ANALYSIS: Daily Telegraph Backs Old Guard in Row Over Church of England's 'Alpha' Evangelicals

The Daily Telegraph has leapt into a dispute between two factions of a London church, offering its support to traditionalists who dislike changes brought by a new priest and the younger crowd of worshippers he has attracted.

The author of the 14 Aug, 2017, article entitled “Proms conductor in row with musicians' church after it bans 'non-religious' concerts” would most likely reject this summary of her story. Yet the journalistic shortcomings of this article turn it into a club for traditionalists to beat modernizers.

Congregational conflicts are seldom newsworthy. But they are often vicious, taking their cue from the command to smite the Amalekites and “utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass" (1 Sam 15:3). And these church spats seem to revolve around the same set of problems that often boil down to a battle for power.

In short, the Telegraph failed to give context to the issues. It failed to speak to anyone from Holy Trinity Brompton, whom it trotted out as a bogeyman of happy clappy music.

The exceptions to the rule, however, are often great news stories.

Who would not relish reading about the conflict in this Tennessee church:  “Pastor’s Wife And Mistress Fight At Communion Day Service In Church.”

The Daily Telegraph picked up a story about St. Sepulchre-without-Newgate Church in the City of London over a power struggle within a church, which has widened to include comments and criticisms from non-members.

The lede telegraphs the Telegraph’s construction of the story. We are told who are the villains and who the heroes.

[St. Sepulchre] is the spiritual home of musicians where Proms founder Sir Henry Wood is buried. But a London church has become embroiled in a row with one of Britain's best-known composers after it announced it would close its doors to choirs and orchestras because their music was not religious.

The fight within the church is between the choir and the evangelical views of its new vicar and the crowd he has brought with him. The Telegraph reports:

The church became part of the evangelical group, which is known for its youth-friendly rock-band style of worship, in 2013. Now classical groups are no longer welcome to rehearse and perform there - and resident choristers say they are "concerned that it will become a worship choir with drums and keyboards".

Sounds like the storyline of an Elvis Presley movie to me -- with the King as a trendy vicar defending the kids who just want to have fun, while the stodgy old choir members backed by the stodgy old Telegraph cry foul. 

The bulk of the article consists of criticisms voiced by composer John Rutter.

"What this current vicar seems to be saying is that music is OK so long as it's part of a worship service. The concerts that take place in just about every church in the land, they're not OK, and rehearsals are not OK either.

In a letter sent to groups which used the church regularly, priest in charge the Reverend David Ingall said the church had become "conscious of the challenges of using a space dedicated to worship for non-religious hiring".

Mr Rutter said that Mr Ingall was "betraying the community that he purports to serve. He didn't have to take the job at the musicians church if he doesn't like musicians."

"The Church of England needs all the friends it can get. It shouldn't be making enemies - it's un-Christian," he added.

"Churches are and should be busy places where all can walk through the door and all are welcome. That's my feeling but it's obviously not his feeling."

Further criticisms are voiced by other groups that had rented the space, followed by the response from the church.

"An increasingly busy programme of worship and church activities has led to ever higher demands on the church space, and the hire space is also shared with the church administration office."

The article closes with a note the parish remained committed to its “ministry as the National Musicians’ Church. In the coming weeks we will reflect and pray, and consult with members of the musicians’ community about how best to fulfill that ministry moving forward.”

What is the problem with this story you ask? It omits crucial data that would allow a reader not familiar with the issues to understand what is happening. At the top of the article there is a reference to Holy Trinity Brompton “HTB” -- the home of the Alpha program used round the world -- and its relationship to the church. St. Sepulchre is now “part of the evangelical group” around HTB.

What does that mean? HTB, with the permission of the Bishop of London and other bishops across England has been given permission to revitalize dying churches. HTB sponsors a priest and encourages members of its family of churches to colonize the dying church.

A look at the St. Sepulchre website shows this is not an ordinary CoE parish. There are -- gasp --children. The group photo shows most members are under 40. There are men in the pews. There are non-white worshippers.

Against this influx of newcomers revitalizing the church, we have the old guard who were happy with a small jewel box of a church that kept its doors open by renting its space out to musical groups.

The Telegraph assumes, but does not ask, that only classical music or non-Christian music groups were turned away. How do we know that? It does not appear in the story, but only as the conclusion of someone who has lost cheap rehearsal space in a pretty building.

The problem facing the parish is that it is growing and needs to use its space for the benefit of its members. One of the church’s chapels is dedicated to church music and the other to the Royal Fusiliers, the website tells us. Yet the whole is dedicated to bringing people to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ through the proclamation of the word and celebration of the sacraments, a quick read of the church’s website reveals.

In short, the Telegraph failed to give context to the issues. It failed to speak to anyone from HTB, whom it trotted out at the top as a bogeyman of happy clappy music. It failed to ask questions of those complaining about being turned away -- “were they members?” And it framed the story with a worldview that the church’s primary role is to cater to the tastes of the cultural elites.

This piece reeks of snobbery and disdain for those who do not share the Telegraph’s worldview. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with proclaiming these views -- but they belong on the editorial and opinion pages. Not in the news section.