White from Epiphany until Candlemas

‘Silent Worship?’

Silent Worship? – a 1990 report

[Note: This report was published in 1990 by the Joint Committee for Church Music in Ireland which was established in 1977 and ceased functioning in 1998] 



with some recommendations for the future


The Joint Committee for Church Music in Ireland (JCCMI) comprises representatives of the Church of Ireland Choral Union and the Irish Committee of the Royal School of Church Music.

The object of the JCCMI is to promote the study, practice, and improvement of church music.

Members of the Joint Committee are drawn from all parts of Ireland. The Co-Chairmen are The Very Reverend Sterling Mortimer, Dean of Elphin (Chairman of the Irish Committee of the Royal School of Church Music) and The Reverend Canon Robin Bantry White, Rector of Douglas Union with Frankfield, Cork (Chairman of the Church of Ireland Choral Union).

Published by the
Joint Committee for Church Music in Ireland,
Religious Education Resource Centre,
Mount Argus Road,
Dublin 6W.
ISBN 0 905886 06 2

© Copyright: Joint Committee for Church Music in Ireland, 1990


1.              Introduction.
2.              Context and Principles.
3.              Historical background.
4.              Organ studies.
5.              Reasons for the shortage of church organists
6.              Resources and climate
7.              The development of choirs and singers
8.              Young organists
9.              The Role of the Diocesan Councils
10.            Postscript.
Appendix I:     A Note on the Psalms.
Appendix II:   Selected Bibliography.
Appendix III:  Organisations.

The Joint Committee for Church Music in Ireland gratefully acknowledge financial assistance towards the expenses of producing this report received from the United Dioceses of Dublin and Glendalough.


This report was written by the Joint Committee for Church Music in Ireland originally in response to an enquiry, received in June 1988 from the Diocesan Councils of Dublin and Glendalough, about the shortage of church organists.  It has subsequently been revised and expanded so as to be of more general application throughout the Church of Ireland.  The Joint Committee is grateful to all those who assisted in the preparation of this report by providing information or by making suggestions.

Throughout this report the terms Organist and Choir Director have been used interchangeably to refer to the person in charge of the music in a church; the choice of word used being whichever is the more appropriate in the context.

The JCCMI does not advocate music of any particular style.  In this report, however, emphasis has been placed on the development of church choirs since this is seen as a key to the encouragement of young people to take up the organ.

The shortage of organists is a very serious problem; a problem which is not confined to the Church of Ireland nor, indeed, to this country, and one which has been a cause of concern to our Joint Committee since its inception.  The Joint Committee believes that the music of the Church is the responsibility of the Church as a whole and not only of the musicians.  The conditions and resources available in parishes and dioceses vary so considerably, it is not the intention that the recommendations contained in this report should be regarded as being inflexible or of universal application.  Neither is it the intention to presume to give advice to those responsible for major cathedrals or other churches which have a professional music staff.  The object of the report is to suggest some approaches to alleviating the problem and to stimulate discussion.

The decline in the number of church organists is consistent with the fall in church attendance generally, the lack of interest in worship, and the shortage of vocations to the sacred ministry, which has affected all the main branches of the Church over the past thirty years or so. The reasons for this decline are, of course, outside the scope of this report.

The problem we now face has been developing over a considerable period and there are no easy or short term solutions. Before considering any solutions it would be as well to place the subject in context and to identify some of its causes.



With the exception of a number of notable individuals, the Church of Ireland generally has been indifferent towards music. Unlike some other branches of the Church, the Church of Ireland has never laid down norms regulating the relationship between music and the liturgy; nor has it determined the qualifications, conditions of employment, or salaries for organists.

There is no reference to music in the Constitution of the Church of Ireland, and neither the function of organists nor their standing in relation to the Church as a whole is defined.  The report of the Priorities Committee,  First of All (1979), makes no reference to music:  nevertheless we wish to place it on record that but for the financial support received from the Priorities Committee since 1981, the work of the JCCMI could not have continued.  The report of the Commission on Communication, Time to Tell (1983), made a number of important recommendations about church music, which the JCCMI fully endorses, but it made no suggestions about how these recommendations might be implemented.

Within the Church of England, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 and again in 1947 set up commissions to report on the state of church music; recently they have established another similar commission; and the General Synod of the Church of England has recently passed legislation giving church organists more security of employment.

