Review – More than Hymns: Words for a Lyrical Faith – Janet Wootton – Hymn Society Bulletin 288, 2016 p2 56

Andrew Pratt, More than Hymns: Words for a Lyrical Faith, Stainer & Bell, London, 2015, 190 pp. including indexes, ISBN 978-0-85249- 944-3

I have been privileged to know Andrew Pratt, and to know him specifically as a hymn writer, for many years. I have respected the integrity of his faith and his willingness to face some of the most intractable issues in life and to reflect these with compassion but uncompromisingly in his poetry and hymns.

The preface traces some of the developments in his theological understanding, through a perception of faith which avowedly ‘never can be static’. His exploration into Progressive Christianity builds on an already questioning approach, within a ‘dynamic yet consistent Christian faith’. The bedrock of that faith, which he says is ‘so far unchanged’, is, ‘the unerring presence of Love and the centrality of the human Jesus’. [18]

The present book contains 144 new texts, which continue to push at the boundaries of faith and understanding. The hymns are arranged thematically. Each section is introduced, and each hymn followed by notes on the situation of its writing, its relation to scripture, and its place in Andrew’s own theology. At first, the list of contents looks pretty traditional: creation, Jesus, the Church, society.
But the section on creation moves straight into theodicy, the problem of evil, and then to a grouping under a quotation from Sydney Carter to which Pratt also refers in his preface, ‘Nothing fixed or final’. The challenge is there from the start. The problem of evil and the provisionality of understanding are rooted right there in creation, rather than, as in many collections, among hymns on the world or the human condition.

The hymns on the life of Jesus continue Pratt’s contribution to the tradition of writing that focuses not only on the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, but also powerfully on his life and teaching. These sections concentrate on a few passages. In the case of the ministry of Jesus, the central focus is the Beatitudes, including an amazing text based on The Message version: ‘At the end of your rope? You are blessed! That is strange’ (no. 35).

Since his last collection of hymns, Pratt has been involved in writing for the three years of the Revised Common Lectionary, for the online resources, Twelve Baskets, now called The Worship Cloud. It may be thanks to this, which Andrew calls a ‘discipline’, that there are hymns to take us through Holy Week and to Pentecost, under the title, ‘Jesus – the last days’.

I find it a little strange that Pentecost is subsumed under Jesus, and, in fact, there is little on the Spirit of God. Maybe this is part of Pratt’s powerfully incarnational theological stance. In fact, it is something of a delight that ‘Holy risk-taker’ appears in the index, but not Holy Spirit. On the other hand, the Pentecost ‘end’ of ‘Jesus – the last days’ is an Andrew Pratt tour de force, starting: ‘Eternal fury fires the saints/who shake and rattle, push and shove’ and ends: ‘God hangs beyond the edge of hope,/ outside the church, beyond the walls’ (no. 62).

There are hymns to challenge the church, in its making sense of scripture, and its worship. The voices from scripture are not those of comfort, but convey a sophisticated interaction with biblical texts, worthy of the Wesleys in whose tradition Andrew Pratt stands. For him, as for the Wesleys, ‘sung words’ can be ‘part of the process of hermeneutics, of our reaching back to the original Hebrew and Greek … unlocking scripture and extending the limits of our interpretation’. [19]

The scriptural focus continues in ‘Something of society’, which brings what we know of Hebrew society into conversation with present day issues. What does monarchy look like, viewed against its Hebrew roots (no. 92)? How are human relationships, parenting, loving, lived out in the presence of the God of scripture?

And we are led onward into the varied circumstances of life, living with wealth, discrimination and injustice, through remembrance and grief to renewal.

Andrew Pratt’s writing has often been inspired by events, or by books or lectures, which sparked off ideas. Those who know him are used to seeing him ostensibly taking notes during a conference or meeting: well, yes, taking notes, but in verse, and at the end, producing a finished hymn. Or else we have found in our in-box, following a natural or human disaster, a text which fixes the event to the canvas of theology with pinpoint accuracy.

These are still here in this collection: for example, no. 142 was written on the death of Nelson Mandela. But more of these texts draw on Andrew’s own life experience, including, now, suffering and bereavement, which seem to claw their way to joy. The section on remembrance and grief includes a searing text, which he says comes from his experience as a telephone Samaritan, but also ‘through clinical depression following the death of my son, and through my own experience of cancer’, no. 131, which is about suicide. But no. 6, in the section on theodicy, takes on the full power of suffering: ‘when no angels flew about me,/when I thought I’d gone insane’, finds the way to praise through the God who ‘has plumbed the depths of darkness’, and goes on to pray for others whose lives are ‘dim and dark’.

Like many text writers who are not musicians, Andrew writes to existing hymn tunes. However, some of the hymns in this collection have tunes composed for them, in many cases by Finnish composer, Camilla Cederholm. Others are set to folk melodies, which are often included with the words. In one or two places, there is a closer interaction between text and tune. Hymn no. 13, for instance, ‘resulted from a conversation with the Revd Dr Jan Berry. We were discussing how some women who have survived abuse find the biblical image of Mary to be one of a survivor’. [20]  Though PADERBORN is suggested, the tune printed is NORTH COUNTRY MAID, which is, of course, about a young woman who, like Mary, is lonely and far from home.

Hymn 100 is set to MACPHERSON’S FAREWELL, which has a very specific movement of emotion through what in the original is a verse and chorus construction. The chorus part, with its driving three four rhythm, works well with the second half of the first two verses, particularly verse 2, where the first (fifth) line, ‘There is no hurt that is not felt’, gives a strong down beat emphasis to ‘is’ in each case. On the other hand, the first line ends in the word ‘partiality’, which is spun out over eight notes, and makes more sense in the alternative tune, KINGSFOLD.

