HIS PAST SUMMER, the National Convention of the American Guild of Organists was held in Boston. I was privileged to be part of a panel discussion called The Future of the Organ in Contemporary Worship. While directed to organists who work for many denominations, a number of universal truths apply.
The organ’s use in worship is often in survival mode and its supremacy is no longer a given. How do we keep it alive in the face of so many challenges to shut it down? Much of what I spoke about during the convention, I have already written about here.
Despite what Vatican II has to say about the use of the pipe organ in liturgy, that “In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem…” (Sacrosanctum Concilium §120) it is wise have an awareness of how those in our congregations view the pipe organ and their experience of it during the liturgy. We must know our sheep! Not that one should ever plan liturgy according to popular decree, it is helpful to know where our congregations stand, so we can do a better job in meeting them where they are. Once we do that, we can better cultivate and advocate for the pipe organ in liturgy, just as we do for Gregorian Chant and singing the mass.
Realize that when it comes to music in liturgy, everyone is an expert. In part I am being facetious, but since music directly affects everyone quite personally, people are in fact experts regarding their own experiences. We must take this seriously. People know what they like and what they don’t like. They know how they feel. Therefore, it’s imperative to know where your congregation is at so that you can meet them there. Only then can you gently challenge and uplift.
LSO ON THIS AGO PANEL DISCUSSION was my esteemed colleague, Bernadette Colley, Director of Music and Organist at the Church of Our Redeemer in Lexington, Massachusetts. Prior to the convention she worked exceptionally hard to poll her congregation, obtaining as large a sample as possible. She brought her expertise as founder of Colley Consulting, a research consultancy specializing in arts education policy. While hers is not a Roman Catholic environment, her results may reveal some familiar and universal traits.
In a follow-up article for her congregation, Bernadette wrote about this poll:
(The) responses were both enlightening and informative in conveying…the ways in which congregants themselves express their relationship to the pipe organ as an element of meaningful worship. Audience members (at the convention) were interested to hear how congregation members articulated their relationship to the organ as an element of worship.
Here were her questions and results. Does any of this sound familiar?
1 • To what extent does the pipe organ’s inclusion as a worship component influence
the quality of your worship experience?
Answers centered on themes of:
a) Purpose/Substance, e.g. organ viewed as a connector to “worship” “church” “history”
b) Degree: e.g. ranging from organ greatly enhances, to not enhances, to detracts
c) Reasons, e.g. adjectives associated with organ such as “Meditative, Rich, Beautiful, Powerful, Humble, Full, Awesome, Majestic, Prayerful, and Quiet”
2 • Describe the best and worst aspects of having the pipe organ, or an alternative instrument, (piano or guitar); accompany hymns in worship services…
a) Regarding the pipe organ –
i. Best: Organ’s timbre; history; good for “old hymns”; its “power” or “fullness”
ii. Worst: Organ is: too loud; too expensive; can be muddled/slow
b) Regarding the piano and/or guitar –
i. Best: Both good for “contemporary” styles of, e.g., folk, spiritual, because of their “warmth” “intimacy” “informality”
ii. Worst: Ranging from: instruments are thin, can’t provide as much “leadership”; no sense of tradition; to “not suitable at ALL in church”
3 • To what extent do organ solos as preludes, instrumental interludes, and postludes, enhance or detract from your worship experience?
Most respondents felt instrumental solos were an enhancement; a few said “take them or leave them”. The functions that these serve in worship included: communication, mood setting, music appreciation, ritual lubrication, and allowing for introspection with God.
4 • If you could send a recommendation, request, or piece of advice to church
organists about the future of their profession, what would it be?
In general, messages suggested organists: “Diversify” OR “Advocate for your instrument”
5 • How important is it, do you feel, for newly built worship spaces to include pipe
organs? Please explain.
Some respondents felt it essential, some not at all, and a number said it depends on the
individual congregation’s discernment of the issue.
HERE DOES YOUR CONREGATION STAND with regards to the pipe organ? What can you do to cultivate a more positive response? I believe the key question posed by Bernadette was essentially this: To what extent does the pipe organ influence the quality of your worship experience?
The pipe organ is there to serve the liturgy, not the other way around. The organ is in service to prayer. Organists must be supremely mindful of this. I will try to remember this myself.