Westminster Cathedral Music review complete — still some controversy

Archbishop now singing from the same hymn sheet as the choir is the heading of a report in one national newspaper.

The Archdiocese of Westminster has published a statement on the situation concerning the choir school and associated concerns. here.

The statement runs:

In January 2020, His Eminence Cardinal Vincent Nichols commissioned a Strategic Review of Sacred Music in the Mission of Westminster Cathedral. The Review Panel, consisting of Robert Arnott, Leslie Ferrar, Mgr Mark Langham and Andrew Reid, was asked to consider the ‘steps needed to strengthen the role played by sacred music, as well as the structures and clarity of roles required for the continued development of the contribution of music to the mission of Westminster Cathedral, within the network of relationships between the Cathedral, its Music Department and Westminster Cathedral Choir School.’

In the Report, which has been presented to Cardinal Nichols, the Panel praises the high standard of sacred music in the Cathedral, which is ‘the fruit of substantial effort spanning a range of human and organisational agents,’ including the Administrator, the Precentor, the Music Department, Westminster Cathedral Choir School, and the Diocesan administration.

The report makes a number of recommendations, addressing the following areas:
1. The issuing by the Cardinal of a foundational charter for sacred music in the mission of the Cathedral;
2. Creating a multi-year strategy for sacred music;
3. Establishing governance structure and framework outlining responsibilities, accountabilities and inter-relationships between the Cathedral, its Music Department, the School and the Diocese; and establishing a committee to coordinate efforts;
4. Addressing the urgent and long-term funding needs;
5. Addressing the complementary roles of the School and the Music Department in meeting the challenge of the provision of sacred music.

Summarising the findings of the report on behalf of the Panel, Robert Arnott said: ‘The exceptional music produced by Westminster Cathedral and its celebrated choir places it at the forefront of worldwide Catholic liturgy. The members of the Review Panel find no reason why Westminster Cathedral should not continue to sustain excellence in sacred music. Our recommendations seek to offer both short- and long-term solutions, carefully building on evidence and expert analysis. This undertaking has been made wholly possible because of the autonomy, widely-drawn terms of reference, and freedom of inquiry that we have enjoyed.’

The Cardinal today has issued a comprehensive response to the Report outlining the steps to be taken in response to the recommendations. He commented: ‘I welcome this Review. I appreciate especially its long-term perspectives and proposals for firm structures and patterns of communication. I ask all who express support for Westminster Cathedral Choir now to contribute positively to the great effort needed
for its present and future flourishing.’

Fr Sławomir Witoń, newly-appointed Administrator of Westminster Cathedral, added: ‘I am delighted to welcome the contribution of the Strategic Review to a renewed vision of the long standing tradition of sacred music at Westminster Cathedral. I am looking forward to working together with the Music Department, the Choir School and my Cathedral colleagues on this challenging but necessary task of ensuring that one of the world’s great Cathedral choirs continues to enrich the beauty of the liturgy and prayer of the Cathedral for generations to come.’

Peter Stevens, Assistant Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral said: ‘I am grateful to the Review Panel for all their hard work over many months. I hope that the implementation of their report will give us all renewed clarity and confidence in our work of making music together to the glory of God in this very special place.’

On behalf of Westminster Cathedral Choir School, David Heminway, Chair of Governors, added: ‘The Governing Body is delighted to support the Cardinal and is fully committed to working positively and collaboratively with the Cathedral and its Music Department in strengthening and preserving the tradition of sacred music.’

Reports in the national daily press say that the Cardinal has backed down over controversial changes to the timetable. To some extent this is true, but he has also refused to accept some of the recommendations of the review panel.

Full text of the strategic review here. and full text of the Cardinal’s response here. Both links contain further llnks to downloadable PDF versions.

