We dedicate ourselves to exploration – science/worship compared in a hymn

We dedicate ourselves to exploration,
to sound the height and depth of Godly love,
but if we lock ourselves within our churches
what worth is it to raise our hands above?

Like those who seek in scientific research,
behind closed doors committed to their task,
we find ourselves as lost to human pleading
until we hear the things that others ask.

Each theory bears its fruit in application,
our praise makes sense when others feel God’s grace;
until that time our search, it seems, is wasted,
a stark, unholy vacuum fills this place.
Andrew Pratt 19/2/2019

After ‘When the church of Jesus shuts its outer door’, Fred Pratt Green, and Jim Al-Khalili’s interview in The Life Scientific of Sir Gregory Winter.

Words © 2019 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England,
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Can theology evolve? How can it not?

I was asked: I question whether theology itself evolves, or is it our understanding of it that evolves?


An interesting question.

Years ago on BBC radio there was a programme called ‘The Brains Trust’. They answered questions sent in by listeners. One of the panel always used to begin his answer with ‘It all depends what you mean by…’. Well, ‘It all depends what you mean by theology’.

Oxford Dictionaries define theology as – ‘the study of the nature of God and religious belief’ or ‘religious beliefs and theory when systematically developed’. https://www.oxforddictionaries.com/

So theology relates to the study of God and/or religious beliefs. If that is accepted then unless we have total and complete knowledge of God then our theology, our study, must grow and develop as we learn, both as individuals and as humanity. If we believe our knowledge is total we are either, ourselves, God, or deluded. Christians have historically developed theology by reading and interpreting the Bible. Over time people have found different translations and versions of the Bible. Each has offered a, sometimes slight, sometimes great, difference of perspective. Each time believers have altered their theological understanding or resisted the new or different knowledge all based on the ‘same Bible’. Over such differences wars have been fought, people have been taken into slavery and methods of secular government have been developed. And this is all within Christian theology. Add to this Jewish, Islamic, Hindu… you see the reason why the question is not straightforward. Our understanding of God must evolve as we live and learn.

But assume for a moment that the dictionary definition isn’t one we accept. What if we see theology as being simply what God is like. If this is so then surely God is unchanging. Granted (though not by everyone). If this is so we can surely ‘know God’ in some sort of final way. After a lifetime of marriage you may not know your partner/husband/wife. You may still be surprised, delighted or frustrated by them. And your understanding changes, evolves. If not then your relationship will remain in the shallows and never gain much depth. It evolves.

So if we see theology as the study of God or the object of our study it is never likely to be static. It must evolve!

Hymns for today?…for tomorrow?

A friend asked if I knew any young hymn writers – under forty? I was hard pressed, except for a colleague with his fortieth birthday a month away! And other times I have been greeted with, ‘Oh, I didn’t know any hymn writers were still alive!’ But my friend made the point seriously and went on to say that hymns are becoming a bit like madrigals, written in the past and sung by consenting adults in private. Hymn singing seems to be entering a cloistered, a rather esoteric world. Aside from Songs of Praise, where the provision is pretty limited, or Cup Final day, there is little ‘public’ interest in hymn singing, let alone actual involvement. It is becoming, or has become, the preserve of enthusiasts, even if we count ourselves among them. Within the church itself the menu offered is often limited in content and theologically unadventurous, the language that of another age. For that reason, in many Fresh Expressions of church, hymn singing hasn’t even been entertained, and rightly so. It is no longer apt or appropriate; better left in the museum of so called, ‘inherited church’. Then they are not lost for those who remember hymns over a lifetime and for whom they are a resource of inspiration, theology and comfort. While that is a right thing to do, it is a bit like keeping the church open ‘long enough for me to be buried from it.’ So do hymns have any value or purpose in the foreseeable future? I think so, but for this to be the case our perception of them may need to change markedly.

