National Edition

Why church organists are coming to America

Published: Monday, May 5 2014 3:20 p.m. MDT

Dr. Gabriel Terrone left his post as titular organist in Rome to be the organist for the Madeleine Cathedral and its Choir School Tuesday, April 29, 2014 in Salt Lake City.

Hugh Carey, Deseret News

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In a recent New York Times article, church organists were declared “irrelevant” amid “the decline of organized religion” in Europe.

The Times looked at the United Kingdom’s 150-year-old Royal College of Organists, whose students are earning “token incomes” compared to the mid-19th century, when a church organist could make money that “compared favorably with bank managers and other middle-class professionals.”

A recent European Union survey found that only 51 percent of those polled in 27 countries said they believed in God. Even in what the Global Post called "more devout Catholic countries of southern Europe," organized religion is slipping. Those surveyed in Spain identified themselves as Catholic 70 percent of the time, down 10 percent in the last decade.

But what spells trouble in Europe is music to many American churches, with the Times citing that as cathedral organists experience "declines in influence and pay," they often cross the Atlantic to the United States where opportunities to perform appear more plentiful.

Compared to the EU numbers, a 2012 Gallup poll found that 77 percent of Americans identify as "Christian" over several denominations. Of those, 51.9 percent identified themselves as Protestant or "other Christian," 23.3 percent identified as Catholic and 2.1 percent identified as Mormon. Followers of Judaism made up 1.7 percent and Islam made up 0.6 percent, while 15.6 percent identified as having "no religious identity."

The long-term outlook for church organists looks rosier, too. An article in the Huffington Post featured the Guinness Book of World Records recognizing Martha Godwin of North Carolina as having the "longest career as a church pianist or organist."

The 87-year-old Godwin, the article said, began playing at Macedonia United Methodist Church in Southmont at age 13.

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