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  • Mike and Helen

Organ Failure

Last night we watched a BBC documentary called Organ Stops. It told the story of Martin Renshaw and the sort of organs ­you play if you are very musical and can do ten things at once with hands and feet. Renshaw is an organ builder with a passion for the ‘king of instruments’. He travels the country looking at organs falling into states of disrepair because they are located in churches where the congregation has dwindled to virtually nothing. The disused churches are often being demolished to make way for a housing development or perhaps converted into fitness centres.

Renshaw judges whether the organs are salvageable and worth saving. He scours the internet to see if he can match a neglected organ with a thriving church elsewhere which is seeking such an instrument and has the resources to buy and instal it. He clearly experiences pain when he sees any of these finely-wrought instruments consigned to the skip, as many are. When he can, he exports organs in good condition to France where apparently there is renewed interest in organs and seemingly less well-developed tradition of organ building.

The programme featured the story of a Methodist church in County Durham which had been ‘sold for development’ but had a fine organ. Its organist for decades had been Blanche Beer, now an active 95 year-old woman who had been playing the organ for the church for 83 years and came in to put it through its paces for Renshaw. Blanche, of course was devastated to lose ‘her’ organ but glad to think of the possibility of it finding a new home.

After a good deal of searching and negotiating, Renshaw did find a new home for it - a Seventh-day Adventist church (as it happened!) in Clapton in East London with a thriving Nigerian/Afro-Caribbean congregation. Their church building looked as if it had once been an Anglican church and it had the acoustics to make the best of the organ. Renshaw directed the whole operation of dismantling the instrument, transporting it and finally installing it several hundred miles away but a number of people from the congregation helped him with the heavy work. The congregation had clearly sacrificed to finance the whole venture.

After about three months of work installing the organ, Renshaw attended the first recital, though it was still a number of pipes short of the total 900 which would complete the installation. His pride, joy and passion was evident as he heard the instrument come alive again in a place which is not just a place of worship but also a community centre. Most notably, it features a music school which gives children of the area the opportunity to develop their musical gifts. The school’s director had a passion for fine music which matched that of the organ-builder.

Amongst the dross of much of the Christmas TV listings, this programme lifted our spirits. There was no indication that Renshaw was a man of faith. But, like Blanche, he had faith in the power of the organ and the beauty of its music. This particular organ had once been the focal point of a Methodist church where Wesleyan hymns would have had pride of place. Blanche knew the church as the centre of her small world. ‘It was the centre all the important things in life,’ she said. Martin Renshaw seemed confident that, in a different group in Clapton, the organ could once again be at the centre of the community.

If the church has lost its role as the place where the efforts and passions of the community are focused, something needs to take its place. Building organs as a means of community is not for everyone! But if our society in the West is not to dissolve into a kind of lonely individualism, we all need to build and participate in something that is bigger than ourselves, if only a little bigger. Even though fashions, faiths and traditions change, there is often something valuable to be rescued from the skip of history around which to build community in whatever form. We’re grateful for our small blog community – and want to wish every member of it a Happy New Year!

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