Screens or Hymn Books? – Pros and Cons – a considered response

A little while ago I shared an article on my blog about the use of screens and hymn books in churches. This is it https://thefederalist.com/2019/06/18/churches-should-ditch-projector-screens-bring-back-hymnals/

I mentioned to some people that I’d reflect on it Here goes…

A number of folk responded very vociferously to what was perceived as an attack on the use of screens in churches. The article was strongly in favour of the use of hymn books. What surprised me was the lack of any critical analysis on either side of the argument.

To evaluate the use of screens over against books in worship we need to define our own understanding of worship. Without that it is hard to decide on the use or otherwise of tools that are meant to enable worship.

Worship involves us and God. It can also link us with our neighbours. It can be corporate. For the sake of this evaluation I am considering corporate worship of God by a gathered congregation.

Worship, praise of God, can and should involve all the senses. In saying that I’m conscious that some people have impaired senses. This, if anything, underlines the need for variety. We can express our worship in a whole raft of different of ways – visually, in sound, in stillness or movement, in taste and smell, through tactile stimuli and so on. Clearly not all of these are enabled or enhanced by books or screens. I make the point in order to stress just what these particular media help with.

Screens best present visual media. We look at them. I know that is obvious, but we do not, for the most part, use them in this way nearly enough in church. I remember some years ago putting together a montage of still photos. The intention was to generate a sense of awe. The set began in darkness with the voice of David Suchet, reading from the Jesus Storybook Bible the section from Genesis relating to creation. It then merged photos from the Hubble Telescope of stars, galaxies and novae. This was set to music from Saint-Saëns’ organ symphony.

It was used at different times in Drew University in New Jersey and a Cheshire village Methodist Church in a Cheshire village. No printed words were used.

More often than not, aside from a YouTube clip, we see words projected, hymns or worship songs to be sung. When Singing the Faith (the most recent British Methodist hymnal) was being compiled there was a conversation about the advantages and disadvantages of a digital over against a printed collection. So often what we do is predicated on cost and ease of use. Some folk were under the misconception that the digital collection would be by far the least expensive to produce. No account was taken of the cost of setting and editing words and music and the associated copyright implications and resulting royalties. These costs make up a significant proportion of the expense of compiling a resource. But part of the drive for digital resources is toward projection and this is understandable.

What effect does projection or printing have on our sung worship? I think it depends on what we want to sing. If the whole of a text can be fitted into one frame on the screen then the balance between print and projection is close. Indeed, visuals alongside the text can enhance it. I’ll come to the issue of music in a moment. Where a text requires a sequence of slides it can become harder to understand what we are singing or for the words to have the effect they might otherwise have had. Yes, we can move slides wisely and competently. I am not criticizing the actual way the technology is operated. That having been said havinga hymn spread over a sequence of slides can be really affective. Take John Bell’s hymn ‘The mind of God is forever changing’. The initial reaction to this opening sentence might be, ‘that can’t be right, surely God is the same yesterday, today and forever’. The intention is to bring us up short. But Bell is suggesting that our faith in God is predicated on a progressive, developing relationship. So further verses begin, ‘The heart of God is forever changing’, ‘The world God made is forever changing’ concluding, ‘The love of God – this is never changing’. It could be equated with the disclosure of the punchline of a joke, or the denouement of a mystery. You need to keep the last verse secret. The obverse of this argument is that the process can be somewhat subversive. The well known text, ‘In Christ alone’ (Stuart Townend) is sometimes objected to because of the verse which contains the line ‘Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied’. Some people object so strongly to this that they will not sing it. Putting aside the theological argument for the moment, the appearance of the line over half-way through the second verse does not allow a singer to consider the text and decide whether they find it acceptable. Perhaps this is, again, the intention of the author. But the argument a particular theological perspective should be accepted without question is inappropriate within worship. Is it appropriate to manipulate people by the use of skilfully crafted words, and an excellent tune, into singing something which they cannot sing with integrity in worship? To take account of what we are singing, for it to make sense, it is sometimes necessary to be able to read ahead, and that requires more than a single verse, or sometimes just half a verse, to be seen.

One obvious advantage of a book is that it can be read ahead, but it can also be perused after singing. It can be a resource for spiritual reflection. This is not a prerequisite for the words of most worship songs or a Taizé chant taken in the moment. With a hymn that is developing an argument or expressing a credal belief it makes sense.

