Archdiocese of Birmingham Liturgy Commission
Church Music Committee
in association with the Historic Churches Committee
and Committee for Art and Architecture
SS Joseph and Etheldreda, Rugeley
Organ builder: Kenneth Tickell, 2005
The Church Organ
A guide for clergy and parishes
In 1963, the Second Vatican Council stated:
In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high
esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which
adds a wonderful splendour to the Churchs ceremonies and
powerfully lifts up mans mind to God and to higher things.1
A well-made pipe organ is a noble musical instrument. In
itself, it is both a work of art and a statement of human
ingenuity. Pipe organ building is a highly skilled craft, worthy
of respect and admiration.
Since 1963, there has been considerable advancement
in another sphere of human ingenuity, that of electronic
engineering. Today, electronic organs use digital sampling of
real organ pipes as the source of their tone production. These
instruments simulate the sound of a pipe organ to a degree
which was not possible a few years ago.
This guide will give you straightforward advice on both pipe
and digital electronic organs. It will tell you how to apply
for the necessary faculty when repairs or alterations to an
existing instrument are being considered. It will explain the
role of the Church Music Committee in granting a faculty for
a new or other replacement instrument.
Diocesan permission to do organ work
The Historic Churches Committee (HCC) and the Committee
for Art and Architecture (AAC) of the Archdiocese have
published a pamphlet, The Care of Churches. It sets out the
procedure for obtaining a faculty to undertake repairs and
alterations to both listed and non-listed buildings. This same
procedure applies to your church organ.
Installing a new or a replacement instrument requires a
faculty. Any major repair and any alteration to an existing
instrument requires a faculty.
Replacing an old, worn out electronic organ with a new digital
instrument is not a like-for-like replacement.
This needs a faculty.
Faculties are granted on behalf of the Archbishop through
the HCC or AAC. In the case of work on church organs, those
committees act upon advice given to them by the Church
Music Committee (CMC).
If the cost of the project will exceed £5000, further permission
will be required from the Diocesan Treasurer.
The grant of a faculty ensures your project will:
• help the faithful participate in the celebration of the
liturgy, through an instrument appropriate to your
liturgical needs and to the size of your building;
• be well-designed and relate architecturally to its
• comply with civil law regarding listed buildings and
with diocesan regulations concerning all churches;
• be undertaken with high-quality workmanship and
give good value for money.
You need a faculty before any contracts are signed and
work begun. Never give any verbal or written indication to
a company that work will proceed or that you will buy an
instrument until the faculty is granted. When it is, give a
copy to the approved contractor so they will know they are
working legally and must observe any terms and conditions
set out in the faculty.
Care of the pipe organ
Your pipe organ is a complex machine. In ¥nancial terms, it is
probably the single most valuable item of furnishing in your church.
Do not allow it to fall into disrepair and decay. With regular care,
maintenance and an occasional thorough overhaul, a well-made
instrument can remain playable for many decades, even centuries.
St Thomas of Canterbury
The Rieger Organ, 1971
A qualified tuner should tune your pipe organ at least once a year.
Twice a year is better and, for instruments
in frequent liturgical and recital use, four times a year.
Tuners carry out small tasks of routine maintenance, noted as
necessary by the organist. Always ask if these minor repairs
suggest that major work might soon be needed. Also, ask if
the tuner has noticed any other problems.
Make sure that when the tuner visits, the temperature of the
church is the same as it will be for Sunday Mass.
The tuner does not maintain the instruments blower. Engage
an electrical contractor to service its motor and bearings.
Know your enemy
Temperature and humidity
Wood, metal and leather are stable in fairly constant conditions
of temperature and humidity. They react satisfactorily
to heating systems which gradually warm a church (and
therefore its fabric). Forced air heating systems which produce
copious quantities of hot air rapidly, but do not allow the
fabric of the church to warm, can do considerable damage to
a pipe organ. Warm air blown through a cold organ causes
desiccation of some components and condensation on others.
It plays havoc with an instruments tuning.
Never position radiators or other heaters near a pipe organ.
Keep swell boxes open when an instrument is not in use.
A more detailed pamphlet on church heating and the pipe
organ is available from the CMC.
Check regularly for signs of woodworm and vermin
infestation. Deal with any problem immediately.
Do not allow an 'enthusiastic amateur' to tinker with an
organ mechanism, even for a minor repair. Our diocesan
insurers will not look kindly on any claim for damage done
by a well-meaning but unqualified person.