John Wesley knew that hymns enable us to internalise theological belief and form attitudes, but most of us expect hymns to provide a ‘good sing’, often regardless of language or theology. Sadly, this freezes people into thought forms and language which are archaic and not right for the present day. We might well sing ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’, with its allusion to ‘thousands of new worlds as great as this’, but now we know the potential for the existence of such worlds, our focus on a theology which presumed the need for the salvation of humans on this world alone might just need some adjustment. We have inherited a view that our world is timeless and humanity is dominant. A New Scientist bulletin from 4 January 2019 might cause us to adjust our view. ‘…A new simulation predicts that our galaxy will collide with the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud in about 2.4 billion years, a smashup that will actually make the Milky Way more similar to its galactic counterparts […] it will likely collide with our galaxy in about 2.4 billion years, well before the much larger predicted collision with the Andromeda galaxy more than 5 billion years from now.

So where do we go from here? Let me make just a few suggestions that those who write hymns might try to act on.

Doctrine is imbibed through hymn singing. But however firmly asserted and defended it is, inevitably, always to be regarded as provisional unless a fundamentalist position is taken in relation to revelation and scripture. This being the case our doctrine has to be based on human cultural understanding and expressed in the language of the time. Frequently such language is metaphorical. A metaphor which works in one age or language may not always be transferable to another. As hymns are used to state, reinforce and internalise doctrine it might be expected that the language and metaphors that they employ would evolve from age to age. When a metaphor is no longer working it should be discarded. Part of the role of the hymn poet is, I believe, to explore the use of metaphor in order to express belief with clarity in each succeeding generation.

We need to find music that is timeless, yet accessible. Worship music has tended, historically, to follow the styles and patterns of popular music. For instance, much of the worship song genre of the 1970s mimicked the acoustic guitar led folk music of the 1960s, In consequence hymns never quite catch-up and singing yesterday’s song tune makes us seem more out of touch than singing something from 100 years ago. Nevertheless, the folk song/ballad seems to have been the most resilient format, as illustrated by Vaughan Williams, Sydney Carter, John Bell, Stuart Townend, Nordic and Baltic Protestant Traditions and the rediscovery of shape-note singing in the United States.

I believe that the interaction of words and music has the unique potential to internalise hope. We feel and then live out what we sing. Singing can make you feel good. It can transform your emotional, psychological and, indeed, spiritual state. In a sense we are healed by it. While singing in itself is enjoyable, many people seeking a deeper spiritual experience find this when they sing.

Choral singing, though not church choral singing, is increasing in prominence in the United Kingdom. It has become a popular form of recreation for many. It would be perverse if the church, at this point, abandoned corporate singing, which can act as a means of re-creation. But for this to work both poets and particularly composers, need to hear what people like to sing and to work together creatively.

We need to re-examine sung words of Hebrew scripture. We love to sing praise, yet at least a third of the Psalms give voice to lament. If a stranger lets you down it is irritating. If a good friend lets you down you might complain. How much more if you feel God who is, to use a favourite phrase of some contemporary writers, your ‘strong tower’ fails you? Yet we are so often fed words which suggest that when bad things happen this is all part of ‘God’s plan’. If a child is drowned in the Mediterranean escaping from the horrors of bloody warfare is part of that big plan this is not a God I want to worship. To suggest that this is the God we see in Christ is, frankly, blasphemous. Returning to the Psalms will deepen our faith, so that we too will believe deeply enough in God to cry out of our forsakenness when things go wrong, charging God with apparent absence. Jean Calvin, the reformer saw this as strength of faith rather than denial or doubt. It takes our image of a loving God seriously.

Hymns can make theology and build hope. But this is dangerous. Walter Bruggemann in his book Prophetic Imagination suggests that the poetry of the Hebrew prophets enabled them to find hope while in exile when logic said there was none. A salient passage is Ezekiel 37, which marked the turning point for those in exile. The key was in the creativity of poetry. Sung poetry can turn that revelation into embodied hope. At best, hymns can transform our attitudes and expectations when our backs are against the wall. That may be through a reiteration of past experience. Equally it can be through the presentation of a new perspective that suddenly becomes a realistic proposition on which we can base our hope – a fresh revelation. Dead bones can live!

