Why do we write hymns? A number of years ago I asked Alan Gaunt this question when I was preparing a local radio programme on hymn writers from Merseyside. His reply: ‘I can’t help it’! I have to admit to something of the same feeling myself to the point that a colleague once said, ‘Oh he suffers from logorrhoea – it’s like diarrhoea but with words!’ Many a true word is said in jest! But does this mean that hymn writing, for some of us, is just an obsessive, compulsive action? Perhaps it can be, but hopefully it is more than that. With that in mind I want to explore hymn writing as a vocation, akin to preaching, priesthood, ministry or any other calling. There is a risk here that what we say about ourselves, what we claim for our craft or art, can appear pretentious. We should guard against this, but exploring why and what we write can help to keep us on track and enable us to root and ground what we do in a wider context than the pure self-satisfaction of having written another hymn or seeing it published.
So I have some questions:
• Is what we do useful?
• Does it have any purpose?
• Why do we do it?
In a 2013 survey of 12,000 professionals by the Harvard Business Review, half said they felt their job had no ‘meaning and significance,’ and an equal number were unable to relate to their company’s mission, […] A recent poll among Brits revealed that as many as 37 per cent think they have a job that doesn’t even need to exist.
People are ‘vastly more satisfied’ when their spiritual needs are met ‘by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose’. So what about hymn writing as a task. For some it has been a job, or at any rate a means of earning living. Fanny Crosby is well known both for the vast number of hymns she wrote but also for the pecuniary need to write because of her disability. Writing to order week by week to tunes sent to her by a publisher provided a focus and a drive for her compositions. The degree to which this affected her writing is difficult to judge. Writing to commission for a single text produces pressure. Doing this sequentially requires not only skill in writing, but also the need for some sense of inspiration to generate the subject matter to address. Thomas Troeger and Carol Doran, some years ago, wrote Hymns for the Lectionary . Having written similarly with Marjorie Dobson for all the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary, I am conscious of the pressure that can result in hymns which might be regarded as ‘competent’, in that they rhyme and scan, but often feel in no way inspired. They serve a purpose. Perhaps these hymns are useful.
Psalm paraphrases and Psalm inspired hymns such as those written by Martin Leckebusch are directly dependent on scripture originally meant to be sung. The inspiration is contained in the original but also imparted via the interpreter of the Psalm who is working in a variety of ways. Translation from language to language is taking place, but the task is also hermeneutical bridging the gap of history, context and culture. It is complex. There is clear purpose here in making religious songs from another era and culture accessible today in the here and now.
In each of these settings, writing hymns for the lectionary, or reinterpreting Psalms, scripture is the starting place. There is here both a guide and a guard. This is not always the case. Fanny Crosby’s hymns often sought to work out what faith means. It might for example, offer ‘Blessed assurance’ or ask us to ‘Give God the glory’ for ‘great things he has done’. These are the outcomes of faith and are usually dependant on a particular theological perspective:
To God be the glory! great things He hath done;
so loved He the world that He gave us His Son,
who yielded His life an atonement for sin,
and opened the life gate that all may go in…
To write in this way, with integrity, demands commitment to a theological position. The author’s main task is then to present this position persuasively. We are working towards a more clearly presented expression of a particular vocation. For Fanny Crosby there was not simply a monetary interest but a compulsion to present faith in a way that someone else would wish to adopt it. This latter was, arguably, the primary motivation of Moody and Sankey. These motivations are in no way crude but for some they lack subtlety. Neither do they move far beyond the initial expression of new-found faith. We are working out what faith means.
For some faith cemented into doctrine is significant enough to need defending, interpreting and reinforcing. To move on from Crosby, Moody and Sankey, the clear statement of faith in Townend’s ‘In Christ Alone’ makes clear claims. This Christ, ‘who took on flesh, / fullness of God in helpless babe!’ The incarnation is asserted. The theology is developed further,
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
the wrath of God was satisfied –
for every sin on Him was laid;
here in the death of Christ I live.
The atonement for sin is achieved through the satisfaction of God’s wrath by the sacrificial death of Christ. The author (and singer) is redeemed, ‘bought with the precious blood of Christ’ from slavery to sin, ‘sin’s curse has lost its grip on me’. The strength of this interpretation of doctrine is such that it demands assent or rejection. For the author assent is a necessity. This is why he acclaims that
In Christ alone my hope is found,
He is my light, my strength, my song;
this Cornerstone, this solid Ground…
This interpretation is absolute in its assertion that salvation comes through the redemptive death of Christ, which eliminates death which is predicated on our sin. It is reasonable to assume that, acknowledged or otherwise, Stuart Townend has a vocation to convince people of the veracity of the faith statements made in this text.
