A friend asked if I knew any young hymn writers – under forty? I was hard pressed, except for a colleague with his fortieth birthday a month away! And other times I have been greeted with, ‘Oh, I didn’t know any hymn writers were still alive!’ But my friend made the point seriously and went on to say that hymns are becoming a bit like madrigals, written in the past and sung by consenting adults in private. Hymn singing seems to be entering a cloistered, a rather esoteric world. Aside from Songs of Praise, where the provision is pretty limited, or Cup Final day, there is little ‘public’ interest in hymn singing, let alone actual involvement. It is becoming, or has become, the preserve of enthusiasts, even if we count ourselves among them. Within the church itself the menu offered is often limited in content and theologically unadventurous, the language that of another age. For that reason, in many Fresh Expressions of church, hymn singing hasn’t even been entertained, and rightly so. It is no longer apt or appropriate; better left in the museum of so called, ‘inherited church’. Then they are not lost for those who remember hymns over a lifetime and for whom they are a resource of inspiration, theology and comfort. While that is a right thing to do, it is a bit like keeping the church open ‘long enough for me to be buried from it.’ So do hymns have any value or purpose in the foreseeable future? I think so, but for this to be the case our perception of them may need to change markedly.
John Wesley knew that hymns enable us to internalise theological belief and form attitudes, but most of us expect hymns to provide a ‘good sing’, often regardless of language or theology. Sadly, this freezes people into thought forms and language which are archaic and not right for the present day. We might well sing ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’, with its allusion to ‘thousands of new worlds as great as this’, but now we know the potential for the existence of such worlds, our focus on a theology which presumed the need for the salvation of humans on this world alone might just need some adjustment. We have inherited a view that our world is timeless and humanity is dominant. A New Scientist bulletin from 4 January 2019 might cause us to adjust our view. ‘…A new simulation predicts that our galaxy will collide with the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud in about 2.4 billion years, a smashup that will actually make the Milky Way more similar to its galactic counterparts […] it will likely collide with our galaxy in about 2.4 billion years, well before the much larger predicted collision with the Andromeda galaxy more than 5 billion years from now.
So where do we go from here? Let me make just a few suggestions that those who write hymns might try to act on.
Doctrine is imbibed through hymn singing. But however firmly asserted and defended it is, inevitably, always to be regarded as provisional unless a fundamentalist position is taken in relation to revelation and scripture. This being the case our doctrine has to be based on human cultural understanding and expressed in the language of the time. Frequently such language is metaphorical. A metaphor which works in one age or language may not always be transferable to another. As hymns are used to state, reinforce and internalise doctrine it might be expected that the language and metaphors that they employ would evolve from age to age. When a metaphor is no longer working it should be discarded. Part of the role of the hymn poet is, I believe, to explore the use of metaphor in order to express belief with clarity in each succeeding generation.
We need to find music that is timeless, yet accessible. Worship music has tended, historically, to follow the styles and patterns of popular music. For instance, much of the worship song genre of the 1970s mimicked the acoustic guitar led folk music of the 1960s, In consequence hymns never quite catch-up and singing yesterday’s song tune makes us seem more out of touch than singing something from 100 years ago. Nevertheless, the folk song/ballad seems to have been the most resilient format, as illustrated by Vaughan Williams, Sydney Carter, John Bell, Stuart Townend, Nordic and Baltic Protestant Traditions and the rediscovery of shape-note singing in the United States.
I believe that the interaction of words and music has the unique potential to internalise hope. We feel and then live out what we sing. Singing can make you feel good. It can transform your emotional, psychological and, indeed, spiritual state. In a sense we are healed by it. While singing in itself is enjoyable, many people seeking a deeper spiritual experience find this when they sing.
Choral singing, though not church choral singing, is increasing in prominence in the United Kingdom. It has become a popular form of recreation for many. It would be perverse if the church, at this point, abandoned corporate singing, which can act as a means of re-creation. But for this to work both poets and particularly composers, need to hear what people like to sing and to work together creatively.
