by Eric McAfee
“Some churches demand a statement of faith and profession of creedal belief of any applicant. Other churches never even ask that question because they’re interested in finding a musician,” Michael Messina told me from near the chancel of Trinity Episcopal on the edge of Indianapolis’ Mapleton-Fall Creek neighborhood, where he is the Director of Music. But it isn’t always easy to articulate how a church and its organist relate to one another theologically…or how they don’t. This ambiguity makes any exploration of the church organists’ world that much more difficult to capture, but also that much more compelling. When the church first hired Messina, he “was asked a pretty non-threatening question nineteen years ago when I auditioned: ‘Tell us about your faith journey.’ That was it. There was no kind of litmus test.” Messina grew up in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, but he has long worked for the Episcopal Church, and he generally agrees with the spiritual expression. “One thing I love about the Episcopal Church is that we are not a people of common faith; we are a people of common prayer. . .So there is a tremendous breadth of experience and range of religiosity in the Episcopal Church, all the way from complete fundamentalists to some of the most famous Anglicans of the 20th century. . .Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who were both professed agnostics.”
The gardens and grounds outside Trinity Episcopal Church. (Source: American Dirt)
Do some denominations place music talent ahead of theological fidelity when hiring organists? By now, the answer should be obvious. While the initial goal of this article was simply to explore the culture of classical organists for an Indianapolis arts magazine, a disproportionate number of my interviewees have affiliations with Episcopal Church of the USA. Simply put, the Episcopalians value their pipe organs. A few other denominations tend to champion an “organ culture”: among them, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Church. Collectively they form what scholar William Hutchison ostensibly branded “The Seven Sisters of American Protestantism.”
But the fact remains that these churches must work overtime to affirm the organ’s role in worship—or even its role in contemporary music. “Weddings. Sunday morning. Funerals,” acknowledged Frank Boles, organist and director of music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on the far north side of Indianapolis. “That’s where we’re getting the majority of people hearing the organ. Concerts are down here”–holding his hand close to the ground–“and it’s usually the lowest crowd, and that’s where your challenge is. What kind of programming—making it as interesting as possible. Some people use more gimmicks.” What about getting the organ out to the public through a more relaxed venue? I didn’t need to ask Boles if the pipe organ is primarily tethered to the church. As the largest instrument in the Western musical tradition, there’s no way around it. In fact, the most dedicated churches may even modify their church to accommodate the instrument, which is precisely what happened at St. Paul’s in 2007. Under Boles’ guidance, a team of architects and engineers re-imagined the sanctuary, replacing a muffled old Möller organ whose “failure was imminent” with a brand new commission from the Casavant Frères (opus number 3856 for the Canadian company).
The four-manual console that controls seven divisions. All parts of the console were hand made at the Casavant Shop. The console is movable anywhere on the chancel floor through a fiber optic cable. (Source: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, www.stpaulsindy.org)
The chancel view of the suspended cross, full organ case , choir, high altar with reredos. (Source: St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, www.stpaulsindy.org)
It should also come as no surprise that Trinity and St. Paul’s Episcopal churches seem to be part of a dying breed. Does the average American even associate a church service with a pipe organ? While a handful of major Christian denominations keep their traditions alive through regular maintenance and the hiring of skilled organists—the ECUSA perhaps the most steadfast among them—many others have downgraded to the cheaper, more movable (but also less durable) electronic organ, or have divested their churches of the instrument altogether. To some extent, the shift in musical traditions relates to the fact that the tapestry of American religious life is becoming more variegated, like the nation itself. Theological differences routinely foster schisms, resulting in a precipitous growth in the number of Christian denominations, from an estimated 1,600 in 1900, to 18,800 in 1970, then to 44,000 in 2013, according to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity. Concurrent with this intensifying pluralism is that most new denominations exclude the pipe organ. The result? An increasing difficulty for talented organists to find stable work—or for organ-based churches to find a musician. Thus, few expect their organists to adhere to denominational creeds. They can’t be choosy.
David Sims, until recently an organist at a Disciples of Christ church in Columbus, Indiana, admits that stereotypes of staid old Mainline Protestant Churches—the aforementioned “Seven Sisters”—guarding their pipe organs are largely true. Smaller churches formed at the dawn of the Baby Boom are replacing their already deteriorated organs with digital ones—if at all—because “they aren’t in the market for the highest quality craftsmanship organ. The churches that are buying these sort of artisanal organs. . .those are the really affluent churches. Absolutely [Mainline]. Methodist, American Baptist.” And while some of the Mainlines offer rock, acoustic, or blended services, most still keep an organ on hand. John Webb, an organist at St. Timothy’s Episcopal on Indy’s South Side until recently, singled out one smaller Mainline church that he feels surpasses the ECUSA in its commitment to traditional hymnody. The Moravian Church has “hymns that are still being written by members. During the service, you’ll probably sing about eight to ten. They have services of nothing but hymns—the Singstunde. . .Hymns is a part of the culture; it always has been. . .I have one of the older hymnals of the Moravian Church in America which is [from] 1820-something, and there’s over 1500 or so hymns.” As a member of the Board of Trustees for the Moravian Music Foundation, Webb recognized that the public knows very little about it because it is so small, with only about 40,000 members across the US and Canada. The Indianapolis locations closed years ago. “My [Moravian] church in Charlotte—very small. . .while they couldn’t afford a lot of things, they made room for their organ,” Webb said.