If we add music to the mix then we enter another dimension. The worship song is often written to be led by a singer or singers and for the congregation to participate karaoke style. I am not being pejorative in saying this. We sing along. The effect is often uplifting, deeply spiritual, sometimes repetitive. We pick up the tune as we go along. We mimic the leader. The method is historic and crosses theological and denominational boundaries. This type of learning and singing can be part of mega-church worship or a focus for a small prayer meeting; it can be slow, quiet, meditative, or driving and energetic. The words are less likely to be narrative, developing intellectually or theologically from verse to verse.

A traditional hymn may have these latter qualities and can, in addition, have a melody, which while repeating verse on verse, might well have verses sung in unison, harmony or by separate voices. For those who can read it sheet music, a book, is almost essential and certainly aids the task of the singer. Even having a melody line can assist less proficient singers to follow a tune. It is interesting that some older collections have such a device while it was not adopted for Singing the Faith, most probably on economic grounds. In addition books are easier to ‘thumb through’ visually than digital files, though electronic files can be searched more efficiently. The use of files or a hymnal in these ways can help the worship leader/hymn/song selector to find the right item with greater facility. It has been observed that over the last few decades, in some contexts worship has evolved. This has resulted in a move from a more coherent, to a less structured approach which does not require close thematic linking of theme and song or hymn. Has the decline in hymn book compilation and use driven this or is it symptomatic of it? That’s another question.

In conclusion (perhaps I should say, for the moment?) we probably need a fairly fluid approach to the use of books and screens neither ditching one nor disregarding the other. Nevertheless there is a need for a more critical use of both so that the tools, for that is what they are, fit the task.

© Andrew Pratt 13/11/2019

 
 

 

Election, politics, loyalty and love (previously posted as Loyalty)

Love and loyalty hang together…
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:
the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading (1859-1918) wrote of loyalty and we are witnessing loyalty in politics stretched to the limit, at times, completely broken. Who can sing of a love for country that asks no question? Can anyone anymore, in this country or any other?

Soon, however things pan out politically in this country, we will need to choose how to vote, and I feel confused. It would be wrong use of this platform to tell you who to vote for and, in any case, I don’t know the answer to that question for any of us individually or corporately, but I’ve been thinking. And it relates to that word loyalty. Where do we place our loyalty?

Let’s think back, dig into history a little. My Grandfather, born in 1886, fought in the war to end all wars. Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, became a captain. People who fought in that war hoped there would never be another such war. The League of Nations was formed. TocH started by the Reverend Phillip Byard (Tubby) Clayton offered fellowship to members of the forces. Step through the door and rank disappeared. All in it together would be a reasonable summary. My Dad joined TocH. Born in 1912 he was in the Eighth Army. Drove a water carrier at El Alamein. Royal Army Service Corps. Died when he was 60 in 1973. He and so many others fought against what they saw as ultimate evil in Nazism. Let us remember that the growth of Nazism took place in a Christian country through a democratic process.

Shades and colours of loyalty, interpretations of faith. A league of Nations that grew into the United Nations. In my lifetime Europe grew closer and distances seemed to shrink. Society has become global. We shudder at natural destruction in other parts of the world, at fire by the Amazon, but also at gun crime in America and knife crime in our own cities.

And now, that imminent election asks of us, against this back-drop of history, our varied and disparate experiences, our personal stories, our joy and our pain, where we place our loyalty.

Our faith and our doubt inform what we have become and put us where we are. Yet we each, as people of faith, ought still to ask ourselves ‘where do we place our ultimate loyalty?’ And if this is too political then Jeremiah, Amos, the prophets were too political. I think it was Desmond Tutu who said, ‘When people say that the Bible and politics don’t mix, I ask them which Bible they are reading’.

Where do we place our loyalty? Is it to our country? To our family? Our church? To our neighbours? My Dad or your Grandmother? Are we driven by self-interest?
The Hebrew scriptures say honour your father and your mother. In Luke Jesus is reported as saying, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple’. We cannot just read scripture without engaging our brains, looking at what is being said and to whom. Sometimes the Cain and Abel situation is re-run; verbally if not physically.

But to go back to the Bible one thing shines through, from Amos and Hosea (read them, they’re short books), through the Magnificat to the story of the Good Samaritan, to the crucifixion and on beyond the resurrection, and that is LOVE. If we are not loyal to LOVE we are just like ‘resounding gongs or clanging cymbals’. We make a lot of noise but we are worth nothing at all.