Not all the texts are designed to be sung corporately. The stark Good Friday hymn at no. 47 is suggested as a solo, and the aforementioned text on suicide at no. 131, set to a tune by Cederholm, is written as a song (fully underlined under the tune), and ‘might be sung congregationally at a funeral, or performed by a soloist to give voice to the feelings of others.’ [21]

It is very hard to stop writing this review! There is far more to be said about this bombshell of a book. In the end, all I can say is that you have to read it for yourself. Use and sing the texts, read them as the edgy, shattering poems that they are. Let the imagery cannon around your mind. And be prepared to encounter scripture in vivid new ways.

Janet Wootton



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
Brian Doerksen

God weeps
at love withheld,
at strength misused,
at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
God weeps.

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.
Janet Wootton

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.
Fred Kaan

We hear of people sanctioned,
made poor by bad intent,
for selfishness is ruling
infecting government;
we see the children suffer
while parents are distressed,
what is there we can offer,
our nation seems bereft?
Andrew Pratt

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,
truth discerning,
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

Cheltenham Christian Arts Festival

Your hymn book might hold enough for you, but then something happens in your local church or nationally, or internationally. You turn to HymnQuest. You search the themes and the chances are there’s something here. But, just occasionally, the words don’t fit.

Perhaps you could do better? But how to start.

On April 29th and 30th the Rev Drs Janet Wootton (Pratt Green Trust Vice-Chair) and Andrew Pratt (HymnQuest Editor), internationally known, published hymn writers are running hymn text writing workshops as part of the Cheltenham Christian Arts Festival. Find out more and sign on here:

Whether you have never written before or have published hymns there will be space for you to share and learn. Janet and Andrew look forward to seeing you.

Hymns and the Bible

Hymns and the Bible Part 1

(HP indicates numbers of hymns in Hymns & Psalms)

Sheep are dirty, smelly, horrible creatures – In the beginning – hymns and psalms…

The king of love my shepherd is (HP 69)

We had finished singing this hymn in the theological college chapel. The preacher, an Anglican in full regalia stood on the chancel steps and preached the only sermon I can remember in its entirety:

“’And on his shoulder gently laid and home rejoicing brought me’. Sheep are dirty, smelly, horrible creatures. So are you. Amen.”

I’ve been thinking about that ever since. And for our study of hymns and the Bible it is salient. Our hymns so often diminish, rather than enhance what we find in the Bible. It is easy to take a phrase say, ‘Great is thy faithfulness’, put it into a hymn, sing it with enthusiasm, but not fully grasp all that it might mean or say to us. Lamentations 3, 1 goes like this:

1 I am one who has seen affliction under the rod of God’s wrath;
2 he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light;
3 against me alone he turns his hand, again and again, all day long.
4 He has made my flesh and my skin waste away, and broken my bones;
5 he has besieged and enveloped me with bitterness and tribulation;
6 he has made me sit in darkness like the dead of long ago.
7 He has walled me about so that I cannot escape; he has put heavy chains on me;
8 though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer;
9 he has blocked my ways with hewn stones, he has made my paths crooked.
10 He is a bear lying in wait for me, a lion in hiding;
11 he led me off my way and tore me to pieces; he has made me desolate;
12 he bent his bow and set me as a mark for his arrow.
13 He shot into my vitals the arrows of his quiver;
14 I have become the laughingstock of all my people, the object of their taunt-songs all day long.
15 He has filled me with bitterness, he has sated me with wormwood.
16 He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes;
17 my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;
18 so I say, “Gone is my glory, and all that I had hoped for from the LORD.”
19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
21 ¶ But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”

These are the words of a person dragged into exile, the time is around 586 BCE. The sense of exile is not just from home but from God. For these people God resided in Jerusalem. But they were in Babylon. This was total abandonment. Now let me add another layer to the story. The one who laments is one of God’s chosen people. Yet God has manifestly let him down. This is evidence of the action or inaction of a God who is heard elsewhere saying ‘I will be their God, and they shall be my people’. Any sense of faith they have they cling to with very little hope. The close of this passage seems either foolish or audacious, ‘The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness’.

It is the very necessity of a hymn to be succinct, economical in its use of words. Sometimes this can have a very powerful effect, but we must beware not to reduce power or wonder, scandal or lament to simplistic, ineffective syllables. ‘Great is thy faithfulness’ does not do this. What is does do is to lift words out of a context which, if only we had lived in it, would make them all the more strange, yet all the more powerful.

It was for this reason that the Old Testament scholar John Bright, many years ago, argued that while we are Christians, and we cannot get rid of that fact, we should preach from the Old Testament giving full credence to the tradition in which it was formed if we are to gain a more complete understanding of God.

So how have hymn writers approached the Old Testament? Or put another way, how much of the Old Testament survives as hymns? If we go onto auto-pilot we will arrive at the Psalms, but I want to visit somewhere else on the way, Song of Songs. Much of this is erotic, it is a love song. Most hymns relate the bridegroom in the book to Jesus. The words become safe and lose much of their power. And again and again we will find that the Bible is more earthy, more real than our 21st century sensitivities allow, and we are the poor for it.

Now let us focus on the Psalms.

