Trouble at the Cathedral with a Needle

According to a BBC report

Five board members at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast have resigned over the Church of Ireland’s decision to drop the post of Director of Music.  In their resignation letter, they said the decision was “destructive of the Cathedral’s excellent choral music”.

It is understood the current director, Philip Stopford, has been off work on health grounds since the decision to axe the post earlier this summer.

The Chuch of Ireland said the issue was a matter for the board at St Anne’s.  Mr Stopford, who is in his early 30s, took up the post in 2003.  He said that he was not in a position to discuss the matter.  The Dean of St Anne’s, Houston McKelvey, also declined to comment.

Cathedral directors of music are organists who train and mentor musicians and choose its repertoire.

Although the St Anne’s Cathedral’s history of organists only mentions the position of “director of music” from 2002 onwards, prior to that date the organist traditionally also acted as the “Master of Choristers”.  A former organist at St Anne’s, Harry Grindle, described the role in this interview

What musical resources did you find at the cathedral when you arrived? Did you make some changes?

There was a large choir of between fifty and sixty singers. It included about 24 boys in addition to ten sopranos, who had a mature sound with lots of vibrato. My predecessor thought in choral society terms rather than along cathedral lines. I decided to focus on the boys’ choir and not to replace the ladies as they left, thus gradually solving the problem of blend. I also introduced countertenors, who, I think, are an essential ingredient of the genuine cathedral sound. I also developed a young men’s choir for the boys as their voices changed. Previously, they had just left the choir and so you lost most of them. I felt the extra effort was worthwhile.


Were there other aspects that you were keen to work on when you first arrived?

The repertoire needed to be revised and a whole new vision of what the cathedral choir could and should do had to be realised. Over a period of time I began to arrange regular recitals of church music on a Sunday afternoon in place of the sermon at evensong. This became a monthly event, even right through the Troubles, and occasionally I would get together a small instrumental ensemble. We performed Bach Cantatas and other sizeable choral works such as the Bach Passions, and we also commissioned new works, such as an anthem from John Joubert for the dedication of the South Transept.

I was also very interested in orchestral conducting. I had the opportunity to work with the Ulster Orchestra and also got a grant to study with Igor Markevitch at the International Summer School in Monte Carlo. We were able to set up a concert series on Sunday afternoons in place of evensong at periodic intervals and we would fill the cathedral on these occasions. We would promote a full-blown programme with the Ulster Orchestra playing an overture and a symphony, while the cathedral choir would contribute a choral work with the orchestra as well as singing a group of unaccompanied items.

While the Church of Ireland has only issued this short statement on the matter

With regard to reports in the media concerning St Anne’s Cathedral and the position of Director of Music being made redundant, this is a matter for the Cathedral Board.

The Board is currently in discussions with the post-holder and is not in a position to comment further at present.

A UTV report, which notes that the recently be-needled cathedral “costs around £350,000 a year to run” and that “The 106-year-old building is also in need of some costly structural work”, adds

It is understood the cathedral intends to employ a curate to take over the running of the choir.

Which would be a significant disconnect from the historical role of a cathedral organist…

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  • Kathy C

    I can relate to the organist. I am a classically trained organist who played at a Catholic Church and played Bach. I was let go and they now have a pianist play the organ for a few songs and the piano for the majority. Although I had people applaud my playing…the priest didn’t like the organ(ist) and prefered the piano.(ist). Since it was my church, I played for free and saved the church several thousands of dollars…however the priest would rather pay money than have a trained organist play at Mass.

  • aquifer

    All those tythes and they can’t even give us a tune

  • Alan Maskey

    Germany is very interesting in this regard. people are tithes (even Hitler and his sidekicks paidv their dues). This means that German orchestras are the best in the world and that you can go into almost any Catholic or Lutheran cathedral and hear music as it should be played.
    If you are a classically trained musician, then London is the place to be. They play peanuts but loads of very talented people want to play so they do get reasonablew standardds ,in patches.
    It is not a question of fixing the roof or having music. They should be different budgets. But really, what the people of Belfast want is probably more bookies, more McDonald’s and less culture.

    Kathy C: I empathise with you. I am sure other things came into play, like control. When I lived in Australia, I attended a church where the priest who did the mafia funerals said Mass. He had an Italian guy used to do the music. Great voice, very versatile, a joy. But the priest used to bop in when he felt like it and he sang like a crow being put through a grinder.

    The guy at St Anne’s probably did the right thing, getting rid of the old crows. But maybe they got their revenge. Crows are smart birds.

  • fp veritas

    I understand that St Annes have a cashflow problem

    Will the Dean be taking a pay cut??

  • Alan Maskey

    All mainstream religions have cash flow problems. They are asset rich but cash flow poor.

  • fp veritas

    The PCI have 4M for the “repairs to church house”
    and have just spent another 4M on the outside of he building

    Did they borrow any from the PMS?

  • Didlee D O’Squat

    I was married at the cathedral and the then Director of Music produced a beautiful musical accompaniment to the day. I do hope that the change does not rob St Annes of its tradition of aural excellence.

    It is disappointing that the senior clergy seem reluctant to step up to the mike to speak about this issue.

  • fp veritas

    Clergy always look the other way when there is a problen in the church

    The Dean is not keen to answer difficult questions but will
    always be keen to cash all the cheques he receives from
    the COI

  • Tomskus

    One could be forgiven for thinking that choral and sacred music is too rich, deep and ladened with tradition for modern Belfast and that we prefer our traditions a little shallower and more recent.

    The church could also be accused of wanting to keep God to themselves as usual. Wouldn’t want all those people turning up for evensong and actually having a spiritual experience now would we?