However, organists could ask the tuner to train them to tune
an occasionally wayward reed pipe.
The church building
Regularly inspect the roof above the organ and the floor
beneath it. Rainwater penetration, fallen flakes of plaster,
and condensation can all cause considerable damage.
Builders and decorators
When there is other work going on in church, employ your
organ tuner to protect your instrument. Do not allow builders
or decorators to throw dust sheets over pipe work.
Fine dust, fluffy dust, gritty dust, soot deposits from candles
and incense - all these accumulate in an instrument over time.
The thorough overhaul
Pipe organs need a thorough cleaning and an overhaul
perhaps three or four times in a century. Given this care,
well-made instruments with mechanical action may remain
playable for a few centuries. Instruments built with direct
electric or electro-pneumatic actions may need repair every
twenty-five years or so. Parish Finance committees might
consider setting aside an annual sum for investment in the
Diocesan Unit Scheme - an organ overhaul fund.
If an overhaul is due, contact the CMC. It will help you obtain
like-for-like quotations for the work and make sure those
putting in a tender are addressing the specific problems of
Some organs, installed from around 1930 onwards, use
electro-magnetic action. Seek advice from the CMC if you
have such an instrument and its action is failing.
The National Pipe Organ Register
All pipe organs should be registered in the National
Pipe Organ Register. Contact the CMC for assitance.
Historic pipe organs are part of our national heritage.
Instruments of historic worth need not necessarily be very old.
Special care needs to be taken when appointing tuners and
organ builders to do work on historic instruments. These
should have appropriate accreditation with the Institute of
British Organ Building. Contact the CMC for details.
The CMC might recommend that overhaul and major repair
work to an historic instrument is supervised by a specialist
independent organ adviser. The role of an adviser is similar
to that of a conservation architect working on an historic
building (but the fees are signi¥cantly less).
With an historic instrument, conservation and restoration
are the watchwords, not renovation, and certainly not
Work on historic organs might attract grant aid from certain
trusts and public bodies. Contact the CMC for details.
The Institute of British Organ Building (IBO)
The IBO is a professional association whose function is to
ensure that high standards of craftsmanship and business
practice are maintained in the industry, and that you, the
customer, receive good value for money. Contact the CMC for
a list of accredited members in and around the diocese.
If you wish to use a non-accredited company for major repair
work or alteration, contact the CMC for advice.
The Digital Age
A digital instrument, similar
to that installed in St Peter's, Leamington
The church organ has 'gone digital'. Several international
manufacturers and a few smaller national companies offer
off-the-shelf and custom-made instruments. Technology
has advanced to the point where it might be argued that a
good-quality, new digital instrument makes a better sound
than a poorly-made or ailing pipe organ.
Digital organs can seem inexpensive in comparison with the
cost of building (or perhaps even repairing) a pipe organ.
Are you considering going digital?
Contact the CMC for impartial advice about the wide range of
available instruments before you contact any manufacturer.
Then, to make an informed judgement about a suitable organ
for your church, arrange to hear and play instruments in their
proper setting, rather than in a manufacturers showroom. The
CMC can tell you where new digital organs have been recently
installed. Comments from customers can be of great value.
The object of installing a digital instrument is to imitate
as far as is possible the true sound of a pipe organ; one
which is suitable for its liturgical function and which has an
appropriate specification for your building.
Take these factors into consideration before all others:
• quality and durability of manufacture;
• quality of sound; and
• an appropriate specification for your needs.
The Digital Sound
In a pipe organ, a five-note chord played on 'full organ'
might simultaneously engage over 100 independent pipes.
No digital organ can perfectly reproduce the breadth and
depth of that sound.
Consider the experience of being in an audience in a concert
hall and listening to a symphony orchestra. Now compare
the experience of listening to a live radio broadcast of
that same performance at home. Even with the best hi-fi
equipment, the music will not sound the same. Similarly, the
true sound of the pipe organ which the digital instrument
is striving to reproduce cannot adequately be delivered by
the internal speakers of the console alone, or even through
a simple external stereo system. At best, you will hear the
sound of a pipe organ coming through a hi-fi system - which
in a church will sound inadequate and disappointing. Yet,
if a digital instrument is properly set up with sufficient
externally-amplified sound channels and high-quality
loudspeakers, it can get extremely close to reproducing the
breadth and depth of the sound of a pipe organ. In short, do
not skimp on amplification and loudspeaker systems.
