Why write new hymns and songs?

Because the Psalmist calls for them? Because language changes? Because new circumstances present themselves?

All of that and more! When we write poems and set them to music, when we sing, we set something free which pushes at the boundaries, that strains both doctrine and understanding, and in doing so gives birth to new hope. But this is dangerous. It can lead to heresy.

We need heresies. Heresies are the antidote to closed minds, to broken hopes. Christianity was predicated on a heresy, as far as the Jews were concerned; similarly Islam for Christians. Heresies sometimes help us frame what we really believe. Most of the historic creeds have come into being as defence against distortions of truth. But as someone once said, ‘what is truth?’ The moment we think we possess it we are, perhaps, captives of our own arrogance. Creeds can have a positive purpose, but equally they can be a strait-jacket.

I want to be able to explore faith in the same way that my scientific probing enabled me to make new discoveries. And yes, I know there is risk in that. But it was Sydney Carter who pointed out that you can’t cage the bird of heaven and still keep faith alive, anymore than you could cage a lark and expect to hear its voice. We know the truth of the metaphor, but people so often seek to cage certainty. Think of those Hebrews in exile who thought that God was dead because the temple and the city of Jerusalem and had been routed, until Ezekiel gave the dry, dead bones of their faith a wake-up call. [1] Or Peter who was so constrained by the Jewish food laws that he couldn’t talk to Cornelius until God pointed out the foolishness of his theology in a weird dream. [2] Or there are those friends of mine who wouldn’t go into a pub to ‘share the gospel’ because drink was evil, forgetting the wedding at Cana in Galilee – surely those jars didn’t contain grape juice? Oh, I could go on, but perhaps I’ve gone on long enough. The root of the problem is that we never fully know God.

And then we declaim and so often judge, we codify and the spirit of God is diminished and emasculated. Somehow the church needs to reclaim that prophetic spirit that can enable new adventures of faith, new discoveries of the unfathomable grace and freedom of God. At their best hymn poets have done just that. Today this is still part of our responsibility. On the one hand we are to communicate belief in that subversive way that perhaps only hymns enable, so that we sing our faith not only with our lips, but in our hearts that it might then be lived in our lives. On the other hand we should allow imagination to inform our writing so that we discover new and liberating truths fresh for our age and our need. Today this is as important as it ever was.

So we must express old truths in new ways. We must explore new circumstances and make sense of them in terms of our understanding of God. We must forge new instruments of audacious hope testing our theology and recognising it as dynamic, growing as our understanding of God and the world deepens. And in all of this, praise of God, sung is a tool to be used and to be treasured. We can often sing those things we only tentatively hold to be true with our intellect and we can give birth to hope through poetic imagination that we would never contrive through conscious thought alone. If we do not have hymns and religious songs then we must invent some tool to take their place. Until then, let us continue to write and to sing new hymns and songs to God!

©Andrew Pratt 2010

 

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Andrew Pratt

Andrew Pratt was born in Paignton, Devon, England in 1948. For his first degree he studied Zoology (B.Sc. Hons., London) before going to the University College of North Wales in Bangor. Andrew obtained a M.Sc. in Marine Biology which was partly dependent on a thesis on the Effects of sympathomimetic drugs on the rectum of Pleuronectes platessa (effects of drugs on the guts of the plaice). From here he went to St Luke’s College, Exeter, since absorbed into Exeter University, to study for a PGCE. Andrew taught in Essex, Wrexham, and Liverpool together with some brief spells of supply teaching since entering the ministry. Subjects have ranged through biology, chemistry, religious studies, swimming, personal and social education, and health education. During his M.Sc., he began to foster a belief in God. He became a member of the Methodist Church in Exeter. Moving to Essex he saw little of the church as both his parents died in a space of a year and he was away seeing them at weekends. In Wrexham (Gresford) he sensed a call to the ministry and in 1979 went for theological training at the Queen’s (Ecumenical) College in Birmingham. He was there for three years, partly doing a post graduate Diploma in Theology at Birmingham University and partly doing ministerial training. It was here that Andrew began to write hymns as a means of exploring theology. He had already written poems (mainly for private consumption!) one of which was published in a college magazine at St Luke’s in 1972. Since leaving Birmingham, Andrew has been stationed in Northwich, Nantwich, Leigh and Hindley, and Orrell and Lamberhead Green (near Wigan). While in Nantwich he began to achieve publication of his texts, firstly in Hymns of the City and then, under the guidance and constructive criticism of Bernard Braley, with some regularity in Hymns and Congregational Songs. Andrew was asked to be part of the groups that edited Story Song, Big Blue Planet and Sound Bytes. He has been regularly published in Worship Live and has had articles, hymns and reviews published in the The Hymn, The Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland(of which has been the Editor since 2004) Theological Book Review, Writers News, Writing Magazine, the Methodist Recorder, Reform and Crucible. For some time he broadcast regularly on BBC Radio Merseyside. From 2004 he was a member of the Music Resource Group appointed to compile Singing the Faith, convening the words group until its dissolution in 2009 when he resigned. Blinded by the Dazzle, his first hymn collection, was published in 1997 by Stainer & Bell. Further collections, Whatever Name or Creed, Reclaiming Praise and More than Words were subsequently produced. Over a period of three years, with Marjorie Dobson, he wrote material for the Revised Common Lectionary which was published on www.worshipcloud.com HymnQuest includes over 1400 of his hymn texts. He is a Non-Executive Director of Stainer & Bell Ltd., and was instrumental in their establishing a web site (www.hymns.uk.com) carrying contemporary hymn texts which could be downloaded for local use. He is Chair of the Pratt Green Trust. On two consecutive years Andrew entered the Pratt Green Essay Competition, achieving second and joint first prizes. This work acted as a springboard for his research in hymnody. In 1997 he gained a M.A in English from the University of Durham for his research into Frederick Faber’s Hymns on the Four Last Things. He has researched the origins of the Methodist Hymn Book (1933) for a Ph.D., at Liverpool Hope University College. A book based on this research, O for a thousand tongues – the Methodist Hymn Book (1933) in context was published by the Methodist Publishing House. In 2004 he was appointed as a tutor and then Acting Principal at Hartley Victoria College (part of the Partnership for Theological Education in Manchester) to its closure in 2015. He continued as an Honorary Research Fellow with the Partnershp. While there he wrote Net Gains (Methodist Publishing House) and Study Skills for Ministry (SCM). He has lectured and led workshops in the UK, USA, Finland, Poland, Ireland, and Germany. He has written and contributed to many books relating to hymns and worship including Charles Wesley: Life, Literature and Legacy (2011, Epworth, edit., Ted Campbell, Kenneth G.C Newport), Why Weren't We Told? (2012, Polebridge Press, USA, R.A.E. Hunt) Hymn, song, society (2014, Unigrafia Finland, edit Tapani Innanen, Veli-Matti Salminen), Methodism Abounding (2016, Church in the Market Place, edit., John Vincent), The Servant of God in Practice (2017, Deo, edit., J.W. Rogerson and John Vincent). He has written a series of reflections on selected hymns of Charles Wesley (Inextinguishable Blaze) and co-written with Marjorie Dobson two books of worship resources, Poppies and Snowdrops and Nothing too religious (both Inspire, Methodist Publishing House). In 2017 with Jan Berry he edited and contributed to Hymns for Hope and Healing (Stainer & Bell Ltd). He was one time Chair of the Methodist Peace Fellowship.

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