As a church musician, I support Save The Parish because STP seeks to preserve our church building heritage and to keep these buildings, and their contents, in the use for which they were built. This is not unrealistic nostalgia, but a recognition that our cultural heritage remains important – in fact in an uncertain world has recently become even more important – to local communities.

It should also be asserted much more strongly that medieval and other historic buildings are not the property of the (recently-created) ‘diocese’ to dispose of, but belong to the communities – unless proof to the contrary is produced by the institutional Church. Please see Professor Nicholas Orme’s essay, also in this section, on the true ownership of church buildings.

The threat of the ‘Church Closers’ Charter’ GS2222 (a green paper proposed by the dioceses, to make it easier and quicker to sell church buildings and keep the proceeds) would work against organs as well as churches. Close churches and organs will be lost through neglect: these amazing pieces of engineering, art and craftsmanship left to moulder away or discarded. The communitarian cultural loss is very serious too, but attacks on our cultural heritage have been going on longer than the present threat, though part of the same ‘philistine’ agenda.

Our own country’s history illustrates what failing to focus on the vital importance of culture to communities has meant: civil wars, centuries of ignorance and crime. Now we see the same disregard, for what had been created to sustain human well-being, vividly illustrated in the war in Ukraine, with the shelling of people, their fine cities and their churches. As a musician, I find this appalling and sickening, the result of decades of letting ignorant and narrow fanaticism take over from a wide view of what religion ought to be about – namely, the well-being of people, not dogmatic doctrine. Jesus’ generous and humane attitudes need to be adopted by those in charge of the institutional Churches.

For more than fifteen years, I have been researching music in medieval churches of all kinds, starting with documents in the National Archives and British Library but more recently – thanks to three years of bursaries from the Society of Antiquaries – in nearly 1,000 churches all over England and Wales. On visiting these churches, I and my partner, Dr Vicki Harding, found an astonishing amount of evidence for the way in which ceremony was performed and of the physical infrastructures that exist or once existed, to support the rites of the church (which were almost always performed musically) and to contain the many and diverse artefacts needed for their services. Not to mention the spaces required for a considerable number of people to sing, carry candles of all sizes, ring bells of many kinds and carry thurifers with burning incense and distribute holy water, dig graves and see to the general upkeep of both chancel and the people’s part of the church, then called ‘the [body of] the church’, the English for ecclesia.

The responsibility for each part of the church was set out in legal ordinances around the start of the 13th century. The parishioners’ duties were many; not only had they to maintain their part of the church building – its walls, floors, glass and roofs – but also supply and maintain the books used in the chancel and sanctuary. By the end of the 15th century, inventories show that these books, of all sizes, were so numerous (40 was not an unusual number) that it is hard to know where they were all kept. Many cupboards in walls must remain to be found and in many places substantial, often two-storey, sacristies to the north side of the chancels are now missing, leaving traces that are sometimes hard to find apart from a tell-tale north doorway, now blocked.

Of these required books, more than two-thirds were to be ‘noted’, that is, with music. Some were for use at the altars, some in the chancel by the singers and some were for the use of priests when taking services in the body of the church or at the bedside of sick or dying people. The people’s responsibilities also included supplying and maintaining the many sets of vestments their priests would need for mass and other offices as well as altar furniture and equipment; music books and vestments were among the most costly of the moveable items a church ever purchased.

The infrastructure built and maintained for music can often still be seen, especially in the size of unaltered medieval chancels, some of which are almost as long as the ecclesia, and their numerous quire-stalls. When organs came into parish churches, mostly from the middle of the 14th century onwards, pressure on space meant that there were two kinds: one fixed on a gallery on the north side of the quire and the other (when there was floor-space and a number of side chapels, or ‘low altars’, to serve) a moveable organ called in English a ‘portatyff’.

This latter was not the organ shown in 19th-century glass carried by St Cecilia – that was an out-door or domestic instrument – but could be quite a substantial organ; two relics of these were found in recent decades in Suffolk and have been reconstructed. The off-floor fixed gallery organs had special arrangements made for their ample wind supply and this was often achieved by placing the bellows and their operator(s) in the upper floor of the sacristy, which was also often used as a secure treasury. It seems that organs would have initially have been supplied by the rectors as part of their responsibility for the chancel’s fixed equipment, but, later on, the accounts of the Wardens of the Church show that the people took on the cost of their maintenance and eventually replacement too, as well as paying for them to be tuned and played.

So what was the point of all this music and its expense? By the later 14th century, many parish churches were copying as best they could the examples of larger town churches and cathedrals and rural colleges. They re-created as best they could a self-sustaining system that trained boys from the age of six to sing, to bring them through the grades in the stalls (having started ‘on the first form’) to become accomplished musicians who performed music whose increasing elaboration mirrored the ever more complex rites at altars and the daily round of offices in chancels.

These musicians would go on to become organ players, priests and eventually deans and bishops – the bishop of Salisbury (source of the most complex rite of all) was the top liturgical singer in the kingdom – so that music permeated the Church in England at all levels. The advantage of this for all communities was that by training in its disciplines, music, like Latin an international language, became the passport for anyone to do business and exchange culture all over NW Europe. And they did … and British expertise in composing and performing was acknowledged as pre-eminent. Prelates trained this way founded schools as feeder institutions to university and other colleges, giving the universal benefits of the system another rachet upwards.

Communities found their children able to become professionals in their lay or ordained clerical fields instead of in their furrows; boys of course, but girls who postulated for nunneries were also expected to have a good knowledge of music as well as reading skills. By the 15th century, there was a free grammar school for every 8000 of the population, it has been calculated, and these schools were part of the stepping-stone progression of an all-round education for many.

All this came crashing down when all but a tiny handful of music and other Latin books were taken in and burnt in 1548-9, not long after schools, almshouses and local colleges had been deprived of their income and destroyed. Then Britain entered a cultural dark age, only beginning to recover (temporarily, as it now seems) from the 1840s onwards.

Those who now assert the ‘diocese’ as the basic unit of the Church seem to have forgotten the longstanding communitarian basis of parishes and their self-governing churches. Those, and there are many in the hierarchy of all denominations, who do not know their history are, in the well-worn but true saying: ‘condemned to repeat it’.

We risk being, as with climate change, beyond the ‘tipping point’ of this new cycle of repetition, into a further age of cultural obscurity. Now, only drastic action, from the ‘bottom’ upwards, is likely to halt the cultural damage which is caused by undermining the parish. This comes at a time when we need our local communities, and the sustaining beauty of architecture and music, as much if not more than ever.

Martin Renshaw was trained by the Church of England as a singer in two cathedrals as well as in grammar and at a cathedral College; he has sung and made and restored organs for 55 years, and is now part of a team putting together a new CIO Trust ‘Pipe Up for Pipe Organs’ as a pro-active and helpful charity to protect organs and seeking wherever possible to bring them back into use and to the consciousness of the general public.

Needless to say, this new Trust will work very closely with Save The Parish as well as others in the ecclesiastical conservation field. However, the views expressed in this essay are his personal ones and not to be ascribed to the new Trust. A highly-illustrated and well-reviewed 132-page book which is a résumé of his medieval research, entitled ‘ABC of a Medieval Church’ , is now in its second edition and may be ordered for £10, post included, from him via renshaw.martin45@gmail.com

Categories: Essays

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