The reinforcement of doctrine can be identified from different perspectives. Charles Wesley, reinforcing the Arminian theology espoused by his brother John wrote:
Thy sovereign grace to all extends,
Immense and unconfined;
From age to age it never ends;
It reaches all mankind.
This sense of grace is ‘Wide as infinity’. The author underlines this as it is ‘So wide it never passed by one, /Or it had passed by me’. Without explaining the mechanism of atonement the hymn continues as Wesley sings, ‘In Christ abundantly forgiven, / I see thy mercies rise.
John Henry Newman moves away from scripture to church tradition with no less strength of commitment in ‘Firmly I believe and truly’. Like Townend he underlines incarnational theology that the Wesley’s would also espouse for he writes, ‘I next acknowledge duly / manhood taken by the Son…’ Hope is placed ‘in the Saviour crucified’ without an explanation as to what such hope might engender. The next step is, from a protestant point of view the radical one:
And I hold in veneration,
for the love of him alone,
holy Church as his creation,
and her teachings as his own.
It is the last line of this stanza which some might wish to accept as incontrovertible or profoundly wrong. Again, we find the hymn writer with a vocation which is almost of necessity divisive as a theological construct is asserted as truth. What is clear is that the writing of an author who has a strong compulsion is bound to have an interface with doctrine, either asserting it or opposing it. At the extreme this may stretch doctrine in new directions.
While I would concede that when Frederick Faber posited that ‘there is grace enough for thousands of new world’ he was thinking more in terms of the abundance of grace than the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life he, nevertheless, touched on an issue of theological importance for those who see Christ as literally unique. A hundred or so years later Sydney Carter was to ask:
Who can tell what other cradle
High above the milky way
Still may rock the King of Heaven
On another Christmas Day?
For some this was going too far. But it was an apologetic question that he felt compelled to address. More recently Brian Wren wrote:
If we could slip the bonds of light
and leap to any distant star,
would we go there to pick a fight
or learn how other life-forms are?
If we and they could truly meet
and share what each has seen and known
would we survey the skies and ask
“Are we unique? Are we alone?’
finally concluding, ‘We are unique, but not alone’.’
When we question the validity of other faith positions, we can be pushed, perhaps, still further. In every age there is likely to be a disparity between those who are willing to see doctrine as evolving and those who, with Michael Saward would contend in relation to theological statements that ‘These are the facts as we have received them, / these are the truths that the Christian believes’. And in each case here, both Carter, Wren and Saward wrote out of vocation, though Carter might not wish to own such a description. For Saward there is a traditional assertion of the tenets of Christian faith emanating from his own committed evangelical faith and priestly vocation. Often Wren’s writing is apologetic. For Carter the driving priority was to find ways in which Christian faith could be consonant with the world as he saw and experienced it, alongside his reading of the nature of the human Jesus.
This leads us to writers whose vocation causes them to ask questions of doctrine or to look at faith with a starting point in human experience rather than in the traditions and creeds of the church. Sometimes such writing will run comfortably in line with received theology sometimes it will challenge its veracity. Albert Bayly wrote:
Your mind conceived the galaxy,
each atom’s secret planned,
and every age of history
your purpose, Lord, has spanned.
while Arthur Wright stating that
He made the dust for Saturn’s rings,
he formed all fragile, lovely things;
the quasars, nebulae and quarks,
primroses, dinosaurs and larks.
goes on to say,
Research discloses to our eyes
a world of wonder and surprise;
our Father’s creativity
is popping now with novelty.
In each instance, while the language is beginning to address scientific advances there is a conscious recognition of a traditional theological understanding which, while not necessarily treating the creation narrative of Genesis literally does not challenge it. ‘In quasars, quarks and pulsars/ we seek the cosmic truth’, the original first verse of ‘The God of cosmic question’, begins from a different premise. It is in these explorations that humanly we seek the ‘The ground of our existence / That set creation loose’. There is an allusion to Tillich’s concept of the ‘Ground of Being’ which allows for a distancing from the more creationist perspective of another of my own texts, ‘In the beginning God played with the planets’. Nevertheless the text is still grounded biblically as it concludes:
Yet history proffers insight:
the Christ of time and space
speaks of a God incarnate
born in a squalid place.
What we are witnessing here is not as contradictory as it may seem. The intention of the writer of ‘In the beginning God played with the planets’ is to make the idea of creation accessible to children using the idea of God’s playfulness evident in the book of Job. The other text, written after reading Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time has different purpose, that of working apologetically in relation to new scientific discoveries. It seems that the vocation here is actually one of enabling accessibility in both contexts. The author is trying to make sense of faith. Examination of many other of his texts confirms this as a primary intention. It is, broadly, apologetic.