But the churches that valiantly preserve their organ and hymn traditions have only earned a Pyrrhic victory: nearly all are plummeting in membership. Not one of the “Seven Sisters” is growing. Boles recognizes that the Mainline churches sounded the warning bells: “The 90s argument. . . you could go over to this church which was just always a band. You have that either/or.” Some Episcopalians have postulated that organs might even be scaring their parishioners away. Boles felt his church will prevail. “Look which tradition has lasted the longest. . .It doesn’t mean that the organ has to be archaic; it just has to change its paradigm. I think amplified band music is a fad, because we are in a technological age. You’re opening the whole thing about hymnals being on wide screens. . . Religion has a lot to do with community. The organ is a vehicle for that community.”
Outside St. Paul’s Episcopal, where the entire interior worship space was rotated 180° to accommodate a brand new organ in 2007. (Source: American Dirt)
But the numbers don’t lie. All of the aforementioned Mainline churches, broadly characterized by high median incomes and low birth rates, struggle with identity as their influence has diminished greatly since 1950, or even since 1970, when they comprised about one-third of the population. Now they’re below 20%. Mainline Protestants stare across the yawning divide toward their biggest counterpart, the Evangelical churches, characterized by youthfulness, high birth rates, a far more literal interpretation of Scripture…and a renunciation of liturgy—i.e., the organ and service music. The Evangelical churches typically offer drums, electric guitar, and bass each Sunday morning, in unadorned churches, presided over by male pastors wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Juxtaposing these generalizations with WASP stereotypes only reinforces the latter culture as stuffy, even exclusive. It doesn’t help that the Mainline churches routinely hire music directors with advanced degrees, while Evangelical churches often just pull members of the church—volunteers who usually lack academic musical training. Perhaps the praise band is a fad, but it’s also a reaction to authoritarianism and hierarchy that many Mainline churches guard as heritage—if they haven’t already started offering “contemporary” services to compete.
Not only is Sims confident the organ will retain its footing, he challenges the notion that the Evangelical approach is all that democratizing. “If the music is basically pop music with religious lyrics, it may make it more accessible in the sense that it’s like something that we hear all that time. But that also means that church music sounds just like mall music, which sounds just like car music. . .running music. It’s all the same thing,” he observed. “Whoever is hot on the charts this week is probably not next week, and church music goes through the same cycles. [I]t’s damaging to have all of your religious songs. . .attached to a medium that is disposable and temporary. What does it say about this message that we find to be eternal and to say, ‘Well, I can write a pop song about that’?”
Nonetheless, Boles, who has witnessed the Mainline implosion for a generation, acknowledged that organists’ inability to adapt aligns with their perceived elitism: “Organists have to be so careful because we come off that way; we are that way. We snub [praise bands] and we can’t. It’s got its place and its own acoustical style.” Sims resisted the charge that organs are highbrow simply because they’re elaborate, expensive, and require a skilled musician at the helm. “The whole point of an organ and why it was developed for Roman gladiator battles is because it’s loud or soft, one person can control it, and it can fill a stadium—or a church—with sound,” Sims observed. “We’re not used to singing along with that amplified sound. . .The people holding microphones. . .are performing for the congregations. So there’s a way in which the organ is more egalitarian than many contemporary praise bands. They’re designed to enable everybody from the first pew to the back pew to sing together, and they work with wind. . .just like our voices. For many praise bands. . .there’s a barrier they create between themselves and the world—amplifiers, a stage, the lights, and everything. That becomes very elitist to me.” Like any Biblical exegesis, the argument on which type of sacred music is appropriate depends large on the context built around it.
Virtually everyone I interviewed offered guarded optimism about the instrument’s long-term relevance. If the pipe organ recedes further, it won’t be because its biggest proponents raised the white flag. They’re working hard. While any successful freelance musician must display some entrepreneurial flair, Messina believes that organists have always had to be consummate multi-taskers: “Most musicians. . .perform their instrument, and then maybe they teach their instrument. We as church musicians also have to be knowledgeable in another field—namely, choral conducting. . . We end up doing full-time office work, directing ensembles, choral music.” Not one to put a romantic sheen on the profession, Messina asserts that “the craft of a church musician can be dangerously close to running an office, rather than being a musician in the sense that a symphony musician is.” Peter Rogahn, Precentor at Bethlehem Lutheran (ELCA), asserts that the mighty instrument fosters a spirit of collaboration among both musicians and the congregation—much more than a concert-oriented approach. “It’s kind of the common thing to say that to get young people through the doors for churches, you need to do the rock band thing. . .But one of the things that [young people] tell me is that. . .[Bethlehem Lutheran] actually feels like going to church, because we sing hymns,” he said. “We chant the Psalms together. It’s a very communal experience. Maybe what we’re experiencing is just a shift in the pendulum that will eventually make its way back.”
Eric McAfee is an urban planner in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania and an organist himself. He also maintains a blog, American Dirt, exploring issues of urban design and land use. This article is adapted from a much longer one at his blog which are linked below