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Can Lay Worship Leaders and Organists Make Music Together?

The relationship between the clergy and the organist is laid down in canon law:

B 20 Of the musicians and music of the Church
1. … the functions of appointing… and of terminating the appointment of any organist, choirmaster or director of music, shall be exercisable by the minister with the agreement of the parochial church council…
2. Where there is an organist, choirmaster or director of music the minister shall pay due heed to his advice and assistance in the choosing of chants, hymns, anthems, and other settings, and in the ordering of the music of the church; but at all times the final responsibility and decision in these matters rests with the minister.
3. It is the duty of the minister to ensure that only such chants, hymns, anthems, and other settings are chosen as are appropriate, both the words and the music, to the solemn act of worship and prayer in the House of God as well as to the congregation assembled for that purpose….

In ‘Weary and Ill At Ease‘, Robin L D Rees wrote in 2001:

In recent years, many have written of a breakdown in relations between clergy and organists. While still organist at Exeter Cathedral, Lionel Dakers [later director of the Royal School of Church Music] 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.

Ruth Gledhill wrote in The Times on 22 September 2005:

Too many clergy use organists as “human jukeboxes”, demand impossible working hours and refuse to bow to their superior musical knowledge…Now two leading organists have produced a guide…Robert Leach… has written the book with Barry Williams…[they] estimate that two thirds of the country’s organists refuse work in churches because of problems relating to the clergy…

The book, Everything Else an Organist Should Know, gives advice on what to do when relations break down with the vicar…

And they urge organists to be realistic about the abilities of their choirs. “Four old ladies, three children and a grumpy old man cannot sing the Hallelujah Chorus.”

At the same time, members of both professions normally enjoy being centre-stage and have a flair for performance — and in churches, as in any other theatre, there can generally be only one star.

“The minister must not treat the organist as a human jukebox, and the organist must recognise that the minister has final authority in matters of worship,” Mr Leach says.

In our illustration, St Cecilia looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but she also looks as if she were taking her instructions direct from the Almighty: if it takes a brave incumbent to intervene in this cosy conversation, for a lay worship leader to do so is brinkmanship of a very high order.

The first organist I encountered on becoming a Lay Worship Leader was called, shall we say, ‘Drisella’. (The alias is necessary to protect the -possibly litigious- guilty). She had seen off many priests in her time, and presumably anticipated I would present no problem. A month in advance, I emailed Drisella (very politely) with my choice of hymns for the service I was due to take. The reply was instant, and deadly. She would make her choice, based on the theme and hymns suggested in the Royal School of Church Music’s ‘Sunday by Sunday’ booklet.

You will immediately detect the flaw in this arrangement: any theme that I might glean from the lectionary readings might or might not coincide with the RSCM’s interpretation. Although the theme is occasionally obvious, it often isn’t, and there is the added difficulty that, as a lay worship leader, I did not want to fall into the heffalump trap of expounding on doctrine. I appealed to the priest-in-charge, who saw my point and agreed to back me. His sole condition was that it would fall to me, not him, so to inform Drisella. I took a deep breath, and (perhaps rashly) telephoned her. The reaction was electrifying, if ungrammatical:

‘You’re trying to get one over on me with the vicar!’

She then refused to play at any service taken by me. Luckily, at that point my dear husband (and churchwarden) intervened. Although the last time he had played the organ had been in Dacca Cathedral in 1971, he would fill the gap. And so he did, for the next three years, the lovely man. At that point, a new priest-in-charge arrived: to the relief of all, Drisella did not survive the initial conversation about their future relationship.

We moved to a rota system, whereby a series of local organists took on, say, ‘the third Sunday of the month’. There was no ‘Prima Donna’, only a foursome who took it in turns to play in various benefices in the deanery. All that was needed was a little good will, with no jockeying for position. Harmony was restored. All for the greater glory of God. Amen.

