Musicians: 'There's a real need for support'
How Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead, London has opened its doors to musicians
The relationship between churches and the musicians who use their buildings made headlines this summer.
The proposed closing of the hiring programme at St Sepulchre-without-Newgate in Holborn, ‘the National Musicians’ Church’, was widely reported, and led to a campaign asking the church to reverse its decision. Leading figures from the music world wrote a letter. The church explained how '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.'
As this unfolded, members of Heath Street Baptist Church, less than six miles away in Hampstead, reflected on how their church had seen increasing contact with musicians.
From having no live music beyond its Sunday morning worship service as recently as 10 years ago, there is some form of public music event most days, noted minister Ewan King. The church is seeing 'a constant stream' of musicians using its facilities.
This growing engagement has been led by John-Henry Baker, the church’s music outreach co-ordinator (pictured above, centre). John plays double-bass, often with the respected baroque band Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and was involved in setting up the church’s music ministry. The Baptist Times caught up with him.
Going from no space hire for musicians to what’s happening today is some change. How has it come about and what’s the thinking behind it?
London is a global magnet for those working in the arts, especially for musicians. However, in recent times, government cuts to arts funding, rising house prices, and the uncertainty of Brexit are all making our capital a less hospitable, less welcoming place for musicians. There’s a real need for support.
Changes in church cuture are also a factor. In his book Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, the theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie calls for a reconciliation between musicians and the church. He suggests that in its efforts to become more accessible to all regardless of cultural hierarchies, the church risks becoming more alienated from artists and musicians. Begbie has in mind the attitude of many churches - often it is particularly the faster-growing ones - to music and the arts. Worship leaders often find that the most efficient means of engaging a congregational in worship is with music that is very simple, even simplistic.
Speaking personally, that style of worship is not something I have an issue with at all (quite the contrary). However lack of colour, harmonic substance or diversity can sometimes be alienating for artists and professional musicians, making it harder for them to engage with worship and church life. That’s the situation we’re trying to address with our four loaves and one fish!
Can you explain why your facilities are popular with musicians?
Like many Victorian Baptist churches, we have a sanctuary that was designed to get the preacher’s voice heard loud and clear. The sound carries well around the room. Reflections are just under two seconds, which makes it a good space for detail - there’s none of the muddiness that comes with echoes/long reverbs often associated with churches, and this often takes newcomers by surprise. I'd say it's a space which allows chamber music in particular to breath and bloom fairly well while remaining a fairly intimate space visually.
We also benefit from typical Victorian big-picture-thinking - we have a lower ground floor, a nice member's vestry / minister’s vestry / various smaller rooms - all of which make good ad hoc practice spaces from time to time, when the bigger rooms are in use.
However, if our facilities are valued by London musicians, in the last analysis it is probably because of the quality of the welcome rather than anything special about the building itself. I'd say our vision is primarily about developing relationships based on trust and generosity. Just offering a cup of coffee goes a long way to welcoming someone as an individual (especially when it’s real coffee in a real mug).
But that's just the start really, being a freelance professional musician myself and being a fairly resourceful person (if I may be so bold to claim) I guess I'm always looking out for ways in which I can invite people into the picture in a mutually beneficial way, being aware of their needs as well as the churches.
What has been the impact of your musical outreach on the church, both in terms of members and visibility in the community?
Perhaps the most visible success in the community has been our bi-weekly Oldtime Nursery group. Our member's vestry gets packed twice a week with under-fives, parents and carers, for a music session led by our Oldtime Nursery band.
Our minister Ewan sings and plays banjo, guitar, toy piano, and many others. I also sing and play double bass, charango, djembe, spoons...we also have local legend Godfrey Old (who helps run Hampstead's independent theatre) on the harmonica, jaw harp, kazoo, cowbell and stylophone. So it's a fairly eclectic set-up, which keeps everyone amused, I guess. We have contact with around 80 families per week through this group.
Again, the ‘show’ we put on is a good draw for strangers, but any spiritual benefit can only come from the long drawn-out process of building relationships!
We also have weekly lunchtime concerts and then ad hoc concerts as well as a weekend festival of music and home-cooked food about once every quarter.
There is a lot I could say, but that's the long and short of it... and I think all of this is gradually getting the message across that the church is here to serve its community, both in Hampstead as well as the wider musical and London community.