In the last sixty years this area of hymn writing seems to have been given increasing attention. Currently the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada is preparing a collection of hymns relating to migration. Previously hymns which enable the exploration of theology in the face of natural disasters have been collated. The Hymn has published a paper relating hymnody to theodicy. One author who has responded to natural disasters is Carolyn Winfrey Gillette. Interestingly only two of her texts are listed on HymnQuest and both are published in this country in a Unitarian collection, Sing Your Faith.
When migration is addressed alienation become a subject for exploration. Who can be included? John Bell and Graham Maule ask how far the Christian is willing to go to step across the barriers of difference asking:
Will you care for cruel and kind
and never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
should your life attract or scare?…
Will you set the prisoners free
and never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
and do such as this unseen…
While Marty Haugen asserts, ‘All are welcome in this place’. That raises the question, who are ‘all’? are there no exclusion clauses? In a text not, as far as I am aware, published in the United Kingdom, Bringle asks ‘Who is the alien?’ This is not a hymn about migration , nor even ‘the alien’ in the national political sense. Unexpectedly it moves from a description from Hebrew scripture of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt to ask who are aliens today? Who is excluded or diminished through difference? And these are not so much those who are foreign, but those ‘differently partnered in ways that are strange’ or ‘people whose bodies bear limits of skill’.
For some there are levels of acceptance. Janet Wootton relates a time when, as a woman called to ministry she was told by men of another denomination that not only would she be damned but so would any children she baptised. This experience, together with her wish to reinterpret scripture in a frame that was not paternalistic has influenced her writing, not only in tone but in choice of subject matter as the following text demonstrates:
When Miriam’s daughters rise and sing
and David lifts his voice to praise,
when sons of Asaph weave new words
and Mary challenges our ways,
creator God, we trace your love
through thirty centuries of song,
and dare to add our witness for
the age to which we now belong.
To summarise, when hymns are written the author has some form of motivation. In many cases it is not pretentious to suggest that there is a sense of vocation, a calling perceived as from God, from something ‘other’, to frame words with religious purpose. This might direct authors
1. to state or re-state doctrine
Hail! Holy, holy, holy Lord!
Whom One in Three we know;
By all thy heavenly host adored,
By all thy church below.
Charles Wesley (1707-1788)
God who is Love, as One-in-Three,
Most Blest and Glorious Trinity,
for what has been, and is to be,
we bring our love and praise.
2. to express old thoughts in new words and phrases
We come with self-inflicted pains
of broken trust and chosen wrong,
half-free, half-bound by inner chains,
by social forces swept along,
by powers and systems close confined,
yet seeking hope for humankind.
3. to call forth praise or lament.
Come, now is the time to worship,
come, now is the time to give your heart;
come, just as you are to worship,
come, just as you are before your God
at love withheld,
at strength misused,
at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
4. In other instances hymns may be written which push at the boundaries of hymnody, re-shaping doctrine, entering new areas of expression or concern which to traditional ears may be unacceptable. Convictions may lead to writing which, to some, may seem beyond that which is allowable in a context of worship.
Dear Mother God, your wings are warm around us,
We are enfolded in your love and care;
Safe in the dark, your heartbeat’s pulse surrounds us,
You call to us, for you are always there.
Sing we a song of high revolt;
make great the Lord, his name exalt!
Sing we the song that Mary sang
of God at war with human wrong.
We hear of people sanctioned,
made poor by bad intent,
for selfishness is ruling
we see the children suffer
while parents are distressed,
what is there we can offer,
our nation seems bereft?
Hymns explain, interpret, offer a hermeneutic tool. They may be instruments of praise or vehicles of lament. So often, at their best, they give voice to the deepest feelings and convictions of the writer, they are sung prayers saying that which, otherwise, would only be felt. And we are invited to share these, Psalms, prayers, invocations in our reflections on the world and our worship of the divine. As Marjorie Dobson has written:
Lord, you call us to your service,
each in our own way.
Some to caring, loving, healing;
some to preach, or pray;
some to work with quiet learning,
day by day.
And she could well add in our writing, composing, singing as our ‘Christian love adds new dimensions…’
This exploration leads to the question with which I began, but for each of us to answer, ‘why do we write hymns?’ And perhaps it is worth asking ourselves:
• What am I writing now?
• Am I satisfied with what I am writing?
• Where is God in all of this?
• Has my vocation as a writer changed at all?
• And if so what ought I to do in response?
© Andrew Pratt 2017