Electronic vs pipe organ: Re: St Peter, Wolverhampton

In Re St. Nicholas Warwick [2010] Coventry Cons Ct (Stephen Eyre Ch), the Chancellor reviewed the authorities relating to the replacement of pipe organs, which address a wide range of situations in which such a decision might need to be made, and stated [at para.16]

“[i]t is well-established that the onus is on those seeking to obtain a faculty for removal of a pipe organ. Account is to be taken of the musical qualities and durability of pipe organs. Accordingly, in borderline cases the approach of the consistory court should be to require the retention of such an organ.”

At first sight, therefore, it might seem unusual that in Re St. Peter Wolverhampton [2013] Lichfield Cons Ct (Stephen Eyre Ch), Chancellor Eyre refused a petition for the replacement of a failing electronic organ (which needed to be replaced “sooner rather than later”) with a pipe organ, even though finding the funds for such an electronic organ (~£30,000) would be difficult and the pipe organ was available at no cost [1].  However, this must be viewed in context: although St Peter’s Collegiate Church “has an admirable tradition of fine church music performed to a standard comparable to that of many cathedrals” [2], it is also Grade 1 listed with a large Willis pipe organ which sounds into the nave, for which there is currently a £350,000 appeal.  The present chancel organ (an electronic Makin organ) is used for choral evensong on Wednesdays and Sundays.

The proposal to replace the Makin instrument with a pipe organ (“the Bevington organ”) was supported by the Parochial Church Council of the Central Wolverhampton parish and by the District Church Council of St. Peter’s, but was not recommended by the Diocesan Advisory Committee who said that it “could not be accommodated without destroying the aesthetics of the space and the integrity of the architectural scheme”.  Similar aesthetic reservations were expressed by English Heritage (EH), the Victorian Society, and the Local Planning Authority, the EH stating that the Bevington organ is “a large and bulky piece of furniture which will be out of scale and character both with the space and the other items of furnishing in the chancel” and the necessary removal of the section of pews would “diminish the historic integrity” of the seating in the chancel.

The Church Buildings Council expressed different concerns in its letter to the Registrar focussed which focussed on the contractual and insurance arrangements for the moving of the organ to Wolverhampton and its installation in the chancel. However, the Chancellor stated that these would not have been obstacles to granting a faculty.

Judgement

Chancellor Eyre noted, [at para. 15] that as a matter of church law, since a pipe organ will normally be a fixture rather than a chattel, in a listed church the relevant criteria must be addressed, [in that case, the Bishopgate questions and now, Re Duffield: St Alkmund [2013] 2 WLR 854]. These are

a) Would the proposals, if implemented, result in harm to the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest?

b) If not have the Petitioners shown a sufficiently good reason for change to overcome the ordinary presumption that in the absence of a good reason change should not be permitted?

c) If there would be harm to the significance of the church as a building of special architectural or historic interest how serious would that harm be?

d) How clear and convincing is the justification for carrying out the proposals?

e) In the light of the strong presumption against proposals which will adversely affect the special character of a listed building will the benefit outweigh the harm?

With regard to e), he indicated that it was necessary to bear in mind: the more serious the harm the greater the level of benefit needed before proposals can be permitted; and serious harm to a church listed as Grade I or Grade II* should only be permitted in exceptional cases.  In reaching his conclusions, the Chancellor needed to balance a number of considerations, [paras. 20 to 28]: the musical suitability of the Bevington organ; financial consequences; the loss of seating capacity to accommodate the Bevington organ; impact on the mission and outreach of the church; the procedure and transparency adopted in pursuing the proposal; and aesthetic considerations.

A significant part of his conclusions was [para. 29]

“[t]he argument that a particular object is being provided free of charge cannot justify the introduction into any church of an object which is not otherwise suitable let alone the introduction of such an object into a Grade 1 listed church.

Here the impact of introducing the Bevington organ would be grave. The problem lies in its size. There would be unlikely to be any ground for refusing a petition to introduce a small pipe organ occupying the location of the current Makin instrument even if that replacement were to be noticeably larger than Makin organ.”

In refusing the Petition, he continued

“The current proposal goes very much beyond that. It is a proposal to introduce an object which will occupy a substantial space and which will materially detract from the appearance (indeed from the beauty) of the chancel. It will have a significant adverse impact on the chancel’s special character.  . . . . . . the benefits to be achieved, real and important though they are, do not justify that step.”

Comment

The Chancellor commented [para. 22] that Re St. Peter Wolverhampton “is not one of those exceptional cases where it would be appropriate for the Court to take account of the decision as to financial priorities”, although he suggested

“given the quality of the music at St. Peter’s and the important part which music plays in the church’s life, worship, and mission  . . . . . .expenditure on the acquisition and maintenance of a suitable instrument for use in the chancel would clearly be an appropriate use of the funds of the church.”

Whilst finding the funds for such an organ will be difficult, he was not convinced that the task would be impossible, [para. 29], presumably taking into consideration the estimated £30,000 required in comparison to the on-going £350,000 appeal for the refurbishment of the Willis organ.

Two aspects not apparent from the judgement are: the number of people in the congregation attending the Evensong services at which the organ would be played; and the need for an organ in the chancel.  The latter is implicit in the statement the “large Willis organ sounds into the nave” suggests that a smaller instrument, pipe or electronic, located in the chancel would provide more practical and appropriate for the music performed there.  There may be other issues of visual contact between the assistant organist, director of music, and the choristers depending upon the location of the organ console, and one is reminded of the “mechanical hand”, operated by the organist and protruding from the organ loft in Ripon Cathedral in an early attempt to solve such problems.


[1] The organ had been offered to St. Peter’s free of charge and the costs of moving and installing it together with any necessary modifications would be met by special donations or by volunteers performing the necessary work. The effect would be that St. Peter’s would have a functioning pipe organ in the chancel without cost.

[2] With seventy-five children within its choirs, nine choral scholars, one organ scholar and a number of organ students

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