Posted by Theo at Our Ruth's blog:

What’s the difference between terrorists and organists?
You can negotiate with some terrorists.



  1. Yupp, I’ve known an organist like that. And my beloved who used to work in a Cathedral says that organists are more powerful than the Dean.

  2. As a systematician (theologian) who has been working the ‘liturgy’ circles for almost 9 years, and is quick always to say “I’m not a Liturgist!!!” I have heard this joke told about liturgists – as in, the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist is… you can negotiate with a terrorist. For the very most part, the dictum holds. And, I must say, MP, there must be a whole different class above (or beneath, as the case may be) for dictums (dictae?) about organists and choir directors!
    Love ya’
    Canuck (Eileen)

  3. There’s a variation in the U.S. where the word “organist” is replaced by the word “liturgist”!

  4. On this side of the pond, organists are in short supply. The result is that they can get by with about anything.


  5. Of course we church musicians tell the joke the other way: “What’s the difference between clergy and terrorists…..”

    Linda in Iowa
    Church Musician and clergy spouse!

  6. I know one. She is good, but she does not know how to take sugestion from the congregation. Maby there is a reason for this.
    w.v. brabl-it is a sound made on where I cannot sing a note

  7. But it’s not true of liturgists. It’s easy to get a liturgist to do anything you want them to do in a service. You just say to them, “This is new,” if they are evangelical or liberal, or, “I saw this done at the Oratory,” if they are catholic.

  8. Well, as a former church organist and choir director, I assert that we come by it honestly! We are, after all, subject to a lot of abuse. There was one exception in my career, however. For two years I worked in a Presbyterian church. I’ve never been treated so well. I never got a complaint (not one!) from any member of the congregation. It was a dream of an instrument, I had four professional soloists/section leaders and a repsectable stipend. I ended up leaving, however, because the religious was just too damn depressing!

  9. Jim, there are plenty of organists. The shortage is of _good_ organists.

    I know a couple of prima donna organists. They don’t stay in any position for long.

  10. Ellie, your Presbyterian experience is very different from ours.

    wv: phett (said with great intensity)


  11. If you think churches are lousy employers for members of the clergy, try being a church musician. It’s worse than crap treatment. Very few full-time positions, terrible pay, few/no benefits, and pensions???? what are those? And we generally have as much (or more) training and experience as the clergy who are treated much better.

    IMO the clergy shouldn’t complain about us musicians unless they’re willing to trade employment terms with us!

    Linda in Iowa

  12. Linda, it is the default position of OCICBW… to get at the clergy. We do it all day, everyday. I think it only fair that the clergy have the occasional opportunity to have a go at those who can make their life hell. As I said to my bishop, only last week, “The trouble with church organists is that can be as arrogant as priests.”

  13. We clergy in TEC had to fight for good pay and benefits. One diocese I was in, about fifteen years ago, had rotten health care and clergy with families who couldn’t afford to go to the doctor.

    Meanwhile, the organists here in the U.S.A. have the Guild of Organists with guidelines for pay and benefits. Every church in which I’ve been a parishioner or worked has complied with those guidelines, which are much better than what we clergy get. In the end, however, we cannot always move the congregation to go for a fulltime musician (and anything less will contribute to church decline as much as having a part time priest instead of fulltime), hence my own organist whom I can only pay for ten hours a week, no benefits, and who, like me, has had to forego a rise in pay for the last two years.

    My musician is wonderful to work with. I’ve also had musicians who weren’t so helpful or collegial. And now I am crossing the line into boring, the cardinal sin here at OCICBW… so, bye for now.

  14. So sorry about your experience, Marilyn. And I completely agree with you here, Linda:

    “IMO the clergy shouldn’t complain about us musicians unless they’re willing to trade employment terms with us!”

    I let my AGO membership go a long time ago, Lois, but I don’t remember any such guidelines for part-time musicians and that’s all most parishes can afford.

    You know, I thought seriously about going back into church music when I lost my position with the diocese as “solitary in resident” and finally decided that it just wasn’t good for me to work professionally for the church (which I have done since I was sixteen, by the way and I’m now 60.) Actually, I think it’s for the best but I also think it’s sad.

  15. I don’t know, you women are making me feel a bit guilty about my attitude towards organists. Look, I tell you what, I’ll give you all a really decent funeral after I’ve lined you all up against the wall and shot you. You see, it is possible for me to change my mind.

