Robin L. D. Rees
Weary And Ill At Ease


Few issues arouse such strong feelings as those relating to religious belief. Newspapers are not sparing in their reports of the discussion of such issues especially if that discussion seems in any way acrimonious.

Issues confronting the Church of England in recent years have included: Anglo-Catholic versus Evangelical (perhaps leading ultimately to unity with either Rome or the Free Churches); charismatic versus non-charismatic (dictating the degree of adherence to liturgy); liberal versus conservative (dictating how literally scripture should be interpreted); arguments for and against disestablishment (does an ‘official’ Church, with its bishops in the House of Lords, speak with greater or less authority especially if the final selection of those bishops rests with a possibly atheist prime minister?); the rights and wrongs of the Church (especially the Established Church) ‘meddling’ in national politics; and finally, perhaps in the short term most divisive: the movements for and against the ordination of women as priests.

In addition to these many controversies there has been the age-old debate on the role of music in worship. My principal aim in this book is to examine the current state of that debate. In particular I have tried, by means of a large-scale questionnaire survey, to obtain the views from those who are often regarded as the ‘party leaders’, namely clergy on the one hand, and church organists and musical directors on the other.

In this Introduction we look at the fundamental issues of the debate before placing them in the context of the present day. We also cast a sidelong glance at other related areas of concern. Mine is far from being the only survey of church music undertaken since World War II, and the Introduction concludes with a review of the other surveys, notably that of the recent Archbishops’ Commission on Church Music.

Much has happened to affect music in the Church of England in the last 30 years, notably liturgical changes, culminating in The Alternative Service Book 1980, and an ‘explosion’ of hymns and other congregational music. In Chapter 1 we examine not only these, but also the means of coming to terms with them, namely courses and qualifications in church music. Moving from the general to the particular, in Chapter 2 I sketch three case studies in which either the vicar or the organist (or both) failed to come to terms with the situation. The remainder of the chapter describes how the questionnaire survey was managed. Chapters 3–7 contain the results of the survey, namely the personal backgrounds and general attitudes of clergy and organists, and their perceptions, both objective and subjective, of the situation at their church, and of each other. Also in Chapter 7 I attempt to draw certain conclusions for improving clergy-organist relationships.

Points of Departure

Temperley describes how, throughout the history of Christianity, there have been conflicting currents between those holding different views on the use of music in worship.

There have always been those who recognise the great emotional power of music to move men’s spirits. Some have as a consequence come to mistrust this mysterious power and to exclude it altogether from worship, in spite of clear biblical injunctions to praise God with psalms, and hymns, and spiritual songs, and with instruments of music (e.g. Psalm 150: 3–5; Colossians 3:16). This was the attitude of the Quakers and, for a time, of the General Baptists, but it has never found appreciable support in the Church of England, except perhaps from the unmusical.
Others, also acknowledging the emotional power of music, have been concerned to harness it for the good of men’s souls. This view has been held by Lutherans, Puritans, Evangelicals, and Tractarians; it has led to a concern that music should be sung earnestly and spontaneously by the entire congregation, and that both the text sung and the music itself should be appropriate to the purpose but of course, opinions have varied widely as to what music is appropriate.
A third body of opinion denies the role of music as an actual vehicle of religious expression, but values it as an ornament in the offering to God, as a part of the ‘beauty of holiness’. . . . In the English parish church, the conflict between the second and third of these views remains unresolved. There has never been full agreement as to whether the primary goal is for people to sing the music as well as they can, or for the music to be the best possible. It will be found that this issue lies at the back of most of the conflicts and difficulties that have punctuated the history of parish church music.(1)

Long considers the difficulties of reconciling the second and third views:

In order to be sung by all conditions of men, melodies must move mainly by step . . . must be restricted in range, elementary in rhythm and easy to memorise. Admittedly there are many splendid tunes that do satisfy these requirements but in the long run such restrictions must eventually become a strait jacket, stifling vitality and imagination and tending towards uniformity and monotony.(2)

Long’s definition of the third group appears to be more tolerant than that adopted by Temperley:

Song is a natural outlet for the expression of our noblest and deepest feelings and when these feelings are of worship, praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God, we are woefully conscious of how inadequate even our utmost skill is to convey all that is in our hearts without having that expression arbitrarily scaled down to what less gifted people can do. Such artificial limitations and restrictions must inevitably give way as we open the flood-gates of pent-up emotions.