We need to see hymns as an evolving genre. They are never going to be a static form. For many in contemporary society faith makes no sense. Perhaps circumstance or experience leads them to this point. For others there is the sheer illogicality of believing in something intangible, metaphysical. Theologians address such issues in one of three ways. They stay with tradition, they allow tradition to evolve gradually, or they recognise that more radical reconstruction is needed. The works of John Hick, Don Cupitt and John Shelby Spong come into this latter category. Hymn writers rarely move beyond the second position. To do so feels unsafe. Yet Fred Pratt Green could write, ‘When our confidence is shaken/in beliefs we thought secure’ and allow the suggestion that ‘God is active in the tensions of a faith not yet mature’. Arguably, where God is concerned we never can have the full picture, we are never fully mature. We need to be open to the fact that faith, in Sydney Carter’s words, is framed by a creed which can never be fixed or final. All is open to challenge and change: all faith statements, of their nature, must be provisional. People find that either liberating, or threatening, perhaps even heretical. If it is accepted, our hymn text writing may push against the limits of our faith and may even break through them framing new insights, offering new hope.

The role of the hymn poet today ought to be at the cutting edge of Christian thought, working out of a particular context in time and place, seeking to elaborate a theology that holds together faith, while making sense of experience. By faith I do not mean belief. This is more akin to the Greek pistis, trust. And by experience I am not limiting this to simple, personal experience, but including all that we know corporately as human beings, our total sum of knowledge. The opportunity to learn more about the cosmos seems boundless. How much more is there to learn about God?

If all of this is so, then it is incumbent on those who write, compose, choose and sing songs and hymns to ensure that they are as effective as possible. They require us to apply the greatest literary and musical skills that we have in providing a vehicle for theological exploration, expression and development. Those who are responsible for liturgical standards and theological orthodoxy ought, no less, to be open to the evolving nature of hymnody. This will make it a requirement that those who work in these fields are aware of theological, scientific, cosmological, social and literary progress and have the facility to adapt and allow their writing to be informed by these other areas of knowledge. Unless this is allowed, even the most inspired hymns will be suffocated by those who seek to control or constrain their use. The vehicle will become simply a museum piece used by enthusiasts. It is my belief that should this be the case, the church will suffer immeasurably as a consequence, unless it is able to replace the hymn with another medium equal to fulfilling its function. At present I see none.

I am convinced that hymns are still useful; still a lively and relevant component of Christian liturgy, which may yet have a place in revitalising Christian faith and practice in the twenty-first century.

God gender neutral say Justin Welby – hardly news!


Not in His name: God is gender-neutral, says Archbishop of Canterbury – hardly new. Whoever thought human language was competent to describe or name that which we have called ‘God’?

Who rules the world just like a king?

Who rules the world just like a king
within our present time and space?
Who has the power of life and death,
of healing or withholding grace.

As politicians seek our votes,
exposing or obscuring truth,
sometimes their language loses rhyme,
while arguments become obtuse.

Just what is truth and where is love,
and what would Jesus do or say?
And how are we to follow faith
within our present time and day?

Who rules our wills, who charms our lives,
the powerful, or those hid from sight;
the weak, denied, or those abused
who hide away within the night?

The least is Jesus in our midst.
The least of these is Christ the King.
Then let the world turn upside down
the poor must rise and rule and sing.
© Andrew Pratt 27/10/2012
Metre: LM
Words © 2015 Stainer & Bell Ltd, London, England, http://www.stainer.co.uk.
Please include any reproduction for local church use on your CCL Licence returns. All wider and any commercial use requires prior application to Stainer & Bell Ltd.

Hymns and biography

Whenever we write, whatever we write, we are influenced by our experience. We may choose to try to deny that influence, or to use it. Traditionally those who rely heavily on scripture to inspire their writing are least likely to bring their own biography into play. Others allow that biography to be the starting point for their writing. The distinction is not always obvious. Charlotte Elliott wrote the hymn ‘Just as I am, without one plea’. It reads like a straightforward expression of dedication, of commitment until, that is, we reach the third stanza:

Just as I am, though tossed about
with many a conflict, many a doubt,
fightings and fears within, without,
O Lamb of God, I come.