It seems that in all things, not least our political choices and decisions, we must decide how to prioritise LOVE over and above anything else. And that may take us out of Europe or leave us in. It may join us with our families or separate us from them so distantly that sometimes it will be as though we hate them. But above all only ‘resounding gongs and clanging cymbals don’t care‘. They are not human, they do not think, they CARE for nothing AND COUNT FOR NOTHING.

In every choice, every decision, every vote if we see ourselves as Christians we will ask, does this choice, this decision, enhance or diminish the way those affected by it are LOVED. And those people may be our Jewish or Muslim sisters or brothers, or those of other faiths or none. They may well be vulnerable with less wealth or power than ourselves.

YOUR CHOICE…AND MINE…EVERY TIME…don’t point the finger, don’t blame the other person, the other party, the other side, the other nation… YOUR CHOICE…AND MINE…EVERY TIME…but lets us prioritise LOVE.

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Loyalty

In this month 80 years ago the Second World War began –

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love:
the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,
that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
the love that never falters, the love that pays the price,
the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Cecil Arthur Spring-Rice (1859-1918) wrote of loyalty and this week we have seen loyalty in politics stretched to the limit, at times, completely broken. Who can sing of a love for country that asks no question? Can anyone anymore, in this country or any other?

Soon, however things pan out politically in the UK, we are likely to have an election and I feel confused. It would be wrong use of this blog to tell you who to vote for and, in any case, I don’t know the answer to that question for us all individually or corporately, but I’ve been thinking. And it relates to that word loyalty. Where do we place that loyalty?

Let’s think back, dig into history a little. My Grandfather, born in 1886, fought in the war to end all wars. Served in the Royal Army Medical Corps, became a captain. People who fought in that war hoped there would never be another such war. The League of Nations was formed. TocH started by the Reverend Phillip Byard (Tubby) Clayton offered fellowship to members of the forces. Step through the door and rank disappeared. All in it together would be a reasonable summary. My dad joined TocH. Born in 1912 he was in the Eighth Army. Drove a water carrier at El Alamein. Royal Army Service Corps. Died when he was 60 in 1973. He and so many others fought against what they saw as ultimate evil in Nazism. Let us remember that the growth of Nazism took place in a Christian country through a democratic process.

Shades and colours of loyalty, interpretations of faith. A league of Nations that grew into the United Nations. In my lifetime Europe grew closer and distances seemed to shrink. Society has become global. We shudder at the destruction in the Bahamas, at fie by the Amazon, but also at gun crime in America and knife crime in our own cities.

And now, that potential election asks of us, against this back-drop of history, our varied and disparate experiences, our personal stories, our joy and our pain, where we place our loyalty.

Our faith and our doubt inform what we have become and put us where we are. Yet we each, as Christians, ought still to ask ourselves ‘where do we place our ultimate loyalty?’ And if this is too political then Jeremiah was too political. I think it was Desmond Tutu who said if people think the Bible has nothing to do with politics they’re reading a different Bible from me.

Where do we place our loyalty? Is it to our country? To our family? Our church? To our neighbours? My dad or your grandmother? Are we driven by self-interest?

One thing shines through the Bible, from Amos and Hosea (read them, they’re short books), through the Magnificat to the story of the Good Samaritan, to the crucifixion and on beyond the resurrection, and that is LOVE. If we are not loyal to LOVE we are just like ‘resounding gongs or clanging cymbals’. We make a lot of noise but we are worth nothing at all.

It seems that in all things, not least our political choices and decisions, we must decide how to prioritise LOVE over and above anything else. And that may take us out of Europe or leave us in. It may join us with our families or separate us from them so distantly that sometimes it will be as though we hate them. But above all only ‘resounding gongs and clanging cymbals don’t care‘. They are not human, they do not think, they CARE for nothing AND COUNT OF NOTHING.

In every choice, every decision, every vote if we see ourselves as Christians we will ask, does this choice, this decision, enhance or diminish the way those affected by it are LOVED.

YOUR CHOICE…AND MINE…EVERY TIME…don’t point the finger, don’t blame the other person, the other party, the other side, the other nation… YOUR CHOICE…AND MINE…EVERY TIME…

Human Relationships and the Church

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.

Why?