Long goes on to describe what might be termed a cycle in religious music, a phenomenon common to other art forms:

Musical people tend, often unconsciously, to . . . elaborate simple basic material to a point where less musical folk can no longer participate. . . . The development of church music has often been a sinuous line between the musicians, who were constantly enriching it with new conceptions, advancing techniques and increasing resources (sometimes to the point of extravagance); and the reformers, like Pope John XXII, Cranmer, Calvin, the Council of Trent, and others, who tried to constrain it and prevent excess.

In short, music may be seen not just as an aid to worship, but actually as a form of worship, expressing realities that mere words are quite incapable of conveying. As our old friend the Revd. Septimus Harding, Precentor of Barchester, put it:

If there is no music, there is no mystery.
If there is no mystery, there is no God.
If there is no mystery, there is no faith.(3)

It seems very unlikely, however, that those in Temperley’s first two groups would agree with him on this point.

The Church’s Response

One of the marvels of the Anglican Church has been the parallel development of two independent, but complementary, streams of church music. The parish-church tradition, which in general encourages active congregational participation in most if not all of the singing, is close to the ideal of Temperley’s second group. The third group will often take delight in the cathedral tradition (and that of collegiate and royal chapels), where the music is greater both in extent and complexity, and is sung by a choir whose adults nowadays are frequently the holders of musical degrees or diplomas. At such services, the aim is that worship is offered by the choir on behalf of the congregation, since it would clearly be impracticable for members of the congregation to join in the singing, other than the hymn(s). Indeed at certain cathedrals even this seems to be discouraged!

Although the division into parish-church and cathedral traditions is in general helpful, it should certainly not be seen as absolute. Long describes the situation at cathedrals in the first half of the nineteenth century:

Since senior clergy had no interest whatsoever in cathedral worship and its music, they saw little point in wasting money on it. As a consequence choirs were so reduced in size that it became impossible for them to fulfil their proper function. St. Paul’s, which at one time had had 42 choirmen, was now reduced to six.(4)

In 1841, when music in cathedrals was at its nadir, Leeds Parish Church instituted fully choral services in the cathedral tradition, sung by a robed professional choir of men and boys. Many parish churches, to a greater or lesser extent, in due course followed the example of Leeds. Indeed, the revival of choral music in the Anglican Church during the second half of the century came initially not from the cathedrals but from the parish churches.(5)

The period 1900–70 was marked by a great improvement in the musical standards of all church choirs. Long attributes this to the work of the training and examining bodies, and the opportunities afforded by radio and gramophone to hear church music well performed. On the other hand, since the end of World War II, parish choirs had been experiencing ever-increasing difficulties in recruitment.(6)

Seeds of Conflict

In recent years, many have written of a breakdown in relations between clergy and organists. While still organist at Exeter Cathedral, Lionel Dakers was already expressing his concern:

There is something in the make-up of clergy and organists which on occasion impels them to behave both irresponsibly and irrationally. Obvious to all are the repercussions of two apparently responsible adults, both in prominent parochial positions, being unable to see eye to eye. Much harm can be done to the cause of the Church by the inevitable tongue wagging which accompanies such incidents.(7)

It was a topic to which, as Director of the Royal School of Church Music, he was to return on several occasions:

To tolerate and respect the other point of view and to be prepared to act on it, is difficult for many clergy and organists. The fact that music is ultimately the legal responsibility of the parson has been known to result in a misplaced power complex, especially if the incumbent is unsure of his ground.(8)
A good working relationship is the more essential today if only because issues virtually unknown a generation ago now loom large. Changes in the shape and language of services inevitably rub off on the music and the musicians, and friction can arise the more easily. Nowadays, both sides so readily feel threatened and consequently tend to react from a position of insecurity. In practice it matters not whether this threat is in fact real or imaginary.(9)