The name which comes first to my mind in this connection is Isaac Watts. Watts produced a collection of hymns the title of which gives the lie to his agenda: The Psalms of David imitated in the language of New Testament and applied to the Christian state and worship. He sub-titled the book, An Enquiry into the right Way of fitting the Book of Psalms for Christian Worship. Watts sought to Christianise the Psalms. He notes:

Between the 27th and 29th Psalms: “The 28th Psalm has scarce anything new, but what is repeated in other Psalms.”
After the 42nd Psalm: “The 43rd Psalm is so near akin to this that I have omitted it, only borrowing the 3d and 4th verses to conclude this Hymn.”
In the 55th Psalm: “I have left out some whole Psalms, and several parts of others that tend to fill the Mind with overwhelming Sorrow, or sharp Resentment. neither of which are so well suited to the Spirit of the Gospel, and therefore the particular Complaints of David against Achitophel here are entirely omitted.”
After the 107th Psalm: “The 108th Psalm is formed out of the 57th and 60th, and therefore I have omitted it.”

Psalm 52, 54, 59, 64, 70, 79, 88, 137, and 140 are omitted without comment.

I want to argue against this approach. When in our worship liturgies or our hymns we are selective about the bits of the Bible we can or cannot use in Christian worship we tend to excise those things which are uncomfortable to us personally. In this we must be careful. As Bright wrote, ‘..we shall never hear the Old Testament’s word rightly unless we are willing to hear it all’. Equally we cannot, we must not, just lift material from the Bible, Old or New Testament, without trying to understand the situation in which it was first set. To do that is to misunderstand the original meaning every bit as much as if we ‘do a Watts’ and Christianise everything.

Having cleared that out of the way I want to look especially at the Psalms. As these were originally sung we might expect them to be central to our search. But how do we deal with them? To begin with there are simple practicalities. Hebrew and English poetry do not follow the same conventions. Hebrew often parallels or repeats themes, not in the manner of a chorus, but with repeated lines or ideas. This instance comes from Isaiah 7, 9: ‘If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established’ . There is a Hebrew word play here that we so easily miss. ‘If you do not stand firm – that is, in trust – you will not be stood firm – that is, in your position’. Now this might seem to be of little consequence until we see that it is King Ahaz who is scared and who is being encouraged by Isaiah to overcome his fear because God is on his side. There are nuances we do well to grasp. And this word play is still in use today. I have a recollection of Fred Kaan speaking of a ‘companion God’. He explained that companion has a root meaning of com = with, panus = bread. A whole new sense begins to unfold which I picked up in a hymn of my own:

Here in the company of friends
the bread says we are one,
companion God remain with us,
till pilgrim days are done.

If we try to sing the Psalms in simple word for word, line for line translation, as in say, Anglican Chant, while we may come near to retaining the meaning, the mode of singing is not easy for everyone and there is a tendency, except for those skilled in this art, to have to concentrate on the method rather than the content of the words.
Another possible way of approaching this material is to produce metrical paraphrases. That is, the Psalm is translated into English, but the words are then arranged so that they fall into verses like a traditional hymn. This is still the preferred pattern in some Reformed churches. The Free Church of Scotland produced a complete collection, Sing Psalms, as recently as 2003.

The Lord’s my shepherd (HP 70)

We can see there is a problem here. We want to sing ‘he makes me down to lie’ – pause – in pastures green’. There should be no pause. And in ordinary English we would say ‘he makes me lie down in green pastures’. The order of the words and the way we sing them doesn’t always make sense. So what we are trying to do is not easy. Why bother?

Because, as John Calvin, the reformer, put it, within the Psalms

…there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated…there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men are wont to be agitated.

So let us get to the crux of the matter. Just how can, or should, our hymns be influenced by Psalms?

We need to know a bit more about the Psalms. To begin with they are not all the same. They originally had different purposes. There are many different types of Psalms: Hymns of Praise, Laments, Royal Psalms, Psalms of thanksgiving, pilgrimage songs and wisdom poems. Different commentators have different categories. In the space we have we’ll not delve into all of them, but an exploration of some will begin to give a hint as to what we have gained from the Psalms and what we have lost and need to regain.

To begin with let us try to get back into that world in our imaginations. So think for a moment what it must be like to be ‘the apple of God’s eye’ (Psalm 17, 8), to feel that you are precious to God. Corporately you are God’s chosen people. You are his people, he is your God. This gives rise in worship to a range of reflections and emotions. There is a great sense of thankfulness and praise (Psalms 145 to 150). Psalm 145 inspired:

All creatures of our God and King (HP 329)

The Psalms often speak of a profound sense of security. We think of Psalm 23 again, ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’. But the very language of this Psalm ought to hint at something else. While we are secure in God’s love we are also living in society with others. Such society needs to be governed and we begin to uncover another aspect of Old Testament life. While we might separate religious and secular, they did not. And politics was an intimate part of life. By the time the temple was built, and the Psalms were an intrinsic part of temple worship, the people were ruled by a king. But in a very really sense this community was also a theocracy, ruled by God. So where does the king fit it? What was his place?

At the coronation and in subsequent years the king was reminded in a temple festival of his place of dependence on God and his responsibility to care for, not simply to govern, the people. The festival was elaborate and, we believe, involved Psalm singing. Imagine the gates of Jerusalem, the Holy City, closed and barred. Imagine a vast number of people crowding on the road up to the city. Then through the throng comes the king. The crowd block his way. He cannot go forward and they are closing behind him. Then, as the crowd quietens, a voice rings out:

Who shall ascend into the hill of the LORD? or who shall stand in his holy place?
And the King replies:
He that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not lifted up his soul unto vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
And the crowd call back:
He shall receive the blessing from the LORD, and righteousness from the God of his salvation. This is the generation of them that seek him, that seek thy face, O Jacob. Selah.
And again a voice cries above the throng:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in.
And the crowd ask:
Who is this King of glory?
And a voice responds:
The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
And again the leader sings out:
Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory?
And all the crowd reply:
The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory.