Elliott’s biography tells the story of a woman trying to find a way of faith, questioning what she had received from the teaching of the church and trying to make sense of her own disability. She was not blind, the fourth stanza is pure metaphor, but her health was poor. Her collection of poems, Hours of Sorrow Cheered and Comforted begins with these words: ‘Not for the gay and thoughtless do I weave/These plaintive strains: they have not learned to grieve’. She knew such grief and this informed her writing.

When we take the risk of allowing our writing to be influenced in this way I believe that we open ourselves to our own humanity and others will find that they can identify with what we have written and make it their own. So I want to make a case for the conscious use of biography and experience to inform our hymn writing. This is best done by reference to hymns and writers we already know. Though it would be informative to try to delve into the work of contemporary writers, that could be hurtfully intrusive and we might even draw the wrong conclusions. Nevertheless it is my hope that we might look at the texts we use to seek to understand the human experience which lies beneath them. Then as we write, we might provide material which is more accessible to others and more likely to give expression to the emotions and needs of those for whom we write. As we do so we will mirror what John Calvin believed the Psalms did and that is not a bad basis for our creativity
Frederick Faber, writing in 1861, reflected that The Olney Hymns acted ‘like a spell upon him for years’, while the influence of Wesley on his writing is also discernible. The Olney Hymns, published by John Newton and William Cowper in 1779, had the intention of providing ‘for the promotion of faith and the comfort of sincere Christians’. We know that John Newton wrote biographically when he composed ‘Amazing grace’. In Charles Wesley’s writing there is a strand of clear biography but this is often lost deep within the theology and scriptural allusion of the texts we sing. When his son was dying of smallpox he wrote a poem which begins with an allusion to Isaac and an identification of his son with that character as he is waiting to be sacrificed. Then with great emotion the piece continues: ‘For pity’s sake the victim spare/And give me back my son’. The words are individual and extremely personal yet the questions are eternal and the lament universal. Charles Wesley commented, ‘how little do parents know/What evils are prevented by an early death’. Like any parent he tried to understand the incomprehensible, to give reason to the irrational.
These influences are a starting point for Faber in as much as they give him permission to write personally and pastorally.
There is one other author to whom we should first look, and that is William Cowper. ‘O for a closer walk with God’ is threaded through with strands of his own experience. This is a personal plea every bit as powerful as those we find in the individual Psalms of lament:

O for a closer walk with God,
A calm and heavenly frame
A light to shine upon the road
That leads me to the Lamb.

Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is that soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?1

As I have remarked elsewhere,

Cowper struggled with Calvinism and arrived at the conviction that he was predestined to damnation. Writing to John Newton he said: ‘The future appears as gloomy as ever; and I seem to myself to be scrambling always in the dark, among rocks and precipices, without a guide, but with an enemy ever at my heels, prepared to push me headlong. Thus have I spent twenty long years’. He goes on to state that death will come before another twenty are out, and that the ‘enemy of Mankind’ has had such an interest in him that ‘even God’s omnipotence to save is a consideration that affords me no comfort, While I seem to have a foe omnipotent to destroy’.
These experiences, together with Cowper’s grasp of language, led him to write some of the finest hymnody on the subject of desolation. These texts are still well known while his poetry is more obscure. His words are poignant, born of experience. They focus particularly on doubt and uncertainty yet, like the psalmist, his words are undergirded with a sense of faith so that, even as he anticipates damnation, he sees affliction as being part of God’s will with the power to work for good. His words often seem contradictory, saying at one moment, ‘The saints should never be dismayed’, while at another giving voice to a sense of desperation, ‘Send none unhealed away’. Cowper’s God is one to whom people can come when they are ‘Deep-wounded souls’, but there is always a sense of personal unworthiness:

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart, or no?

