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An organist’s view on a crisis in church music

Young people are our future in the midst of COVID-19, says Stanley Godfrey.

Over the last ten years of my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to work in the music department of a small parish church in rural Lincolnshire. From my first days as a chorister in 2010, to taking up the organ a few years later, and now having become their Assistant Director of Music, it would be fair to say that the world of sacred music has become a fairly integral part of my life – until the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Before the pandemic, the longest gap I had ever gone without practicing on the organ was around three weeks (and this was around five years ago). Yet after playing my final service pre-lockdown on the 15th March, little did I know at the time that I would not play a service again until the start of August – a service with an array of Government-defined protocols and restrictions.

But though churches are now returning to the practice of worship in some capacity (whether that be wholly online, in-person, or a combination of both), for many this has exacerbated problems which have long existed within the world of liturgical music. With declining congregation numbers and a growing percentage of the population not professing any religious beliefs, many choirs are now struggling to fill their ranks with new singing talent, whether young or young-at-heart.

Whilst I am fortunate in my church work in Oxford that we have been largely unaffected by these issues, the same cannot be said for my local church back in Lincolnshire, where this is by no means a new issue. I was part of the last large intake of young choral scholars back in 2010 and, ten years on, I am the last of that intake to still be involved with any regularity.

Of course, this is not entirely the fault of the church or of the music department itself. We were all admitted at the age of around eight or nine and, as such, we are all now university students or graduates – put simply, we are now carving out our own lives and, for some of my fellow choral scholars, continued participation in the life of the church is not part of that path forward. That may be for a variety of reasons – not being in the local area; no longer being as ‘musically active’; not professing the same religious beliefs as 10-years ago – but it all comes back to the same bottom-line: the church has lost someone who, at the point of admission, was deemed musically-able to continue the musical traditions of a community which, in the case of my particular church, has existed for almost 900 years.

So, if we are to tackle these issues, what can be done? Much has been said by Directors of Music in recent years of attempting to diversify the musical content of services, so as to hopefully attract younger singers who might be put off by the largely ‘classical’ repertoire. In attempting this style of endeavour, a particular anecdote springs to mind from around five years ago, where the introduction of a more modern hymn book (aptly named ‘Hymns Old and New’) led to a rather elderly congregation being introduced to such wonderful and high-brow Gesamtkunstwerken as ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ – a piece whose name alone strikes fear into the deepest recesses of every organist’s heart. Needless to say, the hymn book was only in use for a few weeks before we reverted to the older tome.

But perhaps this experiment was indicative of the resilience of the church towards modernisation and reinvention. Even as a religious movement whose very origins came from (in simple terms) wanting to modernise part of the Catholic Church without the issues of papal supremacy, the Church of England and its members have routinely held back from any radical change until being forced to succumb to intense pressure and lobbying – whether that be on larger-scale issues, such as allowing women to be consecrated as bishops or allowing homosexual couples to be married by a priest in a church, to much smaller-scale issues, such as using a more modern hymn-book or deciding for which religious festivals it’s appropriate to light the chandelier.

So, if the church is to come back from this pandemic ‘stronger than ever’ (as seems to be the new mantra these days), perhaps it is time to truly reconsider how we as an institution connect with young people and with our congregations. After all, as has been said on many occasions, even if our congregations are our present, young people are our future.

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