This reconstruction based on Psalm 24 gives a picture of the way in which some of the so called royal psalms may have been used. While they have a firmly religious foundation they underline that Kingship brings responsibility and that kings only reign if the people let them. The message is deeply political.

Now look back at the Psalm that came before, that comfortable, reassuring Psalm 23. Perhaps we need to look at this differently now. And why? Because the king was regarded as the shepherd of the people. God was the eternal shepherd, as it were, but the king is being seen as God’s ambassador. Now let’s re-read this:

‘The Lord’s my shepherd’. From a Christian perspective we picture ‘the Lord’ as Jesus, perhaps as God. But now do the mental jump. If the king, the ruler, is God’s ambassador it is the king who will lead me by still waters, restore my soul (my being), prepare my table (ensure I have food), let my cup run over; in short keep me in ultimate safety. So that is the king’s responsibility. And what do we gain from this in our hymns? At worse a poor paraphrase, at best a comfortable sense of reassurance. What we have lost is that prophetic element which says to those of us and our neighbours who have power, this power has been given to you for the good of others and not for yourself and you will hold it only so long as we see evidence of that gracious, godly responsibility and care! This gentle Psalm has teeth. And if we know the Psalms better and the context from which they came they will serve us more effectively, inspiring our hymns and informing our worship.

Lord, you have searched and known my ways (HP 71)

What else can we uncover that we have lost? Francis Davison’s interpretation of the closing verses of Psalm 137, written in the 17th century goes like this:

Happy, who, thy tender barnes
From the armes
Of their wailing mothers tearing,
‘Gainst the walls shall dash their bones,
Ruthless stones
With their braines and blood besmearing.

At least a third of all the psalms are psalms of Lament, of complaint to God. This lament has theological warrant in Israel in the cries of hurt, rage, doubt, vengeance and isolation poured out to a God who had let the people down. Go back to that starting point, of a people beloved by God, and sure of that, trying to make sense of life when it goes bitterly, horribly wrong.

These words are not buried, not stifled, but passionately cried. They are real. In the same way, as Christians, we can lament when things go wrong, when God does not live up to our theological expectations. The nature of this lament is important, but the manner in which the church expresses it is open to immense distortion. So we turn to Psalm 137, omitted you will remember by Isaac Watts form his collection.

In the United Kingdom many Psalters used for worship omit this Psalm altogether. Some lectionaries have ignored its existence. What do we do with words which give expression to such heinous vengeance? ‘Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’. Perhaps it is easiest if we take the role of Marcion, cutting out these difficult passages of scripture. When we do we impoverish the church. Those who still need to give voice to such feelings can no longer do so. The words are not there. If anyone happens to remember them, they are soon told that this is no way to speak to God. ‘Praise in all things’ is the order of the day. To use these words would be like a child swearing in front of a favourite aunt.

Perhaps it is even worse than that. As Walter Brueggemann has said, ‘The lament psalms are obviously a scandal to the church, because they cannot be prayed to a god who does nothing, and because they must not be prayed within a social system that cannot be changed or criticised’. They underline both our lack of faith and our unwillingness to live the gospel. Whatever our theological position, they present an obstacle.

In part it is due to the fact that we think that Christians should be gentle, meek and mild and that strong feelings are prohibited. Yet Jesus wept over Jerusalem and was angry at injustice. ‘Love inspired the anger that cleared a temple court’. He gave vent to strong feelings and did not suppress them. Or could it be that we are frightened to admit to ourselves, let alone to our neighbours, or to God, that life does sometimes hurt, that things do make us angry, that we feel lost, alone, upset, helpless or even vengeful?

It is clear that Psalms could be used by oppressed people and have been. The words are those with which people can identify. This is the strength of psalmody, for while Psalms give voice to specific needs generated by particular situations, there is invariably a universal application which will enable the Psalms to be used by succeeding generations. This having been said, the force of emotion they contain, is sometimes so powerful as to make us hesitate. For those subject to oppression and injustice, living in a strange land, this must seem like a theological absurdity! Perhaps asylum seekers could enlighten us as to why, sadly, we need these words even today.

We conclude this part of our journey with Isaac Watts, to whom we will return in part 2.

O God, our help in ages past (HP 358)

Hymns and the Bible Part 2

You can do better than that, Isaac – The birth of the English hymn

‘Dad, this service is boring!’ This was a time when church worship was not altogether stunning. The Book of Common Prayer, with its beautiful yet, even then, sometimes impenetrable language was all the meat on offer. And if you liked singing it was metrical psalms or scriptures. And suffering this, the story goes, it may be apocryphal, that Isaac Watts moaned to his father, ‘I’m bored’ or the 17th century equivalent. And the story goes that his father replied with, ‘well, if you think you can do better!’

So this is where we begin. What made him bored?

With the Reformation Calvin, Luther and others allowed for singing in church. For some the only thing that was allowable was a strict scriptural paraphrase. William Kethe’s ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ from before 1594 is a paraphrase of Psalm 100.

All people that on earth do dwell (HP 1)

Not all the efforts were as good as that. But let us step back a little.

Jean Calvin was instrumental in introducing the metrical Psalm to Geneva during the sixteenth century. He used a prose translation by Merot and Beza(c. 1533). Calvin himself wrote hymns of which ‘I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art’ is an example, the last verse being a paraphrase of Psalm 29, 11:

1 I greet Thee who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Saviour of my heart,
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake:
I pray Thee from our hearts all cares to take.

