Q What’s the difference between an organist and a terrorist?
A You can sometimes negotiate with a terrorist
The old joke notwithstanding, the vicar always loses the PR battle when he falls out with the organist. In the blue corner, the inspired leader of the congregation, filling the house every Sunday with people come to hear the call to worship, to contemplation and to glorification of God. In the red corner, the vicar.
The casus belli is almost always tradition, a vicar with his head full of half-baked notions of inclusiveness and accessibility, and an organist who wants to maintain what is left of the great choral legacy which the Church of England has adopted, adapted or invented.
The last one was in Henley in 2000 when the organist quit because the Rector rather fancied his own musical prowess and would sing loudly into the microphone at his own pace, not hers. She also objected to the coffee, cup-rattling and chatter at the back of the church, which she felt, could wait a moment or two whilst she finished her solos. Henley’s loss was Oxford’s gain, for she came to St Giles.
The latest one is in Wellington in Somerset where there was a choir which, according to the Times “had established a reputation for cathedral-standard music [and] excelled at difficult psalms and anthems as the congregation listened”. The vicar preferred something called Shine, Jesus, Shine – you don’t have to hear it to get the picture and stay away. The organist was sacked, half the choir left and the rest was disbanded.
Who was the vicar trying to please? He arrived at a church with an established way of doing things which presumably suited many in the congregation, and set about destroying its particular (and increasingly rare) attraction. If he wanted to attract a new audience he must have known he risked alienating the existing one. Why not go to a church which was already inured to anodyne tosh?
The target was presumably the younger audience. One of the many fatal miscalculations which the Church of England has made in the last 30 years has been to dumb itself down in the hope of attracting the young – fatal in that it has on the whole, driven away more people than it has attracted. The young do not like to be patronised. The church should certainly aspire to reflect society; removing the old certainties and putting “modern” ephemera in their place certainly does that.