  • Alan Maskey


    Far be it from me to defend apostate churches but if it is your church, you should cough up. The British government actually want to further tax mainstream churches by getting them to pay drainage on the size of their roofs.
    FP Veritas: How much do you think it costs to keep a big cathedral in the shape tourists, terrorists and very occasional users expect it to be?
    Mr O’Squat: step up to the plate with your cheque book.

    Religions are in a no win situation. They are supposed to run their outfits on thin air.

  • fp veritas

    I neither know or care

  • fp veritas


    How do you define an “Apostate Church”

  • Brian Walker

    Just scrapping this post and leaving the music without an authoritative professional head is incompatible with St Anne’s assumed status as the main Big Church in NI on occasions where unity is the theme – from Hurricane Higgin’s funeral to state occasions. Just can’t be done. There must tbe more to it than so far disclosed.

    This is a bizarre tale that reeks of Trollope. Odd too because the Dean is very media savvy, Is there a personality clash more than a shortage of resources? There often between the clerical and musical bosses in cathedrals. See the abrupt sacking of Martin Neary as DM of Westminster Abbey over a disputed misdemeanour shrtly after hsi magnicientl handlni of the

    It seems unthinkable that St Anne’s cannot afford/ thinks it can do without a post which is part of cathedrals as much as the Dean.(See Radio 3’s long running “Choral Evensong” aired Weds repeated Suns.)

    They need to get their act together quickly.

  • Brian Walker

    ..sorry, finger trouble again.. re Martin Neary par 2 gibberish..” after his magificent hadling of the Diana funeral.”

  • Brian Walker

    The title is subject to the trend of title inflation everywhere. Once usually ” Organist and Master of the Choristers”, the title Director of Music is catching on. Don’t think there is any difference. The Director conducts the choir live and the sub-organist generally plays the organ. Sometimes, the Director will show off at the organ with a particularly tough voluntary at the end.

  • Pete Baker

    It did strike me as being somewhat bizarre, Brian. I just don’t see the logic in throwing away a traditional, and highly successful, model.

    So it’s likely that there is more to it than so far disclosed.

    But there’s little being said publicly by those concerned, apart from the five board members who are, apparently, prepared to resign over it.

  • Pete Baker

    Indeed, Brian.

    As I attempted to indicate in the post, I think the ‘Director of Music’ title probably came into existence in 2002.

  • ballyholmetenor

    I think there are probably two problems here.

    1. It seems that the employer (Belfast Cathedral) is unhappy with the employee (Mr. Stopford) – I say this because if you read the posts on the Facebook page “Save the Choral Tradition of St Anne’s Cathedral” there are specific allegations made about his poor performance – (lack of recruitment, members leaving the choir, poor choice of repertoire, self promotion by the Director of Music by singing to much of his own music and declining standards of performance of the choir) – it seems that in some ways these mirror the feeling of at least some of the board. I am not a member of the Facebook group therefore there may be other comments I haven’t seen. In the interests of balance these claims are refuted in the strongest terms by supporters of the employee. There are also allegations of poor treatment of the employee by the employer. All that notwithstanding – this is no-ones business except the Employer and Employee – just because it is a church it doesn’t mean employment law isn’t observed. It is proper that the employer should not discuss this with the media or others who are un-entitled to that information. If the employee feels that he was dismissed unfairly there are recourses in law which he properly should follow.

    2. The post of “Director of Music” is a quite a new one for St Anne’s – traditionally the post of Organist and Master of the Choristers was in place and that role (again until recently) was part time. The post was filled in a very distinguished way by many of the previous incumbents, most notably by Harry Grindle and Jonathan Gregory who presided over one of the finest cathedral choirs in the country whilst holding down other work to make up their salary. In the current economic climate I cannot for the life of me see how a post (Organist and Master of the Choristers – which is the only role that existed before 2003) which has probably three rehearsals per week, three services and time for preparation should attract a very healthy full-time salary. The job should be identified as to what is necessary to maintain and develop the choral tradition that has been so successful in the past and an appropriate remuneration worked out – any employer is not a job creation scheme but should fill a need. The mistake made here by the Cathedral is allowing Point2 to become confused with Point 1. in these times of great austerity the Dean is being responsible in his handling of the finances of the Cathedral – in my opinion he has made a bit of a hash of delivering the message though.

    Lets hope the boys and men’s choir gets through this in one piece!

  • Drumlins Rock

    I have read that when Dr Paisley was establishing his new Denomination he banned church Choirs, as he said they were inclined to challenge the preachers control of the Service, maybe he had a point!

  • Kathy C

    thanks for the understanding, Alan. Yep crows are smart…they make tools and use cars to crack nuts they put in the street. …I love crows and their feathers…;)

  • A personality clash is almost certainly the cause of this little fracas, which will last no longer than it takes to get rid of the director of music.

  • ballyholmetenor

    Not sure you are right – more to it than that!

  • ballyholmetenor

    I read your comment. I think there is a reason missing from point 1. The fact is support for the church is in decline, previously people would have given their time freely, that is much less likely now. It may be the church did not have a choice about employing someone.

    I agree with your comment that any employment dispute should be treated discretely by both sides until after agreement has been reached, but surely that does not stop the rest of us from speculating.

    The Churches, all of them, are amongst the richest institutions, sometimes they just have to open the cheque book..

  • ballyholmetenor

    Agreed, support has declined, perhaps we expect too much from the choirs’ standards given the modern world as it is.

    Most choirmaster posts (which is fundamentally what this is) are not full time but are paid – there is no suggestion it should be freely done – Messers Gregory and Grindle were paid but not the full time wages for a part time job that is the current position.

  • ballyholmetenor

    Sorry, Im a bit out of touch with choir masters and salaries. My last contact was with bell ringing in Norfolk, England, they met every Thursday to practice, and my quaint and charming cottage was well within earshot…

    I cannot believe anyone got paid for that.