Choristers will now sing seven services a week instead of the proposed five, which goes some way to responding to the campaign for maintaining musical excellence. The choristers will return home on Friday as previously proposed, but the senior choristers will stay to sing at the Friday afternoon Mass. The review recommended that they return on Saturday evening in order to be rested and rehearsed before the Sunday morning Mass. The Cardinal did not accept this, and instead has maintained the return of the choristers on Sunday morning. He has achieved this by pushing back the time of the Sunday Mass from 10:30 to 12 noon, and Sunday Vespers from 3:30 to 4:30, to allow time for rehearsing on Sunday morning.

The Cardinal stresses the desirability of the choristers having a complete day of rest at home with their families, despite the fact that other residential choir schools in the country continue to have boarding 24/7, including Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The grapevine suggests, however, that the real reason for sticking firm on this point is that it enables the choir school not to have to pay staff to supervise the choristers on Friday nights and Saturdays.

None of the changes address the fact that most families living outside the London area, whose boys were previously able to form part of the choir, will still not be able to offer their sons as choristers, due to the distance and inconvenience of travelling out of London on a Friday evening and back on a Sunday morning.

The Society for the Protection of Westminster Cathedral Choir said “Cardinal Nichols is, in effect, presiding over the transformation of the choir school into a school for wealthy inner-London parents, which does seem at odds with Pope Francis’s ‘church of the poor’ agenda.” Previously, less wealthy parents have been able to have their sons educated at the school thanks to chorister scholarships.

The cardinal details the financial contribution of the cathedral to the music, and also states that contributions to the cathedral’s income have dropped by about 50% during the pandemic. It is clear that additional fundraising will be required.

Clarifying structures of management and accountability is also part of the review, and its recommendations have been accepted by the Cardinal, including producing a charter for music at the cathedral. (One wonders why such a thing never existed before.)

He also picked up on the review’s statement that “The Music Department business plan should give explicit consideration to developing musicality and musical expression amongst the Cathedral congregation, in addition to its focus on professional musicianship and the Choir” when he states that the music department’s role “includes the strengthening of the congregation’s participation in music in the Liturgies of the Church”, something which up to now has not been a major preoccupation for the cathedral’s music team.

It remains to be seen when and if the changes can actually be implemented, as currently choral services at the Cathedral are suspended during the pandemic. It is to be assumed that, similarly, no progress will be made on appointing a new Master of Music until some kind of normality returns.


  1. In my many experiences in the Cathedral, it is more of a concert hall household Church. It lacks the warmth, for example, of a French Cathedral, where an animateur or psalmiste invest warm the into that ministries to stimulate the assembly in their ownership of the worship. In Westminster, it seems that the performers are certainly not the assembly. This is not a geographical issue but seems to stem from the imperial clericalism for which the cathedral was built. I speak I’ll say one time parishioner, albeit of many years ago.

    1. I was a parishoner from 1974, I don’t recall ever feeling excluded, even though at first I was not properly engaged, being then little involved with my faith except for Sunday obligation. Despite not being a ‘clubbable’ person I got drawn in after only a few months. An important part of that was one of the lay clerks acting as cantor and rehearsing the Responsorial psalm. He had the ability to draw involvement, which many do not possess, and started classes for those who wanted to learn more about liturgical music. (Which was at that time in the UK in a state of confusion).
      I moved to the neighbouring diocese after a few years, but over the years I have often returned for Sunday Mass at 5:30 or 6pm. Various forms of music group, or lone cantor, have been tried but it has always had congregational involvement. Since I want such involvement I normally sit 8 or 9 rows back, and feel engaged. I have no idea how that comes across towards the back of the Cathedral.
      Candlemass this year was a Sunday I happened to be in London & went to the 5:30 at Westminster. As I entered the Cathedral I was invited to gather at the back where I was given a candle, and took part in the procession, singing as we went. However many people did not take up the invitation, did not process and did not have candles. In a place like this, many will be visitors, and are not looking for engagement.

      1. No one disputes that there has been some congregational involvement at the Cathedral’s Sunday evening Mass, ever since the days of Fr Pat Browne. But the point is that at the fully choral liturgies with the choir there is little or no congregational singing, and yet here is the musical establishment par excellence that could have provided the setting for that and supported it.

