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Women, liturgy and music

Redressing the imbalance of women in music means creating spaces for them to be properly, seriously valued – a space which has historically been denied. Many would say it is tokenistic to do so, and ignorant, because it means music by men is neglected. We need to create valuable opportunity, not opportunity for its own sake, and we need to critically engage with the shortcomings of the music industry. A big part of that industry is church music.


The church is realising its need for change across the board. In July 2014, the church voted to allow women to become bishops; in 2017, St Paul’s Cathedral employed its first full-time female singer; in 2018, Lesley Garrett called on famous cathedrals and choirs with boy choristers to admit girls into the fold. This issue plays on my mind and won’t leave me alone, and I want to argue that we can have all-male, all-female and mixed choirs – but that we can only really make a difference if those in charge of the biggest institutions make some changes.


The tradition of boy choristers is well-loved across the world. Young choristers usually sing every day, in a morning or evening service, and often multiple times on Sundays. They cover a huge range of challenging repertoire and often attend chorister schools where they have a rigorous academic and musical education; if they do, they often receive significant scholarships for their contributions to cathedral life which can allow talented boys who can’t afford a private education to experience this music-making. They create world-class recordings and sing in concerts around the world to astonishingly high standards, and they are household names – everyone knows them and pretty much everyone tunes in on Christmas Eve.


Churches and cathedrals can and do create change; the musical landscape of the church is changing. Many cathedrals now have girl choristers, who sing in a number of different arrangements – they take a proportion of weekly services from the boys, or they sing in mixed choirs, or they sing in all-female ensembles. When Lesley Garrett proposed that all-male choirs needed to open up to girls, rather than having separate arrangements, the debate was heated and emotive. There were several key concerns, including that diluting opportunity for choristers by reducing the number of services they sing is detrimental to their musical development. Additionally, there was widespread concern that without all-boys choirs, boys wouldn’t sing; that they might lose confidence and quit if they sang with girls, and that we need to encourage young men to carry on with their singing. The answer for many was not to radically alter a tradition that we already have, but to create more opportunities for girls, that enjoy the same reputations and musical rigour.


It is my opinion that creating opportunity to parallel this is difficult, and also that genuine social change happens through altering what we have. I believe that social change happens by redistributing power. This isn’t a ground-breaking perspective, particularly in gender politics; it’s commonly said that opportunities previously reserved for men will need to be given to women, rather than adding women in. This is where accusations of tokenism are levelled. For example, business boards are overwhelmingly occupied by men; to change that, some of those men will be replaced by women. We don’t worry about taking away their opportunity; we have to accept it. Men have had it easy for a long time, and now they have to give some privilege up, so women can move in. For some reason, the chorister debate is different.


Of course, I know that the chorister debate just is different. It’s emotive; we are rightly worried about boys quitting singing and losing confidence. It isn’t as simple as replacing half of the boys who sing with girls. But I also believe it is an oversimplification to suggest that we can simply create better opportunities for girls. The reality of setting up brand new cathedral choirs – employing an outstanding director of music, several organists, partnering with a school and offering bursaries and scholarships, providing concert opportunities and recordings and uniforms and buying all the music and building a reputation – is a serious undertaking. The tradition that we know and love was built up over centuries. In my view, distributing some of what we already have is more effective.


I think we need to think carefully about the message we send to young boys and young girls with the current situation. Firstly, we need to tell girls that they are as valuable as boys. This means giving them the same opportunity to sing every day, tour the world, see their names in CD reviews. Perhaps more controversially, I also think we need to redefine the message we send to young boys. I think that insisting on preserving their right, in some way, to sing with each other and away from girls fuels the potential nervousness that we fear might drive them away. We are effectively telling them that because they are boys, they can access what translates to the ‘best’ chorister spaces: those with worldwide influence and popularity, and the attached opportunity which that status offers. It’s my opinion that introducing boys to the concept of stepping back and sharing their space at a young age is no bad thing. It teaches everyone to understand the privileges they have in any sphere – not just music.


With the best will in the world, I don’t think we can recreate the centuries of influence and popularity boy’s choirs have accumulated. Inventing tradition is hard. It takes time and investment and money and the right people, and even then, it doesn’t always take root - and what we need here is a rooted tradition that values girls and gives them equal opportunity, down to the last semiquaver. I believe that we should keep all-male choirs, and we should keep founding all-female choirs. These environments are unique and special, and they create wonderful musicians who go on to have incredible careers. But I believe we can maintain these alongside asking the most prominent choirs to use their significant power and opportunity to actually offer equal musical opportunity to the other half of children.

I think that visible choirs need to take responsibility for the message they send and the influence they have, because this takes years to replicate - and if we wait, more girls lose out. Phasing girl choristers into these choirs until they make up half of the front row actually redistributes power by harnessing existing opportunity and utilising influence. It might sound radical, but for me, it’s actually a more achievable and immediate goal to ask those institutions with the resources and power to modify their traditions, and change the messages they send. We have to harness the power of reputation, and make it inclusive, representative and fair.

Maisie is a freelance soprano based in London, who also runs Sing Inside (https://www.singinside.org) building musical communities in UK prisons. She studied Music to MPhil level at Christ's and helped organise some initial concerts of music by women, and studied the representation of women in film and the empowering work of female rappers.

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