2 Thou art the King of mercy and of grace,
Reigning omnipotent in every place:
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of Thy pure day.

3 Thou art the Life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death’s approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by Thy power.

4 Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast Thou, and no bitterness;
O grant to us the grace we find in Thee,
That we may dwell in perfect unity.

5 Our hope is in no other save in Thee;
Our faith is built upon Thy promise free;
Come, give us peace, make us so strong and sure,
That we may conquerors be, and ills endure.

Martin Luther substituted a simple German service for the Latin Mass and made use of hymns as ‘powerful instruments in spreading his faith'(21). His hymnody was scripturally based (eg., ‘From heaven above to earth I come’; a hymn on Christ’s birth) and often deeply rooted in the Psalter:

1 Out of the depths I cry to Thee,
Lord, hear me, I implore Thee;
Bend down Thy gracious ear to me,
Regard my prayer before Thee;
If Thou rememberest each misdeed,
If each should have its rightful meed,
Who may abide Thy presence?

2 Our pardon is Thy gift; Thy love
And grace alone avail us;
Our works could ne’er our guilt remove,
The strictest life would fail us;
That none may boast himself of aught,
But own in fear Thy grace hath wrought
What in him seemeth righteous.

3 And thus my hope is in the Lord
And not in mine own merit;
I rest upon His faithful word
To them of contrite spirit;
That He is merciful and just-
Here is my comfort and my trust;
His help I wait with patience.

4 Though great our sins and sore our woes
His grace much more aboundeth;
His helping love no limit knows,
Our utmost need it soundeth;
Our kind and faithful Shepherd He,
Who shall at last set Israel free
From all their sin and sorrow.

The first verse of this hymn is a metrical version of Psalm 130 but this only has eight verses. Luther goes further. This is a hymn in its own right and as it develops it explores theology. By this I mean quite simply a human understanding of God and humanity’s relation with that God. And so Luther writes, ‘Our pardon is Thy gift; Thy love, /And grace alone avail us’.

What Luther is doing is expanding the medium of the hymn beyond a simple paraphrase of scripture to something which comments on that scripture.

To return to England, by the time of Calvin’s death(1549) Thomas Sternhold had published nineteen metrical psalms under the title ‘Certain Psalms…drawn in English metre’. A single verse is perhaps enough to give us an idea of his poetic ability:

O thou, my soul, bless God the Lord;
and all that in me is
be stirrèd up his holy name
to magnify and bless.

John Hopkins added to this collection in 1551 and the completion of the translation of the Psalter into English was achieved between 1556 and 1562 by English exiles in Geneva.

In 1696 Nahum Tate (then Poet Laureate) and Nicholas Brady produced a ‘New version of the Psalms of David fitted to the Tunes used in Churches’ to supplant the ‘scandalous doggerel’ of Sternhold and Hopkins(25). A Scottish Psalter developed independently, as did other psalters such as William Hunny’s ‘Seven Sobs of a Sorrowful Sole for Sinn'(1583).

As pants the hart for cooling streams (HP 416)

Poetry and hymnody do not always come side by side and poets do not always write good hymns. Nevertheless George Herbert, through his skilful simplicity, began to explore what might be achieved. We only need to read his rendering of the 23rd. Psalm to realise that his poetic genius enabled him to give a far better expression of these words than we have examined so far:

The God of love my shepherd is,
And he that doth me feed:
While he is mine, and I am his,
What can I want or need?

He leads me to the tender grasse,
Where I both feed and rest;
Then to the streams that gently passe:
In both I have the best.

In assessing Herbert’s work Watson says this, ‘His poetry is among the most moving and effective in the English language, though much of it is too complex and witty for hymn singing’. The judgement is right and so, for the foundations of modern English hymnody we must turn to Isaac Watts. His importance to us now is as a pioneer of the use of hymnic language. He kept to mainly biblical texts for his work but, following Luther, he began to explore theology using hymns and in doing so he laid down the framework of the modern English language hymn. He established a standard against which all that was to follow would be assessed.

When I survey the wondrous cross (HP 180)

Watts looks at the cross and sees not simply an instrument of torture and execution but a picture of a real person offering his life for another. He reflects on this and writes those most powerful of lines,

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were an offering far too small;
love so amazing, so divine,
demands my soul, my life, my all.

Elsewhere Watts approaches the theme in a different direction:

Nature with open volume stands
To spread her Maker’s praise abroad,
And every labour of his hands
Shows something worthy of a God.

This is the whole realm of nature which speaks so eloquently of a God of creation to those able to interpret what they see in this way. But Watts cannot stop there and the theme of the cross immediately presents itself.

But in the grace that rescued man
His brightest form of glory shines;
Here on the cross ’tis fairest drawn
In precious blood and crimson lines.

Here his whole name appears complete;
Nor wit can guess, nor reason prove,
Which of the letters best is writ,
The power, the wisdom, or the love.

Here I behold his inmost heart,
where grace and vengeance strangely join,
piercing his son with sharpest smart,
to make the purchased pleasures mine.

O the sweet wonders of that cross
Where God the Saviour loved and died!
Her noblest life my spirit draws
From his dear wounds and bleeding side.

And again the hymns ends, like ‘When I survey the wondrous cross, with words of dedication;

I would for ever speak his name
In sounds to mortal ears unknown,
With angels join to praise the Lamb,
And worship at his Father’s throne.

Watts died in 1748. Charles Wesley was born in 1707. Soon he was to bring to an incredible consummation all that Luther and Watts had begun. A few hymns will demonstrate what I mean.

