Selling the Family Silver

The second of three church councils have passed, and so far my forecast that I will be ‘very tired’ is holding true.  Not that the meeting carried on badly, but it still is stressful wading through issues.  Up for debate was our church’s organ fund.  I don’t know anything about organs, but from what I am told, my church has one of the finest examples, over 100 years old.  We have also been blessed with very talented organists.  Of course, like many churches, we struggle to maintain the building and church assessments (like apportionments in the UMC) and money set aside for future restoration of the organ has dwindled over time.

Debate since I arrived has focused on what to do with the organ fund now.  Money for a full restoration is likely impossible given the running costs of the church and the decreasing membership. My church have a proud history of ‘high Methodist’ worship in which the beauty of the organ has been a fixture for many long-time church go-ers.  Like many who have spent years in church, organs and worship have been synonymous, almost to the point that we cannot imagine one without the other.

Then of course there are the changes that have occurred over the last decades, as more and more have stopped coming to church.  Those who no longer come likely have no contact with the worship styles that influence the organ-based worship and music of many churches. Ways of worshipping have remained fairly untouched by any outside influences and those who have continued in this stream have assumed that anyone coming to the church will simply accept that this is the normal way to worship. Why people are not coming is not solely down to worship styles. Still, fewer and fewer simply walk through our doors, leaving Sunday mornings filled with other activities. Few can connect with organ-based, Methodist worship, and those that do appreciate a ‘higher’ worship likely find their ways into the higher-Anglican worship church (a church much like the one nearly a half-mile down the road).

So, two sides have formed over the years:  1) those who want to maintain the organ fund in hopes that people will return and the full amount for maintenance and restoration can be realised; and 2) those who would prefer to return the organ fund into the general fund for other uses.  The other night, we voted to keep £16,000 in case the organ is beyond repair, using the money to install an electronic organ or other substitute.

It was a long debate, eliciting a comment that ‘we are selling the family silver’.  There’s a lot I would like to answer to that, but I also have to hear the challenge in that. In some ways, this person has a point. What are we giving up simply to maintain another part of church life?  I understand the desire to maintain a life of worship that has offered security and comfort for over 100 years. Are we simply throwing this away to prop up other areas of the church? The easy response is, ‘Well, we don’t have many other options.’ This is even at a practical level where the organ can no longer have the priority.  But, if we are ‘selling the family silver’, then we have simply made another maintenance decision over a mission decision – regardless of the rightness or wrongness.

And yet, as I heard that, I could not help thinking of Jesus’ parable of The Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13.45-46). The Kingdom of Heaven (God) – something worth so much that one would sell all he or she had to have it. This isn’t simply a dig at those for whom the organ is most important, but also to me as well. I have to ask the question of me and everyone I serve – are we willing to give up everything – even those things we count as most precious to us. Maybe the family silver is worth selling if it means getting the pearl of great price. But, are we looking for it among the other goods we might sift through.

At the end of the day, I have to conclude that we’re not selling the family silver (or even that churches have family silver as such).  But, this person’s comment is a reminder that we need to be sure of what we are doing before we cast off our beloved traditions.


3 thoughts on “Selling the Family Silver

  1. As an organist I am always interested in this type of conversation/ debate. One of the churches in our circuit have just gone through a very similar set of conversations and have eventually agreed to have their organ restored at what I believe to be a very large cost. While I accept it is their decision and that it has been done after much thought and discussion with as many members as possible consulted, I just wonder how this looks to people who may not understand all the arguments for or against and instead only see that many thousands of pounds are being spent when it has to be said there are alternative ways to achieve this at a much lower cost and realistically with no real loss to the quality of the music. The organ at one of our other churches is electronic and will give any real organ a good run for its money so to speak.
    I am happy that these are convesration we do not need to have at my home church.

  2. Coming from a circuit that has just pledged a good deal of money to restore an organ, and yet quibbeled over money ( substantialy less)for setting up and maintaining a web-site I often find myself asking which century we are in.

    Yes we need to make sure we do not cast of traditions lightly, and the organs were often cutting edge instruments in their day, we might be forgiven for asking what and where that cutting edge is now…

    Not an unusual debate I am sure and always emotional….

    May God have mercy upon us!

  3. Hi FP and Sally: I imagine that many churches are having these discussions. I get frustrated with how the conversations go. I don’t believe that organs are evil. But, I am wondering if across the board they have had their day. I see their place in some Anglican cathedrals and in some parish churches throughout England, but do we need them in all places? And the average age of organists seems to be rising! But, those aren’t the questions I want to ask! I want to ask, ‘What does God want us to do to outreach to those around us?’

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