Do not be tempted by lengthy stop lists, multiple playing aids
and other gadgetry. Do you really need an organ of cathedral instrument
Bear in mind that a smaller digital instrument with several
external sound channels is preferable to a large instrument
with inadequate external amplification or with none at all.
The quality of the organ sound is the prime consideration. An
exception to this rule might be a small church or chapel that
needs a compact instrument. Some manufacturers produce
suitable one-manual instruments housed in well-made wooden
cabinets, with loudspeakers that are fit for their purpose.
A domestic digital 'organ' or keyboard, which is more a home
entertainment system than a substitute for a pipe organ, is not
suitable as a permanent replacement for a church organ. A faculty to
install such an instrument would not be granted. Yet that is not to
say that a digital keyboard cannot be used in church, perhaps as a
part of an instrumental group.
Maintenance, repairs, longevity
Digital instruments do not need tuning, but they do need care
and maintenance. Damp conditions and excessive fluctuations
in temperature can adversely effect the wooden and metal
furnishings of an instrument. Playing an instrument in itself
causes wear to the mechanical components. The build-up
of dust and dirt inside the console might cause electrical
contacts to fail. The small bulbs used to illuminate stop tabs
do indeed fail, so ask the manufacturer for some spares when
buying an instrument.
Always check the terms and conditions of a manufacturer's
guarantee and the level and availability of after-sale service
before buying an instrument.
How long will a new digital organ last? Fifteen, twenty,
thirty years? Technology advances rapidly and when circuit
boards begin to fail replacements are unlikely to be available.
Instruments are likely to need replacement, not repair, when
their electronic systems fail.
The cost of digital organs is immediately attractive and their
quality is improving all the time, but if you are considering
a replacement instrument, do not necessarily discount the
option of a small pipe organ.
New and second-hand pipe organs
Contact the CMC for initial advice about new pipe organs before
contacting any organ builders. The CMC can help you with:
• drawing up an outline proposal for a project;
• appointing an adviser to oversee the project;
• finding a suitable organ builder.
A small chamber organ might be appropriate for your needs,
and you might well ¥nd the sound of such an instrument
more pleasing than that of a digital organ. Over time, a small
pipe organ might prove much more cost-effective than a
series of digital instruments which have had to be replaced.
Good-quality, second-hand, redundant pipe organs are
sometimes to be found at bargain prices. In this way it might
even be possible to install a suitable pipe organ in your
church for less than the cost of a new digital instrument.
Contact the CMC for advice about redundant instruments,
their removal and rebuilding, and also for a list of currently
Do not bid for an instrument on an internet auction. Auctions
do not allow suf¥cient time to assess the musical and other
aesthetic qualities of an instrument in relation to your
church, and they do not allow sufficient time for a faculty
to be granted.
VAT and the church organ
The CMC can provide detailed information about VAT and
VAT exemption in relation to church organs.
The subject of this guide is the church organ. That same
paragraph of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that was
quoted in the Introduction to this guide goes on to allow us
to use any suitable musical instruments to accompany our
celebrations. Enjoy the sound of your church organ and that
of your parish instrumental groups too.
1 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 1963, chapter 6 ¦120;
repeated in the Chirograph of Pope John Paul II, On Sacred
Music, 2003, ¦14.
General Instruction of the Roman Missal
Bishops Conference of England and Wales 2005
Celebrating the Mass
Bishops Conference of England and Wales 2005
Consecrated for Worship
Bishops Conference of England and Wales 2006
The Care of Churches
The Historic Churches Commission and Committee for Art
and Architecture of the Archdiocese of Birmingham.
Repair or Replace? A guide for parishes considering the future
of their organ
The Council for the Care of Churches
The Care of the Organ
John Harper, The Royal School of Church Music
Historic Organ Conservation
Dominic Gwynn, Church House Publishing, 2001
Colin Pykett, 1998 & 2005, The Organists' Review
The Institute of British Organ Building
The Association of Independent Organ Advisers
The British Institute of Organ Studies
Published by the Archdiocese of Birmingham Liturgy Commission, Church Music Committee
85 Prestbury Road, Aston, Birmingham B6 6EG. firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © Archdiocese of Birmingham Liturgy Commission, Church Music Committee 2007. All rights reserved.