O for a thousand tongues (HP 744)

Charles Wesley wrote, John Wesley collected and edited. ‘O for a thousand tongues’ is a hymn of praise. Of some 18 verses we have but a slim edition of ‘O for a thousand tongues’. With good reason. John Wesley wrote that people were welcome to re-print the hymns he had collected, but in doing so to leave them as they were for, ‘None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse’! But we have certainly needed to mend the sense, the content if you will. One verse of the original is racist, ‘And wash the Aethiop white’. We could no longer sing this yet it was written by an opponent of slavery. It is a reminder to those of us who write and sing now, that what we write and sing is provisional and our understanding of what is acceptable, what is offensive may change. Charles wrote for his day. Another verse, more familiar to us, speaks of …’leap, ye lame, for joy’. Opinions of this differ. I know people with disabilities who say, ‘well it’s a metaphor’ or ‘it’s scriptural’ and they’re right. But some find the image, the metaphor hurtful and for them I would rather not use it.

What is clear throughout is Wesley’s care in the use of words. Everything adds to the power of the text. Nothing is superfluous. Think how few Wesley hymns have choruses even though these might sometimes have reinforced what was being said. And for this hymn the core is praise.

Charles wanted a thousand tongues to sing the praise of God in Christ. One imagines him saying, ‘And that’s not really enough, Hark! How all the welkin rings!’ and if you wonder at that word ‘welkin’ we’re talking about the heavens, in today’s language the whole of the cosmos ringing to welcome the birth of Christ. ‘Hark! The herald angels sing’ is weak by comparison.

Hark! The herald angel sings (HP 106)

So what was distinctive about the legacy which Charles Wesley left to hymn writers who came after him? You might say it was ‘Methodist’. But what does that mean? I think his influence can be seen firstly in

1. The style of his writing

While Isaac Watts had shown that it was possible to write religious verse that was not just a Psalm or scripture paraphrase, Charles took the art to new heights. The style that Charles Wesley used followed a pattern in which stanzas were regular with a consistent rhyme scheme. The argument of the text was developed from stanza to stanza in a logical manner. Scripture and religious poetic allusion were interwoven in the texts.

The next characteristic of Charles Wesley is his

2. Use of scripture.

When Watts wrote he tended to use one scriptural theme. In some instances Charles Wesley took a scriptural narrative as his starting point, as in ‘Come, O thou traveller unknown’ (HP 434). He more often quotes from different parts of the Bible, some obscure others well known , and brings them together in such a way that the words flow and you simply do not know where one quote ends and another begins. This is the essence of Wesley’s genius, the capacity to move through scripture interpolating references one with another in such a manner as to leave the reader feeling that they had always been associated in this way. 24 lines of ‘Behold the servant of the Lord’ offer no less than 41 scriptural allusions or references.

These first two characteristics are evident in most of Charles Wesley hymns.

3. Theology

The last over arching characteristic of Charles Wesley’s hymns is their theological foundation.

On the 24th October 1743 Charles Wesley wrote in his journal, ‘We laid us down to sleep, and rose up again, for the Lord sustained us. Assembled before day to sing hymns to Christ as God…’ Not just hymns, notice but ‘hymns to Christ as God’. The words underline the understanding that Jesus is God, and the son-ship of Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity are put in this light. The hymns are theologically precise.

Charles Wesley strongly challenged the Calvinist theology of double predestination, the concept that people are all predestined to heaven or hell, and that there can be no change in this status; yet he holds strongly to the Calvinist view of that that God is truly God, that in all things God has the initiative. And so it is God who ‘empties himself of all but love’. God is, to use the technical term, a kenotic God, a self-emptying God who becomes human in the person of Jesus.

One of my favourite Wesley lines is ‘Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man’ from ‘Let earth and heaven combine’(HP 109). This wonderful hymn speaks of a self emptying God becoming limited by human constraints of time, life and history. This is the God who Wesley says, ‘Laid his glory by’, ‘Our God contracted to a span,/Incomprehensibly made man’. Timothy Dudley Smith picks up the phrase in his hymn ‘Child of the stable’s secret birth’(HP 124) putting it this way the ‘Voice that rang through the courts on high/contracted now to a wordless cry’. But Charles Wesley did not invent the phrase. The only other use of the word ‘contracted’ in English hymnody in this sense is in Charles Wesley’s older brother, Samuel’s, ‘Hymn to God the Son’. In a different context the words were used by George Herbert and also Jeremy Taylor. Nothing is new!

‘And can it be’(HP 216) and ‘Where shall my wondering soul begin’(HP 706) compete as the text that it is thought that Charles wrote to mark his and his brother’s, so called, conversion experience of 1738. It should come as no surprise that ‘And can it be’ addresses the subject of salvation, soteriology if you like, from a very personal perspective. John’s experience is well known. Charles was in a mechanic’s house, he had been suffering from pleurisy. It is not melodramatic to say that he could have died. He had been ill for some time and the infection left him weakened for the rest of his life. He was visited by a friend, John Bray, who read the story of the paralysed man from the gospel according to Matthew (9, 1 – 8). To Charles it seemed to fit his situation. He felt that he had been forgiven and valued. The following day was Whit Sunday, May 21st 1738, and he awoke with optimism and a sense of peace. Charles told his friends that he now felt ‘under the protection of Christ’.

The first three verses of ‘And can it be’ are quiet and introspective. Not at all suited to the tune SAGINA! ‘And can it be that I should gain an interest in the saviour’s blood?’ there is amazement here at the personal interest that God has in the individual. And all this is, for Wesley, fact in spite of the understanding that Charles has that in the cosmic span of things he sees himself as complicit in the death of Jesus. It is a mystery why God should empty himself of all but love to offer graceful forgiveness to the individual sinner. Having been bound so long, Charles, echoing words relating to Peter’s freedom from imprisonment , is himself free.

