So why does a poor East London church need a pipe organ, anyway?

At St Andrew’s Leytonstone we’re hosting a hymnathon this weekend, to raise money for the repair of our pipe organ. Fundraising is going well, but there have been some questions. In this time of austerity, unemployment and recession, what are we doing raising money to pay for the repair of an instrument a century old? Can’t we just get an electric organ, and spend the money on more useful things, like feeding the hungry, or setting up shelters for the homeless?

This isn’t just any pipe organ. When the decision was taken in 1913 to extend the existing organ, which had been brought in from St. Jude’s Church Whitechapel in 1889, no expense was spared. The former organ was essentially rebuilt, to a very high specification. This was a first-class instrument, and fully restored it will be again. Far from being a financial burden on the church, the organ has the potential to be a great asset. In time, the income from concerts and recordings could be substantial. That income won’t go to waste, whether we donate it to Christian Aid or spend it closer to home, but we won’t have it without an organ in full working order.

The parishioners who put the money up for the expansion of the pipe organ, and those who have contributed since, did so in good faith that its music would continue to be part of the musical tradition at St Andrew’s. Brass plates on the case tell of loved ones, good and faithful servants of the parish. Some of these are war dead for whom no other memorial now exists. So far, the organ has indeed served as an active memorial to those people, and to allow it to be neglected and ruined as “non-essential” would be a desecration of that memorial. It isn’t just a memorial to the dead, though: it is part of a living tradition of worship at St Andrew’s. St Augustine said “He who sings, prays twice” — and the organ is the main support of the singing in our services. We could sing without it, just as we could worship without the beautiful stained glass windows (many of which are just as historic as the organ). Yes, there are churches without organs or pretty windows, and I’m not saying for a moment that it’s impossible to get “church” right without them. But the organ we have is an integral part of our particular identity as St Andrew’s Leytonstone, and a mainstay of our worship. That worship, in turn, refreshes and prepares us for the work we do as individuals and as a church community: unsurprisingly, this does include feeding the hungry and giving shelter to those who are homeless.

Financial and spiritual support for work in the community are not the only purposes of a pipe organ: we can also use it more directly for that work. Young composers, whether of church music or of genres that I can’t even name, could benefit hugely from working with an instrument of this calibre. I understand that at one time there were links with various local schools — but as the organ failed, so did the connections. It will be impossible to get these started again with a run-of-the-mill electric piano, not well suited to the space. I have visions of projects with schools and community associations, collaborations with local artists, using the organ as a basis for the musical education of an entire neighbourhood. We could have much more extensive choral programmes; we could run a summer choir week for local kids. The organ itself, rather than the money it might someday attract or the effect it has on our congregation, could play an important part in our service of the wider community.

Nobody can eat a pipe organ, and to spend resources on it instead of on caring for the neediest in our community would be wrong. But that’s a false dichotomy: in making this investment in our past and our future, we actually enable that care on many levels. Besides which, I’ve heard, somewhere, that we cannot live on bread alone.

You can donate to the Organ Appeal by downloading a sponsorship form to send in, or sponsor me at my JustGiving page.

4 thoughts on “So why does a poor East London church need a pipe organ, anyway?

  1. My mother, a trained organist for over sixty years until she lost her sight, would have applauded your thoughts. Several times she argued and persuaded for the retention and restoration of a pipe organ in chapels or churches whose plans were tending towards the destruction of the organ in place of something cheaper. Unfortunately she didn’t often succeed and belatedly the congregations realised that the power, grandeur and sensitivity of a pipe organ played by a skilled organist cannot be matched by an electric keyboard. Churches argued that the electric organ could be played by someone without training, a piano player, perhaps, in the apparent decline of young people interested in learning to play the organ. This demeans the role and professionalism of the organist. She or he isn’t just someone who plays the background tunes for people to sing to, she or he is a vital element in creating an appropriate atmosphere for a service, someone who is a vital support to the minister. Mum was an avid fan of Jonathan Scott and hoped that he and his concerts would be part of a revival in respect for and love of of pipe organs.

  2. I’m 69, was been a school musician for about 40 years, a church musician for 60, if you count being a choirboy and a student. I’m just “retiring” from a church job in New Jersey that I’ve held for thirty years and looking around for substitute, interim, or temporary work doing the same. I was at my job when a lovely small instrument was built for the parish in 1984, and have known it, inside and out, intimately. Before that, I shepherded two smaller 19th century organs. I appreciate your crusade so much. Preservation is crucially important in these increasingly digital times. In most buildings a small to medium sized “real” instrument serves better than 3 or 4 manuals of electronic stuff. Best of luck.

  3. Pingback: Liturgical Hair

Comments are closed.