        It may be that people don’t realize that it is possible, but also that the concept of what represents good liturgical music is fossilized within the setting of a pre-conciliar type of liturgy.

        In the 1970s and 80s, when visitors to England would ask where they could find a first-class RC cathedral liturgy, you had to send them to somewhere like Clifton, in whose main liturgies the best choral music could be found in tandem with the best congregational music in the same celebration, Sunday by Sunday.

  2. The same mix of excellent choral music with plenty of congregational singing was and still is to be had at Liverpool – which has in recent years expanded to include a terrific girls choir.
    It might be that the building at Westminster works against a more whole-hearted exploration of the liturgical possibilities opened up by Vatican 2. The choir there does occupy a little physical world all of its own away from the assembly.

  3. Dear Mr Inwood,

    Thanks for your summary of events in this post. I suspect there will be a lot to take stock of following the release of the Strategic Review’s report and the Cardinal’s response. There is much to unpick on all sides, I dare say. There is the semblance of a way forward, whilst plenty of legacy issues to clear up also.

    Re the congregational side of things at Westminster, I say the following (with a great deal of respect to those who share different views about what the music programme at Westminster Cathedral could or should be). This is simply to provide the perspective of a regular worshipper there.

    First point to note (and I don;t want to tell anyone how to suck eggs) is that Westminster Cathedral is in one of the busiest capital cities on the planet. It’s congregations are therefore very far from the sort of stable group of people found in parish churches, or even in cathedrals in less busy / touristy cities. Yes there is a core group who will attend the choir-led services. They will also engage with the great many people’s parts on offer. At the Sunday 10.30 (soon to be 12 noon Mass) this includes all the sung responses, the sung Creed, the chant Sanctus, the Lord’s Prayer, etc).

    The people’s responses are all set out in a a bespoke booklet (used for all Masses at the Cathedral). Additionally, the text in Latin and English of the parts sung by the choir are provided on a separate sheet for the 10.30 am Mass.

    It’s not just the Sunday evening Mass that also has music – the 9.00am and 12 noon (now presumably the 10.30 am) Masses are also generally cantor led, with English psalms, hymns and perhaps either a simple Latin chant Mass setting, or a setting in English (e.g. MacMillan’s St Anne’s Mass). All music is set out in the Mass booklet. The services are led by a professional singer and accompanied by member of the music department (Assistant Master of Music, Organ Scholar, Organist, or sometimes even the Master of Music). TBC

  4. (cont.) My own view is that this is how Westminster Cathedral should operate. I appreciate reasonable minds may differ on this, and I am not saying that all cathedrals across the world should have their choir-led services resemble those of Westminster Cathedral. But Westminster Cathedral does represent a unique offering in a unique location. It is the only one of its kind, and for that very reason ought to continue to be the beacon of excellence in terms of Gregorian propers and chant and polyphonic (and other) Mass settings.

    Also remember that the choir sings throughout the week: the Sunday liturgy is the culmination of the sung offices, feast etc celebrated through the week. It has a very distinct liturgical and musical cycle. As the only cathedral that has anything like it really (perhaps there are some others like St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney that come close), it has a strong case for carrying on as it has done. Certainly I see nothing in the Review to suggest that the choir-led liturgies will undergo any change. As for the music at the other Masses – who knows??

  5. Spatially and acoustically, Westminster Cathedral was designed for the traditional Solemn liturgy. It also works well when the majority of the congregation are vocally engaged. An excellent modern sound technology has enabled it to adapt to focus on a single speaker/cantor. But neither acoustically nor visually is there an obvious location for a ‘parochial’ choir/music group. Fr Pat Browne’s group worked in those more experimental times, but not really well. If the Cathedral is going to show the use of a ‘parochial’ choir, it needs to be able to model an example to be emulated.
    Engagement and encouragement of parishoners/regulars by courses and practice sessions would be an excellent move.

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