, the dean has since said that auditions for the new choir will be open to former choristers. The children have also been told to expect a certificate and a Bible in the post, farewell gifts usually presented to departing members at Sunday service.
A spokesperson for Sheffield Cathedral said: ‘The decision to close the current choir was made after a great deal of careful thought and following a review of all aspects of music in the cathedral. No announcement was made until after the staff and parents had been informed.
‘The dean and Chapter understand this is a difficult change, and hope that when the new structure is in place next year many young people may wish to return. We look forward to a revitalised choral tradition in the coming years.’
For parents like Laura Jellinek, such words are not enough. ‘We’ve written to our MP and we’re planning to send a letter to Her Majesty’s office at Buckingham Palace, as the head of the Church of England,’ she says.
‘I think they thought we’d just say: “What a pity, never mind.” But the choir is much too important a part of our lives for that.’