Robin L. D. Rees
Weary And Ill At Ease


The liturgical and hymnological upheavals of the sixties, seventies and early eighties had, by the mid-eighties, left many church musicians in a state of shock. Relationships with clergy never renowned for their warmth appeared to be worsening. It was in this context that I embarked on a survey of the attitudes of clergy and musical directors to the role of music in current parish church worship. This book is the outcome of that survey.

Although much of the book has been devoted to the results of a questionnaire survey, the questions within in it had first to be placed in their historical and contemporary context. For this reason, I devoted the Introduction and Chapter 1 to such diverse matters as the Church of England’s use of music in worship over the centuries, areas of conflict in church music, the scope of other church-music surveys, the effects of liturgical and hymnological change, and the training courses on the use of music in worship. As an introduction to my own survey, I included three case studies demonstrating problems that can arise when clergy and church musicians are in conflict.

The questionnaires themselves, distributed to the priest-in-charge and musical director (organist) at almost half the churches in a large diocese, have provided a composite picture firstly of respondents’ personal backgrounds and general attitudes, and secondly, respondents’ perceptions of the situation at their church, and of each other. The overall response rate to the questionnaires was over 74%. This, combined with the fact that the diocese has been shown to be a typical one, suggests that any conclusions drawn from the survey may be applied to the Church of England as a whole.

Perhaps the most depressing finding of my survey was that there appeared to be little common ground between clergy and musical directors. The clergy had little knowledge of, or ability in, music (the same can perhaps be said of some of the directors), whilst the directors’ knowledge of theology was very limited. Moreover, there seemed to be little desire to develop this common ground, with little interest in either church-related musical associations or discussion groups. Added to this, neither party placed much value on a formal qualification in church music. Especially noteworthy, however, was the dissatisfaction expressed by clergy at the quantity and/or quality of their music training at theological college. The extent to which this perceived inadequacy is causing major problems in parish-church music is unclear. However, a full survey of the music training programmes of theological colleges would seem to be a worthwhile future project. Indeed, reference to no more than the present data and Crockford’s(1) would enable a comparison of levels of satisfaction between different colleges to be compiled.

At the time of the survey, alarmingly little time and money were being spent on developing the churches’ musical resources. For example, a typical annual music budget per member of the electoral roll was less than 20 pence. In over a third of the churches the total time spent per year in discussion between the priest-in-charge and the musical director was an hour or less (responses elsewhere in the questionnaires provided additional evidence of the two parties’ failure to communicate with each other). At only one church in three was the musical director a member of the PCC; at only one in four churches was there a working group for worship, and at only one in ten a working group for music. Also somewhat alarming was the fact that at only one church in six was there more than one suitable candidate when the present musical director was appointed. However, there is hope that the seeds sown in ‘National Learn the Organ Year’ will in due course yield the required harvest.

The shock waves of the ‘hymn explosion’ have reached many churches, with Hymns Ancient and Modern New Standard, The New English Hymnal and many other compilations taking their places in the pews. Psalms, on the other hand, are not widely sung in today’s parish churches.

Apart from all-male choirs (where numbers are declining, as are the numbers of boys in all choirs), membership of choirs seems to have been maintained in the most recent three-year period. This says much for the choirs’ forbearance, as S.S. Wesley’s Lead me, Lord was the anthem most commonly cited.

