One of my favourite moments at Sunday morning worship is the organ improvisation after the Gospel reading, given as the procession returns from the middle of the church to the front.

It is often very adventurous, and if I am about to preach on the reading, I find myself wondering while stepping up to the pulpit whether the organist and I agree about its interpretation! 

My own chance for improvisation comes not on Sundays, but at quiet midweek services, where perhaps a handful of the faithful are gathering for communion. After the gospel reading, people sit down and I start spieling off. In polite circles it is called a homily, but really it’s an act of extemporization. You discover as you speak what you believe, sometimes quite passionately, what is on your mind, and what connects with others listening. It’s risky but fun.

The Southern Cathedrals Festival ( will soon be upon us – July 10-14. This year it includes popular innovation among the more traditional, much-loved offering. We owe great gratitude to our Director of Music, Dr Andy Lumsden, and the whole team behind him devising and driving the programme.

At SCF it will be a delight to see Jonathan Hope again, who worked under Andy when an organ scholar in Winchester, who is now Assistant Director of Music at Gloucester Cathedral. He will be improvising to the 1925 film The Phantom of the Opera, starring Lon Chaney. It will be a great disappointment if Jonathan does not sit in the organ loft between guttering candles wearing a large black cape!

Improvisation is not only fun, it is a necessary skill, closely related to intelligence and creativity. Perhaps you still have nightmares about staring at an exam paper and not finding any of the questions you had prepared, having to put something together in short order to answer the question.

In times of crisis all these aspects of improvisation are necessary because one is constantly dealing with the unexpected; and beyond intelligence and creativity, there is a call on integrity, to try to act consistently with the truth as one currently sees it, mindful and respectful of others who may see things differently. As in all improvisation, mistakes and mishaps are bound to occur and have to be accepted and acknowledged as part of the journey toward deeper and surer foundations.

A hymn, which we enjoy singing to Herbert Howell’s stirring tune named after his son Michael, comes to mind. It reminds us of the only true basis on which we can improvise, and the trust involved in daring to do this as best we can. The first and last verses run:

All my hope on God is founded;
he doth still my trust renew.
Me through change and chance he guideth,
only good and only true.
God unknown,
he alone
calls my heart to be his own.

Still from earth to God eternal
sacrifice of praise be done,
high above all praises praising
for the gift of Christ his Son.
Christ doth call
one and all:
ye who follow shall not fall.

Please do book into SCF, a celebration not only of improvisation but supreme performance and of all that is good and uplifting in the choral traditions of Salisbury, Chichester and Winchester Cathedrals. We look forward very much to seeing you there.

Canon Roland Riem,