When the Church Organ Speaks in Tongues

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I have often quoted Chesterton when he said that anything worth doing was worth doing badly. There are some exceptions to this and church organ music is one of them. Done well, organ music is glorious. Done poorly (and there are many avenues for that) it is an affront to both God and man.

In this discussion, one of the things that Reformed types have to answer for is the stance taken by their theological ancestors. Does openness to organ music (even if done right) leave us open to the charge that we are sidling away from our staunch Reformed commitments? The answer to that question is “possibly, depending,” and “not necessarily.”

However there is a good reason for the question, but like so many other issues coming out of the Reformation, there is a lot of contextual information missing.

First, when we talk about organs and the Reformation, we have to realize that in the medieval period, most churches did not have organs at all. And those which did have them did not have the vast array of pipes that we think about when someone says “church organ.” The organs were small instruments. When Zwingli had the organ taken out of the church and put in his house, he was not doing something outlandish.

Prior to the Reformation, the congregation’s role was overwhelmingly that of spectator. All the action was down front, done by the trained professionals. The mass was said there, the singing was done there, and the organ (if there was one) was to accompany the trained choir. The congregation just watched. The logic of the Reformation was to bring the laity into the worship of God. They were brought into the government of the church (ruling elders), they were brought to Table much more frequently, and they were brought into the music of the church. The first congregational singing happened spontaneously on Christmas day in the church at Basel, much to everyone’s surprise.

Incidentally, but not to get sidetracked, it is worth noting that much of modern evangelicalism is drifting back to this spectator/trained professional divide in its public worship. The congregation sits in seats, and those who rehearsed the program perform it for them.

Our modern conception of church organ was a Reformation development, largely among the Lutherans and some of the Reformed in the Netherlands. There was general Reformed opposition to this musical development among the Lutherans, about which more in a minute. But the debate, to the extent that it existed, was how best to involve the congregation musically — it was not over whether to involve the congregation musically.

In 1586, Theodore Beza met in a colloquium with a Lutheran named Jacob Andreae in which they debated and discussed these things — and there was a great deal of agreement in principle. Beza maintained that the use of an organ was adiaphora (and Andreae agreed), meaning that if it were done in a particular way, it could be fine. His central practical objection was that when the music gets too complicated, too overwhelming, and too intense, the text is subordinated and “the common people do not understand.” They can be blown over, but they are not edified. When the music is too glorious and overwhelming, and the text is in untranslated Latin, the mind cannot say amen. And when the mind cannot say amen, the apostle Paul forbids it, whatever it is, and however beautiful it is. In short, the problem comes when the organ is speaking in tongues.

In short, in reading up on this, I found that my Reformed ancestors had exactly the same concerns that I have had about church organs for years. What you want is something that enhances congregational singing and understanding. Everything musical in worship should build toward a thundering congregational amen.

So back to our views of church organs. When you talk to Christians who have had bad experiences with church organs (which you can identify by them going white in the face and by how their left eye starts to twitch) it will generally divide into one of two problems — that of inadequate expertise and that of inordinate expertise.

In the first category, you are dealing with dear Mrs. Schwartz, widow of the founding pastor of the church, and volunteer extraordaire, the sweetest lady ever, and one whom everybody in the church would rather die than offend, but who butchers the music like Tammerlane on a rampage. The second category is that of an organist with three PhDs, in organs, music history, and choral directing respectively, and who cannot be bothered with the plebes in the pews, those who have ears of musical appreciation that have not been washed behind. He is the guy who, after the fourth verse is completed, and before the fifth verse begins, goes off on a tear that makes the Fourth of July display in Washington, D.C. look like a toddler’s safety sparkler. In both cases, the people are not carried in their singing, but rather buried. In one case they are buried by incompetence, and in the other by competence, but in both cases they would have been better off had they not come.

The latter was Beza’s concern, and it should remain ours. And it is only safe to think about a church organ if we maximize Beza’s concern. There are good reasons for it.

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