1. The main illustration is ‘Organist und mesner’ by an anonymous Italian painter, 18th c via wikimedia. ‘Mesner’ = sacristan. The two seem to be to be eyeing each other distinctly warily.
2. The second illustration is ‘Saint Cecilia’ by Simon Vouet c. 1626 via wikimedia.
3. You can read Ruth Gledhill’s story in full if you click the hyperlink, as it was written before the pay wall.
4. Kathryn Rose, of the Artsy Honker blog, has been invited to post with her reactions at The Organist’s View.

9 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

I am not sure if there is within the 'Artiste' some form of temperament, which invokes a sense of superiority which puts them into difficulties when dealing with the 'common man or woman' whether clergy or lay.

I know that for some Organists the feeling is that you are treading on egg shells and that they need to be persuaded firmly that your choice of music or hymn, while it might not accord with their taste, is actually appropriate for the service or setting.

In our benefice, we have several excellent organists who play whatever is needed. However, one particular couple will only play at one church and always insist in choosing the hymns for the services there. If they are told that something different is needed, they will be most reasonable, but will find a reason not to be available. As they are a couple, it can cause difficulties. What we have noted is that when we bring in an alternative to that church, the Organ sounds alive and vibrant, when they play is seems sheer drudgery.

Time for change it seems, but we need to find a permanent alternative first. Oh Dear!

21 June 2011 06:13
Lay Anglicana said...

This was my first shock as lay worship leader: I had foolishly thought the greatest difficulty would be managing to lead the service – I had not anticipated that relations with the organist would be the most nerve-making aspect!
Drisella was indeed a prima donna – the vicar let her choose the hymns (which often bore no relation to his sermon) rather then confront her. She refused to take communion from the (female) NSM.
But, as you have found, she was in a powerful position as organists are rarer than hens' teeth (volunteers from the congregation are liable to be, as was my husband, pianists who can make a fist of it rather than trained organists). Some, it seems, cannot resist the temptation to wield their power!

21 June 2011 06:24
Alan Crawley said...

I have been told this by a Director of Music! (Don't blame me, blame them… :))
What is the difference between and organist and a terrorist…
You can negotiate with a terrorist!

21 June 2011 07:20
Lay Anglicana said...

Oh yes, Alan, and it is part of the terrorism to tell you the story – talk about a warning shot across your bows!

21 June 2011 07:54
Kathryn Rose said...


The difference between a minister and a terrorist, of course, is that the terrorist knows what s/he is doing…

I think the two jokes taken together say a lot about the worst cases but very little about the best!

21 June 2011 09:39
Lay Anglicana said...

Kathryn Rose's comments at 10.33 and 10.37 have been transferred to a new blog post, The Organist's View, as it seemed only fair to offer to the musicians whom we depend on – and to whom we owe some of our most sublime moments in church – the opportunity to reply fully to the points which I have made here. Thank-you, Kathryn Rose.

21 June 2011 20:55
UKViewer said...

I was just thinking through a reply to Kathryn as well?

21 June 2011 21:00
Lay Anglicana said...

Hi, UKViewer – I'm sure she'll be delighted – it's the next post up. Hyperlinks don't seem to work in comments, but if you go to main, it should take you there?

21 June 2011 21:04
Kathryn Rose said...


I am not sure if there is within the 'Artiste' some form of temperament, which invokes a sense of superiority which puts them into difficulties when dealing with the 'common man or woman' whether clergy or lay.

I don't think that's usually the case, though of course there are stuck-up prima donnas. One thing that I think does happen more often is that musicians can be quite perfectionist about their own work. This comes from spending hours every day practising; we have to learn to be our own critics, and hold ourselves to very high standards, for the sake of a good performance. On the day it can still go wrong and the only way to prevent that is to be obsessive about preparation. Sometimes dealing with people who have more flexible standards, who aren't willing to put that kind of work in, or who on the surface seem not to care about the smaller details can be very frustrating for someone who will play single line of a hymn forty or fifty times to make sure it is right!

There are, of course, many organists who don't need to spend as much time practising as I do, but all of them have put in countless hours at the instrument in order to get to that point.

21 June 2011 22:42

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