Throughout all his lamenting and searching there is the reassurance that God ‘…proclaims his grace abroad!’ and changes hearts of stone, that, on turning to God, ‘..calm content and peace we find’. Even when we are lost in ‘blind unbelief…God is his own interpreter/And he will make it plain’, and though our ‘love is weak and faint’ we should seek grace to love God more, that in the end we might echo the words of a hymn fragment which, both in language and rhythm, urges us to progress to our ultimate goal:

To Jesus, the Crown of my Hope,
My soul is in haste to be gone:
O bear me ye cherubims, up,
And waft me away to his throne!2

Many texts in Faber’s collection are of a similarly reflective, individual nature. Through his hymns we find him working out his faith. In his collection of 1849 ‘The Thought of God’ speaks in awe of the vastness of God who, though intimate to the believer, is ‘beyond imagined space’. This sense of awe brings an appropriate fear of God which Faber addresses in the next text, ‘The Fear of God’. Following very much the pattern of William Cowper, Faber now admits to a dryness of spirit. In a text entitled ‘Peevishness’ he longs to be near to God while being ‘amidst the storm’ and attests that he is ‘deadly sick of men’, that ‘It seems as if I loathed the earth’. He diagnoses a discord within himself and states that: ‘…this peevishness with good/Is want of love of God’. ‘Tis we who weigh upon ourselves;/Self is the irksome weight’. All his efforts are unable to counter his sense of desolation:

Therefore I crave for scenes which might
my fettered thoughts unbind,
And where the elements might be
Like scapegoats to my mind.3

Such scapegoats would take away with them those things which he felt obscured God. Then, Faber hopes, that all things will tell ‘Not of Thy worship, but much more,/And only, Lord! of Thee’. It is natural to move from this point of abandonment to consider what is God’s intention for our lives and for eternity, and this Faber does. ‘Predestination’ explores the concept of election and God’s will to work in human lives. The struggle with the conflict between experience and faith continues and is told through the medium of the hymns. Not only the texts themselves but the way in which they are collected together takes us on a spiritual journey. In ‘The Right Must Win’ Faber struggles with the observation that good does not always triumph:

Ah! God is other than we think;
His ways are far above,
Far beyond reason’s height, and reached
Only by childlike love.

Right is not always where it seems to be, and so:

Blest too is he who can divine
Where real right doth lie,
And dares to take the side that seems
Wrong to man’s blindfold eye.

The faithful are urged:

Then learn to scorn the praise of men,
And learn to lose with God;
For Jesus won the world through shame,
And beckons thee His road.

In the end a truth will be discerned:

For right is right, since God is God;
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter would be sin.

The words are his own, hewn out of his own struggles and experience and, sometimes perhaps, we echo them.
Theology and biography intertwine in many of these texts. For Cowper the ‘mysterious way’ in which God moves in part reflects his mental state and experience. Faber sought a God of wide mercy and gentle love having lost his mother when he was quite young, but also struggled with the predestinarianism of his Calvinist upbringing. Similarly the theology that nuances Charles Wesley’s writing more than any other is that of Calvin.
For Wesley Calvinist predestinarianism was answered by Arminianism. Whether he is writing in an overtly polemic fashion or in a more affirming style Arminian theology permeates his hymns. His own feelings sometimes thread themselves through the verse. The stanzas of ‘What shall I do my God to love’ speak of the Arminian theology that John Wesley preached. Verse 4 is the verse which is particularly influenced by Charles own spiritual experience to which we find significant witness in his sermons. We normally sing John Wesley’s version of these words: ‘My trespass was grown up to heaven’. Charles Wesley had written ‘My trespass is grown up to heaven’. He found the path to perfection ran consistently up hill. Yet on other occasions there is an overwhelming sense of joy and hope derived from his personal faith experience and often expressed in the first person, for example, ‘And can it be that I should gain an interest in the saviour’s blood’.
Where is all this leading us? Hymns historically have been defined as ‘praise of God sung’. Yet it has been acknowledged for years that, especially in the free-church tradition, the purpose of hymns has widened. The authors that I have addressed so briefly in this paper have, additionally to any other influence, allowed their own feelings, experience and biography to inform their writing.
A sub-text of personal experience is found in many texts written during the last fifty years. Sometimes the experience is buried and we simply guess at the events which have prompted authorship. For others, notes accompanying the printing of individual hymns allow us to trace the motivation of their writers. On occasion hymns are written second hand, as it were, the authors having imagined themselves into the place of others and then poured out praise or lament as if it was their own. We turn back again for a single, perhaps the best, example of this genre to Frederick Faber:

My children! My children! they clustered all round me,
Like a rampart which sorrow could never break through;
Each change in their beautiful lives only bound me
In a spell of delight which no care could undo.

