GOOD HYMNS VICAR

I CAN HARDLY BEAR some of the sloppy, cringe-making doggerel in some of the church’s hymnals today. If we really believed some of the stuff we cheerfully (far too cheerfully) sing about needing to be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb, or about “the blood and the fire”, and “the garden of tears” where “my heavy load he chose to bear” we’d barely be able to get up in the mornings. And if, on the other hand, we really believe that church attendance and prayers uttered or muttered according to (only) Trinitarian formulae will guarantee personal privileges in some future state – necessarily leaving non-believing infidels (those reckoned to be lacking [the] faith) outside – then we need to spend a great deal more time in silence before the throne of God. Like Jesus did.

How much attention do churches or individuals pay to words said or sung? And shouldn’t we be paying a great deal of attention to them? Don’t words generally, and in this context the words of hymnals and liturgies particularly, have the most extraordinarily powerful subliminal effect upon our corporate thinking about religious themes? Some of the theology expressed in the best among the Victorian hymns in A&M Revised formed the bedrock of what would become my adult faith. But still to be churning out bad or outdated Victorian hymnody, or worse, modern-revised bad or outdated Victorian hymnody, or even worse than these, some of the banal and trite “worship songs” – heavily laden with “substitutionary atonement” – scapegoat theology – amounts, in my view to the kind of “poor hymnody” that, as a church leader seeking to be theologically and pastorally faithful, I simply must “turn the tables” on today. Like some of the notions associated with temple sacrifices, or with personal “indulgences” acquired at some kind of “cost” or exchange, they’re exclusive, self-engineered, self-procured-righteousness – and thereby dangerous.

But what’s around to replace it? Where’s the good, thought-through theology for our times and (according to some projections, pretty dire) circumstances? Anyone willing to share their best finds? Here I’ll gladly name one in return: Whatever Name or Creed, Hymns and Songs by (Methodist Minister) Andrew Pratt is full, cover to cover, of honest to goodness, real, theologically thought-through contemporary prayer, praise and (quite properly) reflective challenge. Published by – and available from – Stainer and Bell in 2002, any person of faith would do well to have a copy on their bookshelf. Here’s a tiny snippet of an example …

We come by many different paths,
each certain that our way is true.
As sisters, brothers, let us talk,
a way to peace is overdue.
Caged in a creed, we think we’ve caught
the source of all that is to be,
but God cannot be thus confined:
the Spirit’s flying, wild and free!

Andrew Pratt
Hymn 84, verse 1 of 3, page 96

Can we share such material more widely? Are there other really good contemporary writers out there? Do others have any thoughts to share on the negative effects of really bad or outdated hymnody – or the positive effects of really good, theologically literate and inclusive worship? Hymnody surely shouldn’t be nauseating and exclusive. Hymnody can be one of the greatest teaching instruments can’t it? – worship aimed at building up a new kind of Kingdom about which all human beings might be able to “Rejoice”.

I’ve loved hymn-singing since I was a babe in arms, but these days, honestly, I simply can’t get the words of some hymns, Ancient, Modern, New Standard or Revised, past the embarrassed squeak in the back of my throat. And I’m one of the lucky fellas who gets to have some say in what people are being asked to sing. I’d otherwise have to opt for staying silent more often than I think would be good for me – or could be good for a “growth action planning” church.

9 thoughts on “GOOD HYMNS VICAR

  1. Good post Simon. Here are some good ones I picked up from a recent conference. O sing to the Lord, o sing God a new song (Gerhard Cartford), Day is done, but Love unfailing dwells ever here (james Quinn – T. Ar hyd y nos), jesus the Lord said: ‘I am the bread …’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vW4JbOXR72M. It’s good to share!

  2. Great post Simon, but why don’t you try writing your own hymn that sums up all you feel about faith. I’m sure Johnnie would set it to a great tune! Perhaps we could even have a competition (ha ha). Angela x

  3. David: thanks very much indeed for sharing your new finds. Angela: your kind challenge prompts me to pay a bit of attention to a recurring thought in my own heart. Thank you, both of you, for your encouragement 🙂

  4. Pingback: Good Hymns ? | Paul David Deakin

  5. Thank you, Simon for this post and for the book recommendation. I am unable to sing so many of the songs in church as I just don’t believe the words. I have suggested Fred Kaan’s hymns to the people in leadership, but without success! Hymns such as “Break Not the Circle of Enabling Love” and “Help Us Accept Each Other” are far too practical, inclusive and welcoming of all, it seems! And “O Brother Man Fold to Thy Heart Thy Brother” by JG Whittier, which you came across a while ago, I think. I long to hear these hymns and others like them in church.

