When there seems no way out

The single most important component in any ministry – as Jesus himself taught – is faithfulness.  First and foremost you need to turn up, to be there. And June Nicholls  – who retires this Sunday after 25 years as our church organist – was totally reliable, always there.  A great support.

So we thank God for her incredible contribution to the life of Christ Church and for her gift to sum up a whole service in the closing music.

All this is in stark contrast to the last time my church organist stood down.  Certainly Diane knew how to go out with a bang, certainly with all the stops pulled out!

I had just arrived as vicar of St John Thornham, way back in 1984, to discover that civil war had broken out during the interregnum.

Casualties were lying about everywhere. Diane, the organist, had found herself on the losing side and now was preparing to move out.

I think it was my first PCC, certainly the second.  At the conclusion her husband handed me a letter and asked me to read it out.  Her resignation, timed to make maximum impact.  I played a straight bat (bowlers hate a straight bat) and simply recorded our appreciation of all she had given to St John’s and closed the meeting with the grace.

But what then?

I prayed, possibly for the first time, a prayer I have repeated many times over the years:  “Well, Lord, this is your church and so this is your problem.  What do you want me to do?  Any ideas?”   I didn’t realize it at the time but this was to be a defining moment in my ministry.

Ideas were scarce on the ground.  I didn’t know anyone, church members were either exhausted or about to leave.  But God is God  and not for the first time I found myself in a totally impossible position.

There was just one hint of an option. Melanie Clegg, about 12 years old, could play the piano.  Her mum, the PCC secretary, offered her services.

It didn’t help that Diane along with her church sub-group, about to leave, had lumbered the church with a new and very expensive hymn book published by some obscure Welsh outfit, packed with obscure hymns in impossible keys.

I had no option but to ask little Melanie to assume the mantle of (temporary) church organist.   It was a huge risk but with her mother’s help she picked out four hymns in the key of C major.  So we sang Amazing Grace and other familiar hymns in the easy play version.

We managed, just.

But Melanie started to develop, first playing in other easier keys, then the more difficult.  Within a few months I took over in choosing suitable hymns.  The next stage was when I could choose any hymn with a growing confidence that Melanie could play them.  We paid for her to do an organist course at Manchester Cathedral.  Soon she was taking organ lessons.

All this meant that Melanie was becoming a proficient organist and on entering the Sixth form she took Music as one of her three A level subjects.  During this time we were able to form a regular music group – and so our music at St John’s was beginning to go places.

And Melanie too went from strength to strength, playing some very complicated works for weddings (wasted, of course, on me).   For her university course, she successfully applied to the Royal College of Music in London, with organ as her main instrument.

She settled well in her small flat just next door to the Royal Albert Hall – I called to see her a few times, thankful for all she had done to heal St John’s and restore confidence.

Then, just seven eventful years after her first tentative chords in Rochdale, on passing the audition for the team, she played the organ at Westminster Abbey.

That’s how God works.