The man born blind

When Jesus met a man born blind ( John, 9:1–12) two issues were addressed. First the man’s blindness. Being blind within his culture he was regarded as bad, a sinner. So were his parents. Neither the man nor his parents had done anything wrong, but the intransigence of humanity was such that it was easier to heal the man than to heal those who were condemning him. Ultimately those condemning him would not let go of their critique. To do so would be to lose face. Though there is a lingering human sense for some people that illness or disability has a human agency, that if, for instance, our children are different it is our fault, science and culture do not generally uphold this point of view. We are born as we are. We are all different from one another and the challenge of Jesus is one of accepting love which bridges difference and loves others, incorporating them into society rather than alienating or condemning them.

Healing a leper

This is further underlined in the instance of a leper coming to Jesus to be healed (Mark 1: 40 – 45). The leper is unwell, but fear of illness had caused society to alienate people with such illness, rather than enabling them to live and be loved within society. So Jesus heals the leper but also points him to the priest who can issue a certificate indicating that he is ‘clean’ and can be reincorporated into society. Jesus’ initial response to the man is to be moved, either with compassion or with anger, depending on the Biblical text which is chosen. There are two and the Greek word in each is different. One suggests compassion, but at a level which is visceral and not the gentler sense which our English might suggest. The other word relates to ‘snorting like a war horse’, it conveys a very aggressive emotion. Neither expression fits an appropriate response to the man himself, or to the illness. It does make sense in relation to the those who would seek to put this man outside of their society on account of something which was not his fault. While some illnesses might carry with them an element of personal responsibility, not all do and even in those that have this component, the sufferer needs to have an awareness of what they are doing in order to avoid the action that is causing the problem and the capacity to alter their practice or context. The bottom line that Jesus demonstrates in these situations is the human possibility of love to incorporate someone different from ourselves and the human responsibility to change our attitude in order that someone else can be whole as they are. The illness and its healing is secondary.

Creation

Arguably in relation to racial difference we are still on a journey of growing understanding. Racism still exists in society, though most societies recognize it as wrong. What is more difficult is eradicating it as we have a deeply ingrained sense of fear, sometimes biologically helpful sometimes culturally learned which makes us fear difference. Increasingly such differences are seen as biologically inherent and make up part of the variety of created life. Indeed, such variety offers a survival premium and hence the emphasis on seed banks and conservation maintaining a varied genetic resource for future generations. So there is a human benefit, aside from any cultural or Biblical injunction at least not to kill, at best to love and care.

Reading the Bible

This moves us to a consideration as to how we read creation stories and particularly phrases such as ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ (Genesis 1: 27). When such passages were first spoken or written people were seeking to make sense of the world in which they lived. Arguably they saw men and women. What they saw was an outside manifestation, but also what fitted in the context of their culture. Difference felt threatening. We now know that human beings  have been around for upward of a million years. We now (except in situations where the Biblical text is read independently of context, variety and translation) recognise that the Biblical text we are reading cannot be read as a literal description of what happened at creation. We also see around us people who exhibit a variety of difference in appearance, genetic make-up, cultural history, mental capacity and theological understanding. This latter is manifested, not simply in nuances of interpretation of one collection of scripture, but in a compendium of different faiths, some of which have come and gone and others are still being practised. In that light we might read ‘male and female created he them’ and ‘being made in God’s image’ differently. We now know that there is, for instance, a spectrum of skin and hair colour, genetically determined. We are also increasingly aware that the same is true of our sexuality. I would suggest that this has been so for centuries. Our forebears would recognise ‘strong women’ and ‘gentle men’, though we now know that such descriptions are limited and simplistic. We are all more varied, indeed ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ (Psalm 139: 14), than our simple outer appearance would allow. Turning the phrases around, without I think doing disservice to scripture, we might now say male and female and in many other ways (LGBTQ for instance), we have been made. And if that is so, and we are made in God’s image, this variety must be inherently present in the otherness that we name ‘God’.

Human variety and relationship

These reflections give me pause to reflect and the conviction that, while recognising this fascinating and wonderful variety of created humanity, we should have little surprise that Jesus worked so hard, in the terms of his day, to enable people to live with difference and to love one another, to break down walls of alienation. To do this today we need to see all people as created in God’s image, to work together in mutual recognition of our common humanity for our common good what ever our differences.

In the context of intimate human relations, the church has tended to fit people into models of relationship rather than enabling people to be affirmed in the relationships for which they were suited. This should in no way diminish our reverence for traditional marriage, but neither should we be fearful of other forms, styles and types of relationship. For some these other relationships will feel like a traditional marriage, and could be named as such, others might be seen in other ways, named by other names. Even the term ‘traditional marriage’ is difficult to pin down as individuals relate faithfully to others in a variety of different ways. No two marriages are the same. What ought to be stressed is that no relationship is acceptable which is one sided or abusive in any way.

