When an email titled ‘Unwanted Organs’ arrived in my inbox my first thought was to upgrade my spam filters. But I’m glad I persisted, and eventually arrived at St Stephen’s Rosslyn Hill, Hampstead for a truly gripping day of talks based a round a topic whose relevance seemed to grow ever wider as the day progressed; namely the staggering rate at which the UK’s church buildings are being closed down, and the fate of their fabric, particularly the organs.
Of course there are many bodies who advocate the protection of old things, and we started in the civilised-seeming area of conservation agencies. John Ruskin, Pevsner and Prince Charles were soon invoked. But the on-the ground confusion which actually reigns soon became clear through many excellent representations from speakers with long experience in their churches or in professions such as architecture. We are a very long way off from having a national agency which can facilitate the re-use of organs, and decide which ones are worth saving. It was mentioned repeatedly that organists themselves ‘don’t care what’s under the bonnet’ and understandably avoid dodgy instruments, which may nevertheless be gems in hiding. And amongst the beauties of a church’s interior, the organ is the least likely bit to have official protection. Architects involved in conservation projects are usually not interested in organs (said an architect.)
Another vital strand of argument was provided by two local clergymen, both trained musicians. They reported that ‘any funds inevitably go to keeping a roof over your head’. Baptist Minister Ewan King explained that the 1901 Walker organ in his chapel in Heath Street had originally been installed because it was needed to support the singing of a 700-strong congregation. But when Ewan arrived at this new charge the number of attenders was nearer to seven people, so that this now hardly-needed organ seemed to have become merely ‘fetishistic’ , ‘a flash of majesty’ which ‘awakened nostalgia’. (He nevertheless continues to advocate for it strongly.)
If this situation concerns you (and it should, because some declining old churches or chapels near you are probably just a few years away from demolition) you could perhaps enrol in the British Institute of Organ Studies, a group of enthusiasts who keep a watchful and expert eye on the nation’s instruments. Many thanks to Martin Renshaw and colleagues for starting a vital discussion.