We need to re-examine sung words of Hebrew scripture. We love to sing praise, yet at least a third of the Psalms give voice to lament. If a stranger lets you down it is irritating. If a good friend lets you down you might complain. How much more if you feel God who is, to use a favourite phrase of some contemporary writers, your ‘strong tower’ fails you? Yet we are so often fed words which suggest that when bad things happen this is all part of ‘God’s plan’. If a child is drowned in the Mediterranean escaping from the horrors of bloody warfare is part of that big plan this is not a God I want to worship. To suggest that this is the God we see in Christ is, frankly, blasphemous. Returning to the Psalms will deepen our faith, so that we too will believe deeply enough in God to cry out of our forsakenness when things go wrong, charging God with apparent absence. Jean Calvin, the reformer saw this as strength of faith rather than denial or doubt. It takes our image of a loving God seriously.
Hymns can make theology and build hope. But this is dangerous. Walter Bruggemann in his book Prophetic Imagination suggests that the poetry of the Hebrew prophets enabled them to find hope while in exile when logic said there was none. A salient passage is Ezekiel 37, which marked the turning point for those in exile. The key was in the creativity of poetry. Sung poetry can turn that revelation into embodied hope. At best, hymns can transform our attitudes and expectations when our backs are against the wall. That may be through a reiteration of past experience. Equally it can be through the presentation of a new perspective that suddenly becomes a realistic proposition on which we can base our hope – a fresh revelation. Dead bones can live!
We need to see hymns as an evolving genre. They are never going to be a static form. For many in contemporary society faith makes no sense. Perhaps circumstance or experience leads them to this point. For others there is the sheer illogicality of believing in something intangible, metaphysical. Theologians address such issues in one of three ways. They stay with tradition, they allow tradition to evolve gradually, or they recognise that more radical reconstruction is needed. The works of John Hick, Don Cupitt and John Shelby Spong come into this latter category. Hymn writers rarely move beyond the second position. To do so feels unsafe. Yet Fred Pratt Green could write, ‘When our confidence is shaken/in beliefs we thought secure’ and allow the suggestion that ‘God is active in the tensions of a faith not yet mature’. Arguably, where God is concerned we never can have the full picture, we are never fully mature. We need to be open to the fact that faith, in Sydney Carter’s words, is framed by a creed which can never be fixed or final. All is open to challenge and change: all faith statements, of their nature, must be provisional. People find that either liberating, or threatening, perhaps even heretical. If it is accepted, our hymn text writing may push against the limits of our faith and may even break through them framing new insights, offering new hope.
The role of the hymn poet today ought to be at the cutting edge of Christian thought, working out of a particular context in time and place, seeking to elaborate a theology that holds together faith, while making sense of experience. By faith I do not mean belief. This is more akin to the Greek pistis, trust. And by experience I am not limiting this to simple, personal experience, but including all that we know corporately as human beings, our total sum of knowledge. The opportunity to learn more about the cosmos seems boundless. How much more is there to learn about God?
If all of this is so, then it is incumbent on those who write, compose, choose and sing songs and hymns to ensure that they are as effective as possible. They require us to apply the greatest literary and musical skills that we have in providing a vehicle for theological exploration, expression and development. Those who are responsible for liturgical standards and theological orthodoxy ought, no less, to be open to the evolving nature of hymnody. This will make it a requirement that those who work in these fields are aware of theological, scientific, cosmological, social and literary progress and have the facility to adapt and allow their writing to be informed by these other areas of knowledge. Unless this is allowed, even the most inspired hymns will be suffocated by those who seek to control or constrain their use. The vehicle will become simply a museum piece used by enthusiasts. It is my belief that should this be the case, the church will suffer immeasurably as a consequence, unless it is able to replace the hymn with another medium equal to fulfilling its function. At present I see none.
I am convinced that hymns are still useful; still a lively and relevant component of Christian liturgy, which may yet have a place in revitalising Christian faith and practice in the twenty-first century.