Both the clergy and the musical directors seemed to agree that an interest in serious music was something of an impediment to a worshipper in many of today’s services. If true, and I believe it is, this is a serious matter. Admittedly thirty years ago, the Church of England may have had too much of a middle-class approach to its worship and music. Now the musical pendulum seems in danger of swinging too far in the opposite direction. Music should be an aid to worship, not an impediment to it, and every effort must be made for this to apply to all. It is, however, a fact of life that people’s musical tastes differ (even BBC Radios 1, 2 and 3 can barely cover the spectrum), and finding a solution to this in the church environment is not easy:

The relationship between music, Christian worship and culture is very complex. . . . I suspect it is something with which we shall always be struggling, because what is culturally meaningful and acceptable to one person is anathema to another.(2)

The comment of a former Poet Laureate is no less relevant eighty years later:

It seems to me that the clergy are responsible. If they say that the hymns (words and music) which keep me away from the church door draw others thither and excite useful religious emotions . . . all I can urge is that they should have at least one service a week where people like myself can attend without being moved to laughter.(3)

Finding the right balance for a particular church between traditional and non-traditional music is a very sensitive matter, requiring considerable discussion between the priest and musical director, and preferably other parties as well.

One Incumbent stressed the importance of treating all styles of music seriously, so that modern choruses are sung well and not treated lightheartedly. In this way he had found new material was acceptable to most people.(4)

By a strange coincidence, two somewhat similar projects, namely my own and that of the Archbishops’ Commission, were independently initiated within two years of each other. I respect and at the same time regret the Commission’s decision that, for reasons of confidentiality, the two projects had to remain independent of one another.

Both surveys do, however, agree that parish church music is not in a particularly healthy state. However, despite this gloom there are one or two rays of hope. Firstly, the unusually high response rate from both the clergy and musical directors to my questionnaires implies a measure of concern. This can perhaps be seen as encouraging in the longer term: a problem cannot be resolved until it is perceived to be a problem. Secondly, I have suggested in Chapter 7 ways of predicting how ‘successful’ a musical director will be in a particular church with a given priest. This will perhaps encourage priests to think more deeply when appointing a new musical director. In fact, one of the priests taking part in the survey reported that he had found the questionnaire most helpful when interviewing applicants. Clergy and musical directors may even be persuaded that it would be in the best interests of both parties to spend more time in discussion with one another. The absence of adequate discussion was a factor common to all three of the case studies. However, the work so far undertaken on matching clergy and musical directors is only a first step, and many more interesting correlations undoubtedly lie beneath the surface of the data, merely waiting to be trawled.

In response to a report of my project(5), I received a poem(6) which provides a fitting epilogue. Not only does the poem confirm at least two of my findings, but it also implies the need for a further project, namely a survey of congregational tastes in church music.

The Parson and the Organist

The Parson and the Organist
  Were walking side by side,
Said the Parson to the Organist,
  ‘Your tunes I can’t abide’.

‘I’m sorry’, said the latter,
  ‘That our tastes should disagree,
But I really must say frankly
  That your sermons don’t touch me.’

And so they fell discussing
  From their different points of view,
The pulpit and the organ-loft,
  But quite forgot the pew.

Till up came a churchwarden,
  Who was passing by that way,
And hearing the discussion
  He just thought he’d have his say.

‘Look here,’ said he, ‘my brothers,
  You both are in the wrong!
One shows the way to heaven
  And the other leads the song.

‘Let each to his vocation
  His best endeavours bring,
For when we get to Heaven
  We must all know how to sing.’

This ended the discussion,
  For they felt that he was right,
So the Parson and the Organist
  Shook hands and said ‘Good-night.’

To this I can only add ‘Amen’.

1. Crockford’s Clerical Directory (89th edn), (Church House Publishing, London, 1985).

2. Alan Reeve, ‘One Man’s Meat’ in Christian Music (Summer 1990), p. 18.

3. R. Bridges, ‘About hymns’ in Church Music Society Occasional Papers, 2, (1911); quoted by Nicholas Temperley, The Music of the English Church (CUP, Cambridge, 1979), p. 321.

4. A Joyful Noise (Resource Paper 84:7) (Administry, St. Albans, 1984), p.3.

5. ‘Role Conflict’ in Church Times, 6461 (12 December 1986), p. 8.

6. This poem by H. Ford Benson is believed to have appeared in a Baptist publication c. 1920. It is a pastiche of a poem by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass.

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© R L. D. Rees 1993, 2000