Divine comedy as clergyman quarrels with Bath Abbey buskers

Uneasy peace follows bitter row over “offensively” loud street musicians

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The Independent Online

Would they shake hands or wouldn't they? That was the question in Bath this week following an extraordinary row between the Rector of Bath Abbey, the Rev Edward Mason, and Jack Morgan, a street musician and the unlikely figurehead of the city's vibrant busking community.

Tourists enjoying the late summer sunshine outside the 12th-century church might not have known it, but the 31-year old busker and the reverend have been locked in a bitter argument all week over the use of battery-powered amplifiers outside the abbey.

The row began on Sunday when, for the first time in living memory, a choral evensong was halted because Mr Mason claimed his Bible reading could not be heard over the melodies of Mr Morgan's Spanish guitar.

In what is a normally a quiet tourist destination, the dispute descended into a fierce war of words between the two men and saw conflicting audio clips posted online and chalk messages scrawled on the pavement outside the abbey.

“The music was offensively loud,” Mr Mason said “And it came after years of trouble from buskers across the city and musicians playing over funerals and weddings. Sadly our voluntary 'traffic light' system governing when it's safe to play seems to have broken down.”

He said it was a “question of respect”. “The big change has been the battery-powered amplifiers in the last five years and the fact that Bath has developed a vibrant street culture, where the streets are no longer just a place to get from A to B.” he said. “There are places in Bath now where you can't have a normal conversation in the street.”

Mr Mason was quick to admit the situation is “deeply sad” and that he gets on with many of the buskers “very well” and appreciated their music, but his media advisor (rushed-in from the Diocese of Wells and Bath) wasn’t keen for him to be photographed outside the abbey, where he risked being “door-stepped” by musicians.

By Friday, an uneasy (if harmonious) peace had returned to the lucrative pitches around the abbey, amid rumours of reconciliation and a “handshake”. But the situation a few days earlier had been very different, after a video clip of one of Mr Mason's sermons appeared on YouTube in which he described wanting to “pull out their cables and break their microphones”.

The Rector of Bath Abbey, Rev Edward Mason, in the Abbey

The abbey quickly responded with an audio file of the full sermon, saying it had been taken out of context, as Mr Mason spoke about “weeping” with sadness over the row. On Thursday a protester had chalked a message on the pavement outside the church to “remember Psalm 87”, which is dedicated to musicians. The protester, who decline to give his name, said “The rector has no appreciation for the artistic. He has an agenda to fight free music culture and is waging a one-minded fight against it”.

Gary Millhouse, a guitarist busking at the time, said “There is fault on both sides but the church has blown this completely out of proportion. Music is part of Bath and amplification is important for the clarity of our sound. The incident has shaken us all up”

By mid-week the council had stepped in, promising to use “new rules” to clamp down on buskers, under the new Antisocial Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, which comes into force next month. Buskers responded with dismay to this, fearing a “kneejerk” reaction.

That’s a view that Jonny Walker, the founder of the Keeps Streets Live campaign, shares with after battles with “anti-busking” councils in Liverpool and Camden in north London. He said, “There is a perception that busking is unlawful but there is no statutory basis for that, these new rules are nothing less than an undemocratic subversion of public space.”

“In Bath the abbey is a symbol of heritage, beauty and opulence and I fear there is an element of snobbishness about this debate from the church. It seems the modern minstrels outside the gates don’t fit into what the vision of public space that some civic leader would want. Now we face a sweeping policy of collective punishment against buskers.”

Mr Morgan in what he described as his “last ever” words on the subject, said: “The buskers have agreed to monitor volume levels to respect the Abbey's request for peace. It's also important to remember Bath's centre is vibrant, bustling and quite noisy in general, and the buskers bring many positives.”

There was no mention of a handshake, but Mr Morgan and Mr Mason offered a “joint statement” on Thursday night which was full of apologies and an agreement to “work together towards resolving the issues”.

The music continued on Friday as détente appeared to take hold, but the buskers are planning a “silent protest” tomorrow, which may go down quite well at the abbey.