  6. Thank you dear Mary! Persevere, and know that you are in company (even if not “good company”!) Thanks, especially, for your own recommendations. I’ll check them out, and you’ve reminded me that we ought to sing “O brother man” again soon, too. Bless you for your encouragement and dear generosity of spirit. 🙂

  7. I’ve always preferred the banal and trite “worship songs” myself – they often feel a bit more musically honest than the Victoriana, which often feels to me like ‘playing’ at classical music, with a military beat (which is, of course, where my heart really lies [classical music, not the military.]) I guess you just like what you grew up with. By the way, I’d never heard of the phrase “Victorian music” until I came to Bramhall – I’m still not sure what it means, but, judging by the sound of it, I think it’s got something to do with Germany before Mozart came along.

    I’ve never really had any problem with singing and (luckily for everyone else) playing things I don’t personally believe in. You can’t really expect every song to match your own particular religious prescription, or to express every opinion in the book equally, or to stay as beige as possible to avoid saying anything at all. Otherwise it could all get a bit lowest-common-denominator-ish, or, my own personal bête noire (even if it was about the mongolian nose-flute, it would still upset me,) the great closed-minded sentiment so often shared by those in power, religious or otherwise: “I don’t believe in it, so you can’t sing it!”

    Over in Woodford, they’ve been using lots of new words to old tunes recently (as well as quite a few new worship songs – there’s a bit more of a mix than in St Michaels.) This is one of the best – it’s pretty well known now, but I don’t think you’ve done it in Bramhall, so you may not have come across it …

    (Can be sung to the tune ‘We cannot measure’)

    Though we had thought You must provide
    a seamless robe of fitted truth,
    You offer as Your gift of grace,
    these awkward texts devoid of proof –
    a patchwork pile of pain and joy,
    a palimpsest of life and pray’r;
    a remnant-store rich-layered with love,
    a haberdashery to share.

    And to it each must bring their own,
    rough-shaped & frayed though that may be,
    till worked together, stitched and shared,
    we all may then begin to see,
    the story of the love of God
    emerge, cross-stitched
    with threads of pray’r,
    from patchwork texts and complex lives –
    the Christ-like tapestry we share.

    And what we work and then repair –
    not coloured robe, but patchwork tent –
    must host us in our Saviour’s Name
    and welcome strangers, not prevent.
    Thus, gifted, challenged, moving on
    across the arid wastes we share,
    we each and all may live within
    Your caravanserai of care.

    John M Campbell

    I believe he works in Luther King House in Fallowfield, so you may have come across him if you know of Andrew Pratt. I think they were both involved in the publishing of a book called something along the lines of ‘100 new hymns to old tunes’ about 3 years ago, but I can’t really remember … you may find that useful, if you can find it!

  8. Thanks for this contribution Jonnie and for the book tip. Good point about “lowest common denominator” – but, as you know – I’m both convinced and concerned about the fact that what we SAY about what we believe has consequences, sometimes dire consequences for others. Banal and trite, then, whether “Ancient” or “Modern” is not a responsible religious option for me and that fact will inevitably colour my approach to the offering of public worship in the congregations I pastor. I cannot, of course, nor would I seek to tell anybody outside the embrace of my particular pastoral charge what they may or may not sing. More generally, I think you’re right that people tend to like (at least in terms of hymnody) what they grew up with. Thanks again.

  9. Dear Simon,
    Thanks for your kind comments about my Whatever name or creed. It is available direct from me but best bought on Amazon from hymnsandbooks – my shop front or direct from Stainer & Bell Ltd – still very much in print! You might also like Reclaiming Praise – a later book – same source and my contributions weekly, related to the lectionary, to http://www.twelvebaskets.co.uk
    Thanks again,
    Andrew

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