My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

No condemnation now I dread;
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!

Bible and interpretation are mingled. Text is placed against text. In the end we are left wondering what we remember from scripture and what we have internalised as we have sung. This is part of the strength of hymns – they help us to remember. This is also their danger. We can remember things that are not true, or scriptural.

Part of Charles Wesley’s integrity rested in his knowledge of scripture, not just the King James version of the Bible but the original Greek and Hebrew. In Hymns & Psalms we have the hymn ‘What shall I do my God to love, My Saviour, and the world’s, to praise?’ (HP 47). This is the first verse as we have it:

What shall I do my God to love,
My Saviour, and the world’s, to praise?
Whose tenderest compassions move
To me and all the fallen race,
Whose mercy is divinely free
For all the fallen race, and me!

Charles Wesley wrote, not ‘Whose tenderest compassions move’ but ‘Whose bowels of compassion move’. He knew that in Mark 1, 41 when Jesus is confronted with a leper seeking to be healed that the English translation ‘And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him, and saith unto him, I will; be thou clean’ didn’t give full weight to the original Greek. The word, rather the words, we translate as ‘compassion’ literally mean either ‘having your guts knotted up inside you’ or ‘snorting like a war horse’. Even modern translations do not touch the depth of feeling, of anguish and anger. Wesley’s original, ‘bowels of compassion’ is more earthy, nearer to the truth, though unsingable today.

But it is just this integrity, this closeness to the scripture that makes Wesley’s hymns trustworthy still.

What shall I do my God to love (HP 47)

Believing what we sing is important. Singing what we believe is important. So when we are confronted with theological statements in hymns rather than straight quotes from the Bible we depend on the integrity of the writers. We also ought to use our own intelligence and integrity as we sing.

The most obvious characteristic of Wesleyan spirituality is its inclusivity. John and Charles were both persuaded that an Arminian understanding of God’s grace was the right one. ‘Thy sovereign grace to all extends, /Immense and unconfined’ was preferable to the Calvinist concept of double predestination in which people were predestined to heaven or hell at birth with no hope of the judgment being tempered or countered. The grace that they had experienced was for all, ‘reaching all mankind’. The reason for this was pastoral as much as it was theological. Charles had had to pick up the pieces, so to speak, of people who had heard Calvinist preachers and been convinced of their own condemnation such that they lived their lives in genuine fear of hell. Suicide would be no way out of this dilemma as this would only bring the inevitable nearer. So, in Charles words, God’s grace was ‘So wide it never passed by one, Or it had passed by me’. And this was important. The offer of grace was closed to no one. This was the scandal of the universal gospel.

Pastorally the consequences of a positive judgement might be no less dangerous. Charles told of a man convinced of the permanence of his own salvation going home and beating his wife saying that no matter what he did, even if he killed her, he was assured of heaven as he was one of the elect. And so Charles particularly continued to emphasise the need for Christians to demonstrate in their lives and actions the evidence of their conversion. Sanctification, being made holy, was an ongoing process. While the offer of grace was free and unconfined there was still an obligation to work out salvation in the here and now. A lapse of commitment was a possibility for Charles and so he wrote:

My trespass is grown up to heaven;
But, far above the skies,
In Christ abundantly forgiven,
I see thy mercies rise.

We are more familiar with John’s emendation, ‘My trespass was grown up to heaven’. John argued that Charles was forgiven and that was that. Charles, in effect, said, ‘but I’ve done it again, My trespass is grown up to heaven’. I can identify with that! Still what is critical is that all embracing love and grace which is open to all humankind.

Some of the language of the Wesleys was archaic even as they were using it. But the task for the preacher and hymn writer, for the disciple, for every Christian goes on. More of that in Part 3.

To close:

Love divine, all loves excelling (HP 267)

Hymns and the Bible Part 3

I thought they were all dead…. Hymn writing today

The Church of Christ in every age (HP 804)

When I introduce myself as a hymn writer the usual response is ‘Oh, I thought they were all dead’. Well I’m not….yet…

So what of hymn writing today?

‘Beset by change but Spirit led, must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead’. Those words of Fred Pratt Green set our scene for this paper. One of the reasons for the response to hymn writing is that it is built on a long heritage. Hymns can sometimes sound old-fashioned. The structure si age old and sometimes the language hasn’t changed much either.

But that heritage is important. That is where we start, it is the foundation. Let me remind you. The hymns we have looked at already give a clue as to the nature of hymns and how writers have used the Bible. So, hymns can be a paraphrase of scripture, they can retell Bible stories, they can interpret scripture, they can state doctrines (statements about God), but they can also make doctrine – we’ll come to that later. Hymn writers today work within all these frameworks though some prefer one framework to another. Let’s look at a few examples.

I am the bread of life (HP 611)

Suzanne Toolan has paraphrased scripture and the hymn has the same problem of many other paraphrases. It is difficult to sing, the metre, the structure forces the sentences out of shape and they don’t fit easily with the music. There is perhaps a reason for this other than the fact of the difficulty of paraphrasing scripture. Hymns have a repetitive structure which makes them easy to sing by a congregation. But look at at: My Jesus, my Saviour, /Lord, there is none like You. (you can find this on HymnQuest – Google it if you don’t know it) The author Darlene Zschech is a singer songwriter. As such she performs her songs and others then sing along with her. This gives a freedom to her writing. A soloist can sing in rhythmic and melodic patterns that a congregation would have difficulty following without the guide of the soloist. There is nothing wrong in this and it can be done very effectively. But it does make this sort of song very different from a traditional hymn. It lends itself to more literal presentations of scripture, to the use of repetitive phrases or choruses which serve to reinforce belief. This makes such songs very suitable for use with new believers. Few writers in this style tackle more difficult issues like challenges to belief and the style often stops short at brief descriptions rather than extended explorations of a theme. This does not make them wrong but simply different in style, intention, use and purpose.