Church music is, essentially, vocal music, not organ music. It follows, therefore, that the Church is in much greater need of singers than of organists; but, above all, the Church needs people who can encourage, persuade and teach people to sing. Playing the organ is only part of a church organist’s responsibilities:  training the choir and/or encouraging congregational singing is much more important.  Indeed, the job-title “Organist” is really a misnomer for the person in charge of the music in a church.  A church organist should have a general knowledge of liturgy, hymnology, and the history and repertoire of church music, as well as having the ability to direct a choir and accompany services. It is not essential to be a brilliant player of solo organ music.  It is, however, essential to be a competent player with basic musical skills, otherwise such elements as rhythm and a “sense” for tempo and pulse may not be adequate.  In many cases a relatively small part of the organist’s time is spent taking choir rehearsals or accompanying services. Much time is spent finding suitable music to sing, recruiting singers, general administration, compiling service music lists, preparation, and study. ‘A good organist will keep him/herself aware of newly published music and contemporary trends and ideas in church music through publications such as the Organists’ Review, The Musical Times, the Royal School of Church Music magazine Church Music Quarterly, and, of course, the JCCMI Newsletter.

Church music means singing the liturgy, regularly every Sunday. The function of church music is to emphasise and intensify significant parts of the liturgy (for example, Gloria In Excelsis, Sanctus, Te Deum, Benedictus, and Magnificat). Hymns and Psalms are our response to hearing and receiving the word of God in the liturgy. Music heightens and enhances the words of the liturgy. It brings a further dimension to the words, adding grace and conveying feelings. Church music is an integral part of the activity of prayer: it is not a form of entertainment inserted into the service to amuse the congregation. It is an offering; a sacrifice; the completion of love; and it involves duty towards God and duty towards our neighbour. It follows that church music requires commitment, effort, and discipline; and that it should be properly prepared.

The choice of music is a moral rather than a musical issue, as R. Vaughan Williams asserted in the preface to The English Hymnal (1906). Music exerts a strong influence on the subconscious mind. Good music conveys positive, optimistic feelings and reflects Christian values. Integrity, craft, reason, and cheerfulness are essential qualities both in the music itself and in the way it is performed. These qualities are not the prerogative of any particular style. However, no amount of tarting up of poor material with seductive harmonies or rhythms will disguise triviality or shallowness. The argument that trivial music promotes the preaching of the Gospel does not stand up to examination. Second rate music inhibits the growth of the Christian community and no argument attempting to justify its use can be admitted. The Revd Professor Erik Routley pointed out in Church Music and the Christian Faith (Collins, 1980) that the deliberate use by the Church of trivial, sentimental, or pretentious music is the result, ultimately, of failure of nerve and argues insecurity, competitiveness, and a lust for quick results. “Walk on the water in that spirit and you’ll sink.”

The music chosen should be suitable to its liturgical context. There may be as much inherent beauty, truth, and goodness in simple music as there is in music which is elaborate or sophisticated. Over elaborate or over dignified music in the wrong context sounds incongruous and destroys the balance between the liturgy and the music. The best music employs the simplest possible means to achieve its objective.

Music in Worship, the report issued by the Committee appointed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in 1922 and revised in 1947 (see paragraph 2.3) includes the following statement: “One of the reasons why congregations tolerate, or even approve, bad music, is that they do not think that the music, as such, has any definite meaning or any real importance; therefore any noise will do in church, so long as it is made upon a respectable and religious instrument like an organ, or sung out of a hymn-book. People who talk of church music for the most part do not think really at all of the music as a thing possessing its own rights and having its own methods. This point must first be made clear to them”.



Outside the major cathedrals and some larger provincial churches there is little tradition of church music within the Church of Ireland.  In country churches and smaller city and town churches there was probably no music at all until the second half of the nineteenth century.  The Eucharist was generally celebrated after Morning Prayer and Litany, and was probably completely without music.

In the eighteenth century, Dublin city churches such as St Michan’s, St Mary’s, and St Werburgh’s had organs and may have had choirs. The organ would have been used to accompany metrical psalms sung either congregationally or by the choir alone, and for voluntaries. It was common for a voluntary to be played between the Psalms and the First Lesson at Morning and Evening Prayer.  The Psalms of David in metre collected out of the principal versions now in use was published by A. Bradley (Dublin, 1740).A collection of Select Psalms for the use of the parish church of New St Michan’s was published in Dublin in 1752. A number of similar books were also in use.  David Weyman’s Melodia Sacra: or the Psalms of David…with hymns, anthems and choruses (2 vols) was popular in the first half of the nineteenth century.  It was first published in 1814 and ran into several editions until 1864.

In the second half of the eighteenth century an organ was built by John Snetzler for Hillsborough Parish Church.  The organist was Michael Thompson who was brought from London by the first Marquis of Downshire, and in 1772 a stipendiary choir of men and boys was established and placed in the west end gallery, wearing surplices. Six Anthems performed in Hillsborough Church for four part choir with organ accompaniment was published by Michael Thompson in 1786.

