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