On the closely related subject of relations between the clergy and the choir, he wrote:

Whatever conclusions may have been arrived at concerning the validity of a choir and whether it may have genuinely become outmoded in the face of an agreed change of policy in a church, a situation sometimes fuelled by the choir being adamant in refusing to concede one iota, those responsible for the dismantling process often seem to act in a particularly unsympathetic and frequently pre-emptory way. . . .
What in the event frequently conspires is that the clergy, sometimes encouraged by elements within the congregation, adopt bulldozing tactics resulting in summary dismissal, this being the convenient weapon for a quick kill which causes the greater hurt to the recipients. Little account is taken, or probably contemplated, of the effect of suddenly cutting musicians off from fulfilling the particular gifts they wish to offer towards the enrichment of worship. This is the more wounding when gifted musicians are alienated and, as a result, sometimes permanently lost to the Church.(10)

Were the problems really as great as Dakers would lead us to believe? After only six months in the post, his successor was already writing:

Before I came to work at the RSCM I had often heard of breakdown in relationships between clergy and organists, but had never experienced one at first hand. I had been fortunate in every one of the eight places of worship where I had been organist to have enjoyed a friendly working partnership with the priest in charge. Could all these stories be true, I often asked myself? Alas I now know they are. Hardly a week passes at Addington without a letter or telephone call relating to yet another incident of a kind which is becoming increasingly common. Disagreements there have always been. But it seems the kind of tensions experienced today are more than differences of opinion. So often there seems to be a complete breakdown of understanding in which ignorance, fear, insensitivity and unwillingness to change all feature.(11)

Others have expressed similar concern, although not always from the same viewpoint. Here is the view of a clergyman from the charismatic wing of the Church:

If you were to do a survey among Anglican vicars as to who was public enemy number one in their church, how many would say the organist or the choirmaster? I suspect a very high proportion. I’m not sure whether the same is true in non-conformist circles, but in the Church of England there is often a fierce rivalry between the musical side of the church and its vicar; a rivalry which has been responsible for more than a few nervous breakdowns on both sides.(12)

Meanwhile, in a leaflet edited by a group of clergy in the Oxford Diocese there appeared the comment: ‘The parson may have his freehold, but the organist may have a stranglehold on the parish.’(13)

Any thoughts that this problem may be confined to the Church of England are quickly dispelled in a paper by Moores:

At a recent meeting of the American Guild of Organists in St Petersburg, Fla., a regional officer began her speech on clergy- organist relationships with an observation about how widespread problems are in this area, singling out the Episcopal Church as the church where the clergy-organist relationship is characteristically the most tense.(14)

1. Nicholas Temperley, The Music of the English Parish Church (CUP, Cambridge, 1979), p. 4.

2. Kenneth R. Long, The Music of the English Church (Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1972), pp. 34–35.

3. Alan Plater, The Barchester Chronicles, a television dramatisation based on The Warden and Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope (BBC, London, 1979).

4. Long, p. 320.

5. Long, p. 331.

6. Long, p. 388.

7. Lionel Dakers, Church Music at the Crossroads (Marshall, Morgan and Scott, London, 1970), p. 86.

8. Lionel Dakers, A Handbook of Parish Music (Mowbray, London, 1976), p. 45.

9. Lionel Dakers, Church Music in a Changing World (Mowbray, Oxford, 1984), p. 76.

10. Lionel Dakers, ‘Aspects of a questioning age’ in Church Music Quarterly, July 1987, p. 3.

11. Harry Bramma, ‘Clergy and organists... fellow workers’ in Church Music Quarterly, October 1989, p. 10.

12. John Leach, Liturgy and Liberty (MARC, Eastbourne, 1989), p. 81.

13. ‘The Lost Accord’ in Parish and People, 27 (1986), [p. 2]. We will be examining this further on page 125.

14. The Revd Dr David R. Moores, ‘Clergy-Organist Relationships’ in The American Organist, August 1985, pp. 46–47.

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© R L. D. Rees 1993, 2000