In St John’s Church, Limerick, around 1830 a small choir of boys and men was instituted, arranged college-wise in the chancel and wearing surplices.   A sung Eucharist was celebrated regularly.

The majority of city and town churches acquired organs only in the mid nineteenth century, and most smaller rural churches did not have organs until the 1880s or 1890s.

Hymn singing was, in theory, banned until 1841, though metrical Psalms could be, and presumably were, sung at the beginning and end of services and before and after sermons. The liturgical Prayer Book Psalms were known as “prose psalms” or “reading psalms” and it would appear that in parish churches they were usually recited rather than sung. When the hymnal Hymns for Public Worship was introduced in 1856, it had to be approved separately for use in each Diocese by the Bishop, not all of whom did so; but in 1864 the first Church Hymnal for the general use of the Church of Ireland was approved.

In 1864 the Association for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge also published Chants Ancient & Modern, Responses etc. as a companion to the Church Hymnal. Included in this chant book were plainchant (Gregorian) tones as well as anglican chants, together with settings of the Preces and Responses, and Responses to the Commandments and Doxologies for use at the Eucharist. The plainchant tones were dropped from the third edition (1906), when they were replaced by corrupt, stylised versions of the tones.

Interest in church music increased in the second half of the nineteenth century.  In city churches and larger provincial churches especially, choirs became more regularised.  Robed choirs, either of men and boys or mixed, became common. Singing the Psalms and Canticles to anglican chants became the norm, and there was a rise in interest in hymn singing among congregations. In some churches canticle settings and anthems were sung, and so were the Responses to the Commandments, the Gospel Acclamations, Sanctus, and Gloria In Excelsis at the Eucharist.

The Choral Festival movement began in the middle of the nineteenth century and grew in popularity. Towards the end of the century the Kildare Diocesan Choral Festival held in St Brigid’s Cathedral was a great social event.

In the early part of the twentieth century church choirs in country parishes aspired to singing the Psalms and Canticles. In Magheradroll (Ballynahinch) parish the Rector would only allow the Psalms and Canticles to be sung if the whole service were sung, including the Preces and Responses. This was accepted as the norm for all Sunday services. They also sang the Credo and Gloria from Merbecke at the Eucharist. This tradition has continued until the present.



In Dublin during the 1950s and 1960s there was a sharp decline in church music, with population movements away from the city centre resulting in the closure of some inner city churches during the early 1960s. The population which moved frca the city centre to the outer suburbs and newly developed areas on the outskirts of the city created a dramatic growth in the congregations of what were originally rural churches, the musical tradition of which was less well developed. Despite the increased numbers, the music in most of these churches has remained rather basic and consequently a substantial element of the tradition which formerly existed has been lost. Congregations who have no deep interest in, or experience of liturgical music are probably quite happy with this state of affairs. Even in those city and inner suburban churches which remain, the musical tradition has declined, either through lack of resources, or because of the preference of the clergy and congregations.

This erosion of the tradition of church music has curtailed the environment in which young people have the opportunity to develop an interest in church music.  In the past, former choristers in the choirs of the two cathedrals and in parish churches such as St Stephen’s, St Ann’s, St Peter’s, St Bartholomew’s, and All Saints’ Grangegorman provided a constant supply of potential church organists. Any chorister who showed an interest in the organ was encouraged and given lessons by the cathedral or parish organist.  The cathedral organists were, of course, professional organists and qualified teachers, but so were some of the parish organists. Furthermore, the experience of regularly singing in the choir resulted in these young organ students absorbing the art of accompanying singers – either a choir alone or a full congregation; they instinctively knew how and when to allow the singers to breathe.  By the same process, through the choir director’s example, they learned how to train a choir. As they gained experience they were given the opportunity to accompany parts of the service under the organist’s guidance, and in due course were able to deputise for the organist in his absence.  At one time many of the organists of Dublin churches had been introduced to the organ in this way. Not all of than were brilliant players but most fulfilled their duties as church organists/choir directors faithfully and competently.

Choristers who were not interested in the organ often later became tenors or basses in church choirs.

Even in the case of churches with no formal choral establishment, certain individual clergy gave encouragement and assistance to young people interested in taking up the organ.

Up to the and of the 1950s church organists’ posts were highly competed for in Dublin and it was often quite difficult for a young organist to obtain his/her first post and thus gain experience.  Even up to the mid-1960s it was normal to expect up to ten applications for the more attractive posts, but from that time onwards numbers of applicants for vacant posts declined, unfortunately; so long as churches received at least one suitable application they accepted the situation and took no further action. To a great extent, we are now reaping the reward for this complacency.

A trend similar to the Dublin experience may be observed in many other cities and towns throughout the country.


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