Easter 2024

02 March 2019
Down with Robot Organists!

I love the Episcopal Church and I am privileged to be an organist working in it. But I am not alone in wondering about the future of the Church in which I find myself employed.

I applaud those who think creatively about ministry and are able to empower small and mid-sized congregations to be the best they can be. But I think a recent article published by the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas is destructive to the church's worship and mission. (The article has since been removed the Diocese's website, but without any notice and without any word from the Diocese about why it has been taken down. You can read an archived copy here: "The Future of the Organ for Church Worship")

We live in an era marked by increasing technicization. It's not enough to be able to turn on electric lights in our homes by flipping a switch; now it is possible to operate lights with voice commands. Parallel parking is less important in driver education as more and more cars park themselves. With the click of a mouse, we readily assign friendships, likes, loves.

But the church should and must resist such technicization. Don't get me wrong. Electric lights, the public address system, and word processing are probably the three greatest enhancements to Episcopal worship. But electric lights do not replace real candles (at least I hope they don't!). The public address system doesn't read the lessons or preach the gospel on its own. Service leaflets may help worshippers to follow the liturgy, but they draw their effectiveness from the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal, and our liturgical tradition.

Furthermore, all of these technological enhancements are added costs. It would be cheaper not to turn on the lights, maintain the sound system, or run a church print shop every week. It is only with music, it seems, that we regularly find a desire to radically cut the expense of producing worship.

It is a similar desire for economic efficiency that drives the author of "The Future of the Organ for Church Worship" to suggest an electronic replacement for the organist itself. The author argues that organists are hard to work with and difficult to find (a double whammy!). Why not just get what he calls an "organ in a box"? But let's be clear: this name is terrible. He's talking about replacing the lay professional who plays the organ with a device so the more accurate term would be "organist in a box", or even a "robot organist".

The reason that the organ has developed as an instrument for Christian worship (and it did so in physically large churches) is that it is tremendously efficient already. There is no other single instrument capable of such a wide range of pitch, color, and sheer sound. That an organist was required to play such an instrument was simply a fact of life. It was still a paragon of efficiency.

Now, however, a further kind of efficiency is sought: the elimination of the organist him/herself

The reasons given for the elimination of the organist in the article in question are somewhat offensive:

  1. "Pastoral control over weekly content". Yes, in the Episcopal Church the rector is in charge of worship, but it doesn't seem to me that he or she is necessarily an expert in music or hymnody. In a Christian context, it seems that control is less important than conversation. How else will clergy keep abreast of new hymns and new currents in church music? In an ideal situation, it seems that someone skilled in music should have some input too.
  2. "Accurate and professional sounding organ led worship". Where we really see the Emporer's New Clothes for what they are is the "professional sounding" remark. This is now full-on illusion. The expertise is desired at none of the expense, or even a relationship.
  3. "Reliability". On balance, I don't know that organists miss any more Sundays due to illness, injury, or family emergency than clergy do. I don't think we have a reliability crisis in the organist profession, and I think it's disingenuous to suggest that we do.
  4. "Cost". I'm reminded of a classic email forward of many years ago about an employee that took his boss to hear the local symphony orchestra for the first time. (I don't know how well I remember this; maybe someone has a copy?) I think it went like this:

    On Monday morning after the outing to hear the orchestra, the employee got a memo from his boss detailing all the ways that the orchestra was inefficient. There were too many violins, for instance. All of the violins were effectively doing the same thing. Why were there so many of them? The best violinist should represent the whole section and his or her sound should be amplified. The remainder of the section should be fired since they are redundant. I believe the conductor, too, was called into question. He was the only person on stage who didn't produce sound.

    Musicians laugh at this kind of thing because it is so far from the reality of what the tradition of good music dictates. Yes, of course, you could eliminate all but one string player in each section, but you would not then have a symphony orchestra. It would be something else.

  5. "Diversity in styles and hymnal access". This is a Red Herring. I find it hard to believe you have greater access to diversity of style and hymnal if you are reliant solely on electronic means. The best way to have creative music is to have a professional musician who is rooted in your congregation and engaged with relevant professional organizations like the American Guild of Organists, the Association of Anglican Musicians, and the Hymn Society.

The most lamentable part of "The Future of the Organ" article isn't about efficiency or any of the perceived "advantages" listed above; it's the fact that excising the human element of music in worship is horribly destructive to the role of music in the liturgy.

Built into the very warrant for sacramental worship is a verb of performance. Hidden in that performance is a vision of life in Christ that is not a state of being but rather an act, an act of the worshippers who enact a cosmos and a community that is nothing less than God’s act of creation.

McCall, Richard D. Do This: Liturgy As Performance. University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Ind (2007). p. 2

An organist robot does not perform in a human sense.

Furthermore, I am dubious of the ethics in having the regular organist record music on MIDI to be played in his or her absence, also mentioned in this article. Everyone is entitled to some amount of vacation, right? Does the rector record his or her sermon in advance and simply have it broadcast over the church public address system? I hope not. Yes, recording sermons or organ music in advance is possible, but it is not desirable. Even when we are fortunate enough to have human organists, let's please not treat them like robots.

If you want sermons that are relevant to the community, they must be preached by someone in that community. If you want a church music that is relevant to the community, it must be led by people in that community.

I have a specific way that I like to lead breaths in hymns. Many years ago, I became convicted that I and too many organists are guilty of rushing each successive stanza of the hymn one after another. It diminishes a congregations ability to mentally finish the words they have just sung, get a good breath, and a confident start on the next stanza.

In every congregation I have served, I can hear the congregation adapting, hymn by hymn, week by week, year by year, to the way I lead breaths between stanzas of a hymn. Sometimes I don't have it quite right, and their singing lets me know. We're in the room together, and its a symbiotic relationship. I guarantee you a robot cannot do this. In fact, the symbiotic breathing I am describing is the opposite of robotic. It's the very definition of being human.

In the "Future of the Organ" author's own words: "many young Christians have grown weary of the high tech entertainment based worship and seek something with deeper ties to historical Christianity."

Robots don't have deeper ties to historical Christianity, at least not yet.

Down with robot organists!


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