The picture is one of a mother besotted with her children. The words are individual with the repetitive use of the personal and possessive pronouns. The following reflection on the nature of the one who has died only heightens the image:

But the eldest! O Father! how glorious he was,
With the soul looking out through his fountain like eyes:
Thou lovest Thy Sole-born! And had I not cause
The treasure Thou gavest me, Father! to prize.

The text begins to move into the spirit of lament and protest characteristic of the psalmist, but it is still full of subtle observation and tenderness as we imagine this blue-eyed, perhaps sensitive, child. The sense of outrage continues through the succeeding verses, mingled with description, as we hear that the child was, ‘My tallest! My fairest! Oh let me complain;/For all life is unroofed, and the tempests beat through’. The romantic imagery of the hymn comparing the loss of bereavement with the destructiveness of nature, is woven through the whole piece. The responsibility for the death is laid at God’s door for, ‘All was bright, but Thou camest, so dreadful and brief,/Like a thunderbolt falling in gardens of flowers’, it is as though a ‘lily-bed lies beaten down by the rain’.

The author begins to rationalise what has happened, to debate with God:

I murmur not Father! My will is with Thee;
I knew at the first that my darling was Thine:
Hadst Thou taken him earlier, O Father! – but see!
Thou had left him so long that I dreamed he was mine.

Faber recognises that love can result in pain when the loved one dies. He writes with compassion, not discouraging loving attachment, but grieving the more for the loss:

Thou hast taken the fairest: he was fairest to me
Thou hast taken the fairest: ’tis always Thy way;
Thou has taken the dearest: was he dearest to Thee?
Thou art welcome, thrice welcome: – yet woe is the day!

The text reflects the very common, and not very healthy idea, that God took the specially loveable children because he wanted them for himself, and wanted them young and innocent. The initiative of God is fervently underlined as each line begins, ‘Thou’. The words are not ones of acquiescence, but rather of accusation. Even the phrase, ”tis always Thy way’ is less one of resignation in the context. It is a complaint against God’s seeming capacity to inflict the greatest pain when He inflicts pain at all, continuing the theme of the opening two lines of the text: ‘Thou touchest us lightly, O God! in our grief;/But how rough is Thy touch in our prosperous hours!’ It is as though God is trying to have the greatest effect possible as He takes this child. We are reminded again, by the repetitive nature of the text, just how fair and dear was this child, so that the question, ‘was he dearest to Thee’ becomes rhetorical suggesting that he could not possibly be; the closing line being almost thrown in God’s face.
Up to this point we may have been convinced of the commitment of the author to his text and his identification with the subject matter. Yet, if we reflect, we remember that Faber was not married, was a Catholic priest and had no children. His imagination has enabled him to reflect on the grief of a mother who has lost her child and to use that reflection to inform his text in such a way as to make these words a useful prayer at the time he was writing.
Today we would eschew such sentimental hymns, but many will be able to look at texts, particularly by Fred Kaan, Brian Wren or John Bell, and guess at their inspiration even when the author has not made this explicit. The consequence of earthing hymns in ordinary human circumstances is that others singing the words can easily identify with them and make them their own. The hymns become a means to help us to tell our own stories. We can then place them in the context of the gospel. The hymns speak to our own condition.
Is there a message here for those of us who continue to write? I believe there is. If without being overly self-indulgent we can root our texts in reality, in personal experience of ourselves and others, then what we write will be more helpful in the worship of the church and more supportive to the lives of ordinary Christians.


1 All quotations of words by William Cowper are taken from Cowper, W., Poetical Works, Edit. W.M. Rossetti, Moxon, London.
2 Pratt, A.E., Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals, Inter Varsity Press, Leicester, 2003, pp162-3.
3 All quotations of hymns by Frederick Faber are taken from Faber, F.W., Hymns, 1861.

© Andrew Pratt 2010