top of page
  • Writer's pictureSWO

Spotlight on the back row

On being appointed the first woman lay clerk in a major UK Anglican Cathedral

Katie Schofield, contralto

Female altos in cathedral back rows are pretty common now; you were a pioneer; how do you feel about that?

I’m very proud to have made a small but important part of history in that tradition. I’m also very grateful to Andrew Reid (who was Director of Music at the time) for offering me the job, and the clergy for being so supportive of that decision. I was proud to sing in that beautiful building every day that I worked there, and I’m grateful that many more women will now be able to do the same.

What was the layclerks’ vestry like before and after services?

I was very lucky, in that most of the lay clerks I worked with were great colleagues and close friends. There was a strong sense of teamwork and really good humour in the group. When you’re a team of only six on weekdays, you really have to pull together to get good results, and I think the guys I worked with were really committed to doing that. Also, the vestry was tiny, and was usually fairly quickly abandoned for the pub after services!

How did the chapter respond to you?

I felt totally supported by the clergy. If there was any ideological disagreement about my being there, they never let me feel it. In particular, the former Dean (Charles Taylor) and Precentor (Bruce Ruddock) really made me feel part of the furniture during my time there. 

How did the congregation respond?

Other than the odd slightly confused question about whether or not I was a girl chorister and what I was doing singing with the “men” (!), they were mostly very supportive too. 

What about the choristers?

I felt like the choristers treated me exactly the same as any of the other lay clerks. It didn’t seem to occur to them that it was out of the ordinary at all. (After all, why should it?) Truthfully, I think the choristers were usually too concerned with getting the psalm pointing right (or occasionally making faces at each other across the stalls) to be thinking about the gender of who was singing in the back rows.

How was it vocally?

I loved it. Both Andrew Reid and Robert Quinney, who succeeded Andrew as Director of Music, were keen to let the lay clerks sing naturally and expressively. Singing in the Cathedral building is also a joy – it has a great acoustic. The only thing that was a bit off-putting about it at the time was that the organ was very sharp! Happily, it has now at last been re-pitched to A=440.

You are fortunate since you are actually an alto; what should sopranos do who want to sing liturgically for a living?

There’s a wealth of liturgical singing available in London. Sadly, there aren’t currently the same salaried opportunities for sopranos that exist for altos, tenors, and basses. There are many London churches with excellent professional choirs, most of which sing at least one Sunday service, and a lot of extra work can be picked up through these choirs. One cathedral that has a fully mixed adult choir and offers lay clerkships to sopranos is Christ Church in Dublin, which is where I spent a year between university and getting my job at Peterborough.

Why do you think female singers in cathedrals have been controversial, but organists and conductors are not?

Good question. In some ways I do think that female organists and conductors are controversial – they are still definitely proportionally underrepresented in the field. I think that being one female singer in an otherwise all-male back row can make you stand out somewhat! Happily this is continuing to change, as cathedrals take a more inclusive approach to hiring singers.

Do you have advice for other women singers in cathedral choirs?

Don’t be put off applying for a lay clerkship just because the advert doesn’t specify that female altos will be considered. You never know when an institution might be ready to take that step. For me, when Peterborough Cathedral offered me a job there, they changed the course of not only my life and career, but also of cathedral music history.

Katie is originally from Manchester, and currently lives in London, where she enjoys a busy and varied career as a freelance ensemble and solo singer. After a Choral Scholarship at Selwyn College, Cambridge, where she read for a degree in Law, Katie spent three fulfilling years in the choir of Peterborough Cathedral, where she was appointed as the country’s first female lay clerk in 2010.  Katie has performed with groups including Tenebrae, BBC Singers, Monteverdi Choir, Polyphony, Cardinall’s Musick, Tallis Scholars, and Dunedin Consort. She is a member of unconducted early music vocal ensemble Stile Antico, with whom she undertakes a regular programme of recording and worldwide touring. Upcoming projects include tours to the USA and East Asia with Stile Antico and a European tour of Verdi’s Requiem with Monteverdi Choir. 


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page