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 But still to be churning out bad or outdated Victorian hymnody, or worse, modern-revised bad or outdated Victorian hymnody, or even worse than these, some of the banal and trite “worship songs” – heavily laden with “substitutionary atonement” – scapegoat theology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!
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.