What we need is the courage to affirm/bless different relationships not simply maintaining that one form of relationship has been divinely prescribed for all people.  

John Wesley – timely words for today…

Words of John Wesley in his sermon on the catholic spirit – original, non-inclusive language of the 1700s – strong inclusive sentiment:

Is thy heart right toward thy neighbour? Dost thou love as thyself, all mankind, without exception? “If you love those only that love you, what thank have ye?” Do you “love your enemies?” Is your soul full of good-will, of tender affection, toward them? Do you love even the enemies of God, the unthankful and unholy? Do your bowels yearn over them? Could you “wish yourself” temporally “accursed” for their sake? And do you show this by “blessing them that curse you, and praying for those that despitefully use you, and persecute you?”

Do you show your love by your works? While you have time as you have opportunity, do you in fact “do good to all men,” neighbours or strangers, friends or enemies, good or bad? Do you do them all the good you can; endeavouring to supply all their wants; assisting them both in body and soul, to the uttermost of your power? – If thou art thus minded, may every Christian say, yea, if thou art but sincerely desirous of it, and following on till thou attain, then “thy heart is right, as my heart is with thy heart.”

“If it be, give me thy hand.” I do not mean, “Be of my opinion.” You need not: I do not expect or desire it. Neither do I mean, “I will be of your opinion.” I cannot, it does not depend on my choice: I can no more think, than I can see or hear, as I will. Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever. You need not even endeavour to come over to me, or bring me over to you. I do not desire you to dispute those points, or to hear or speak one word concerning them. Let all opinions alone on one side and the other: only “give me thine hand.”

I do not mean, “Embrace my modes of worship,” or, “I will embrace yours.” This also is a thing which does not depend either on your choice or mine. We must both act as each is fully persuaded in his own mind. Hold you fast that which you believe is most acceptable to God, and I will do the same. I believe the Episcopal form of church government to be scriptural and apostolical. If you think the Presbyterian or Independent is better, think so still, and act accordingly. I believe infants ought to be baptized; and that this may be done either by dipping or sprinkling. If you are otherwise persuaded, be so still, and follow your own persuasion. It appears to me, that forms of prayer are of excellent use, particularly in the great congregation. If you judge extemporary prayer to be of more use, act suitable to your own judgement. My sentiment is, that I ought not to forbid water, wherein persons may be baptized; and that I ought to eat bread and drink wine, as a memorial of my dying Master: however, if you are not convinced of this act according to the light you have. I have no desire to dispute with you one moment upon any of the preceding heads. Let all these smaller points stand aside. Let them never come into sight “If thine heart is as my heart,” if thou lovest God and all mankind, I ask no more: “give me thine hand.”

A Cosy Armageddon

When arguments are brewing we don’t notice,
it seems that tension builds with every word,
we say things while not hearing one another,
like children in a playground, quite absurd!

It could have been a cosy Armageddon,
the words had seemed innocuous and bland,
yet hidden in each phrase, each idle sentence
were thoughts designed to undermine each stand.

If we could simply seek a gracious outcome
when others hurt and harass, fault or harm,
a look inspired by love could turn the tables,
could echo hidden need, befriend, disarm.

© Andrew Pratt 3/5/2019

What does singing do to us?

When we sing we embody (in-body) the theology that we have read. We take it in, translate, interpret and transmit. In the process are we, perhaps, formed or changed by the medium? Not pushing the metaphor too far, is it in any way like eating – what we eat becomes part of us, we excrete some of it, and it can nourish or poison…

So what we sing, and even how we sing, becomes important in a way we may not have envisaged before. It is one thing to read a text which remains remote, like looking at a cake and not eating it; it is something altogether different to take the text in and to re-transmit it. That we might do by reading aloud. The sheer physicality of singing, the presence of music, steps everything up a gear. Wesley knew that. That is why hymns were so important. The hymns provided portmanteau scriptures or interpretations, theology or doctrine. These were memorised and could be shared with others. And you can never lose them – which can become a bit of an irritation!

Why do you like this hymn or that? Why do you find some hymns abhorrent? ‘A good sing’ says as much, if not more, about feeling as it does about understanding or literary or musical quality. But Britta Martini wants to push us further by asking what is there in the expression of the music or the structure of a text, key or melody, image or metaphor, that causes a hymn to affect us in this way?

What hymns or songs affect you? And how? And why?