So let me return to hymns in the traditional sense and leave songs to another time. Use of scripture need follow neither a rough paraphrase nor become a song that needs a soloist or cantor to lead. Timothy Dudley Smith, writing when the New English Bible first came out was moved by its translation of the Magnificat. The following hymn follows this almost word for word, but his skill as a writer turns it into a magnificent hymn:

Tell out my soul (HP 86)

What about Bible stories, and what we might call narrative hymns? We looked at Wesley’s hymn about Jacob wrestling with God at the Jabbok brook. How do writers today address Bible stories?

You know the story of Paul’s conversion on the Damascus Road. Herman Stuempfle re-told the story in a hymn written published in 1989: ‘Breathing hate, the huntsman hurries’. The first two verses tell the story without any interpretation but then the remaining verses begin to interpret the scripture and, applying it to us, provide a challenge, culminating in these words:

Christ, our Lord, earth’s teeming millions
Still await your Love’s pursuit.
Christ, your call still sends apostles;
Claim us each as Love’s recruit.
Send us, Love’s sure hunters, seeking
Love’s own prey, the lost, the least,
Till, Love’s captives, they are gathered
Free at last to share Love’s feast.

Let us turn in another direction. The heritage of Charles Wesley again provides the challenge. ‘And can it be’ reflected on what God has done in Christ. Setting the believer free. but some of the images and language are difficult. We sing them easily only because we know them. Who or what for instance is ‘the first born seraph’? whose flight we are to out soar? I have been asked and I don’t know the answer. The hymns that I regard as the greatest to have been written in the 20th century was written by Brian Wren. Unashamedly it takes Wesley’s theme and structure even echoing some of his images. The tune, ABINGDON, by Eric Routley was written for ‘And can it be’:

Lord God, your love has called us here (HP 500)

Brian Wren struggles theologically and this struggle is dynamic. Brian Wren never lets his writing rest. The hymn begins, ‘Lord God, your love has called us here’. Wren is aware of the developing theology of the vulnerability of God and the postmodern movement which means that people ‘lording it over’ one another has become anathema. So the text changes to ‘Great God, your love has called us here’. And the change is not just on a whim, but brings us nearer to scripture:

So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

This struggle is significant. Martyn Atkins in his book, Resourcing Renewal, suggests that if churches are to be renewed they must return to scripture, but also to the charisms of their founders (the gifts that gave the church and individual denominations purpose) and they must as the same time be conscious of the spirit of the age. Again, Wesley wrote of ‘serving the present age’. All of these criteria can be applied to what we sing, how we sing and even raise the question as to whether we should sing at all.

Shine, Jesus, shine has to be one of the most popular hymns of the last part of the 20th century.

Lets apply our criteria to this. Is it scriptural? Well, yes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

So that’s all right then. Is it Methodist – does it fit with the expression of Christianity that we represent? No real problems here either. Graham Kendrick is a fine writer. What about the spirit of the age? Well the hymn uses ’you’ and ‘your’ rather than ‘thee’ or ‘thine’ but the feel is not far removed from, say, ‘Blessed assurance’ from the 19th century. And what do we make of the middle verse?

Lord, I come to Your awesome presence,
from the shadows into Your radiance;
by the blood I may enter Your brightness…

Let me share something with you. I have done research into the ‘effects of parasympathomimetic drugs on the rectum of Pleuronectes platessa’. Does that make sense? And I would argue that ‘by the blood I may enter Your brightness’ is as unintelligible to those outside the church as my jargon from the world of fish pharmacology. We need to find you language, new metaphors that speak to the present age rather than holding onto old language, however comfortable and familiar it may be to us. Without this change the church becomes a clique.

And when he says learned, we might well say, contemporary – of the present.

So a challenge to us:

Some hymns express utter certainty things that are really statements of faith. The Christian may indeed believe them, but proving them is another matter. If it wasn’t there wouldn’t be disputes between people of different religions. The claims of Christianity would be so self-evidently true as to be beyond contradiction. But we even contradict each other – think of Calvin and the Wesleys.

So there is infinite variety in present hymnody.

The Music Resource Group of the Methodist Church in its report to the 2010 Methodist Conference ‘has expressed concern that there is some evidence that female authors’ work is being rejected because the type of imagery they use and we believe that this issue needs further analysis and reflection’. It is interesting that of over 55 hymns written by Janet Wootton only 3 found their way into the draft presented to Conference last year and all of these have now been excluded. This is a continuing and unwarranted exclusion and the arguments against it can be found in a substantial book, This is our song, women’s hymn writing published this year by Epworth Press, ironically funded by Methodism!

There may be variety but it is being nurtured very selectively in some quarters.

Hymns have always explored doctrine and have sometimes asked questions, have pushed at the boundaries. If I was to offer guidance to new writers I would ask that

1. they tackle old themes in new and innovative ways using language that is contemporary. And what is con-temporary, of the time tomorrow, will not be what we are using today.

2. they tackle new themes that need to be addressed.

                                   …And maybe, just maybe, we are beginning to make doctrine. Oh dear!

© Andrew Pratt 2018

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