  16. Okay. It’s a deal.

    From what I’ve read here, you put on a really good funeral, MadPriest. I’m sure I would be honored! 🙂

    Ha! The word verification is “singl”.

  17. For what it’s worth…

    …I’ve been learning to play the organ at Nearest Church. There is some talk of me taking over as organist there when Networking Organist leaves.

    Networking Organist has two PhDs and is a fine musician. He runs the choir rehearsal, warms up the choir on Sunday mornings (though I’ve been doing that bit recently) and plays for services, for which he receives pay that is less than a typist would get for the contact hours. He leads a choir that struggles because of the wide variation in musical skills of the singers. Then there is the time it takes to learn the music in the first place. And the church is freezing in winter — every service since mid-November I have been able to see my breath. That’s not comfortable for anyone, but it’s really problematic and even harmful when you’re playing a musical instrument that requires some dexterity. The organ itself, of course, needs major repairs and working around the missing notes and duff registrations is a constant challenge and discouragement.

    Networking Organist has been absolutely supportive of me. But he has come across, even to me the musician, as the sort of organist with whom one cannot negotiate.

    I’ve had a lot of ideas. When I’ve suggested them, I’ve mostly found that when they’ve been tried in the past, very often the clergy have been highly critical or unsupportive. Things like telling the choir during August to wear robes and sit in the choir stalls anyway “because it looks nice” (which entirely misses the point!) are commonplace… I could go on, but I don’t want this to become a litany of complaints against the clergy at Nearest Church; I like Gentle Vicar very much and I think he is a good and kind man.

    I think Networking Organist has taken a “my way or not at all” approach because he got tired, at some point, of trying to explain the basis for his musical decisions when other people were making demands based on “it looks nice” or “people like that one”, often just passing on criticisms from the congregation without really thinking about it. I think he got tired of being expected to do the work he does without reasonable support. As soon as he needs anything, it’s “oh, but that’s just the music, we can’t afford to support that”; as soon as he wants to do anything interesting it’s “don’t change it, people can’t handle change”; but the second someone with a fraction of his training and expertise has some half-baked idea he’s expected to comply. I think he got tired of telling the choir they couldn’t sing something after all, after putting loads of work into it, because the clergy had changed their mind at the last minute. I can absolutely see why he has become so draconian. It’s quite clear that his experience has often been that the only way to get taken seriously is to be a dictator.

    Perhaps I’m naive, but I’m hoping that things will be a bit different for me. I don’t do “draconian” very well, and I want to work in a more positive environment. To this end I’m planning on meeting with Gentle Vicar to choose hymns for Eastertide. Yes, this will be more work for me than just choosing them myself. It will be more work for Gentle Vicar, too. But maybe we can establish some sort of dialogue, negotiate on some of the things we might disagree on.

    Just because I can sort of see how things ended up this way at Nearest Church doesn’t mean I think they have to continue in the same vein.

    But I have no idea what advice I would give to an organist working with clergy who don’t seem to take them seriously, or to clergy stuck with an organist who won’t budge.

  18. The thing is, Song, I went to our former organist and choirmaster and asked them to join me, once a month or so, to choose the hymns together, with them having complete responsibility for anthems, incidental music etc. This was not enough. He had to choose everything. This was extremely arrogant.He might be a great musician, but the chances of him being as good with words or as liturgically astute as me, are slim. Together we could have made sweet music but he chose to go for a power grab. Because the choir automatically sided with him it ended up with both of us without jobs. I would point out, as well, that under the vicar who had just left the organist never got to choose anything, not hymns or anthems. You would have thought that his experience of working for a control freak would have led him to avoid being a control freak himself. No such luck.

  19. Your experience MadPriest hits every parish priest to the core. Many years ago, I dared suggest to the organist that the choir be open to new members! He exploded, resigned, sent waves of gossip through the parish and indeed, when he left his position, the choir went with him. The parish became such an embattled place that many parishioners left, never to return. Hearing of your unhappy experience and recalling my own I was reminded of advice that was given to me as a curate – and I’ve made a bit of a cartoon of it at All the best.

  20. Ah, yes, Bonehead 🙂
    One day they will discover a secret gospel suppressed for centuries by the Vatican which shows that Jesus said that just after the “Love your neighbour bit.”