Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ours to Give Away

The history of the church is filled with instances in which hymns have sparked passion, and indeed in which passionate individuals have produced songs which have enabled God's people to express their praise. The history of hymnody is rife with colourful and interesting characters who have written the songs of our faith – in my opinion, with the possible exception of scientists, they are the most interesting historical figures out there. Each of them embodies a distinctive piety and fervour born of their particular life experience; of the peculiar instance in time and crossing of circumstances which formed their worldview.

Celebrated hymn writer Brian Wren begins his book Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song with a series of imaginative "snapshots of hymnody"; building on his considerable historical expertise, Wren re-constructs for our time-travelling pleasure a series of landmarks in hymnody. Indeed, through Wren's eyes, we see a kind of slideshow of our own musical history: we see the monks of Cluny singing plainchant from unmetered neumes circa 1200 C.E.; we witness an exhibition hall revival meeting led by none other than Moody and Sankey, who are in fine form; we are besieged in the city of York in 1644 C.E. and, with its fearful citizens, sing a metrical Psalm in prayer for deliverance; we even witness the great John Wesley, founder of Methodism, lock wits with a group of drunken sailors, turning their bawdy pub song into a call to grace through faith in Jesus.[1] (Full disclosure: I will admit that a scant year ago I was not nearly as excited about John Wesley as I am today. Seminary will do that to you.)

The history of congregational singing is filled with prayerful passion, both on the part of musicians and leaders and on the part of worshipping singers. Furthermore, the passion of contemporary Christians for hymnody was confirmed to me by my conversations with my friend Chelsea Stern. Even if worshippers do not always agree on the kind of music we want to be singing – be it "contemporary" Christian (with guitars, bass and drum kit), traditional strophic hymnody (organ at the ready), gospel choruses, a combination of these, or myriad other possibilities – there is a strong sense in the church that singing enables us to express our praise to God in a way that words alone cannot. Indeed, Wren hits upon this very notion in the title of his book, for which he quotes a phrase attributed to Augustine of Hippo – "Whoever sings [to God, in worship], prays twice." As Wren puts it, this simple statement "suggests that when we sing a praise and prayer instead of simply speaking it, we add something important to the utterance."[2]

I was surprised, then, to hear the substance of some of the early objections which arose and which Chelsea was party to on the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song. I had expected the committee would hear a fair number of objections to the idea of including "Contemporary Christian"-style selections in the new hymnal. In any discussion of hymnody, certain song styles are targeted as embodying qualities that some feel do not belong in a "traditional" hymnal – currently, Contemporary Christian music (I use this term though it is limiting and in many ways inaccurate) is a frequent focus of such discussions. Imagine my surprise, then, when Chelsea told me that many people had written in to say they did not want to see any new "traditional" hymns in strophic form contributed to the forthcoming hymnal. Many worshippers, it seems, feel that the current body of hymnody as handed down to us by the venerable likes of John Wesley, Isaac Watts, and Martin Luther, translators such as John Mason Neale and Catherine Winkworth, and (I assume) modern voices such as Fred Pratt Green and Brian Wren, are enough for us as Christians. We have a great number of hymns, and no more are needed.

Indeed, what a body of song it is! Many of the hymns of these Christians who have gone before us still cut to the heart of theological expression. Indeed, even the thought of attempting to add to this storehouse of hymnody can be a daunting one. Contemporary poet and hymn writer Jean Janzen expressed this apprehension when asked to contribute to the Mennonite resource Hymnal: A Worship Book of 1992. "When a member of the Hymnal committee asked me to write some new texts, I could not imagine what I would write about; it had all been written by now, I thought," says Janzen. "But when the committee sent me chunks of writing from four medieval mystics, asking if some of the images and phrases might prompt a new text, I was able to attempt it... the rich language of these mystics and their startling ways of speaking to God and about God gave me courage and a kind of mandate to set their thoughts and devotion into text settings for contemporary worship."[3]

This dialogue between the mystics of the past and Janzen's modern context gives hymn singers a new perspective on their faith – as Janzen puts it, a new way of speaking to God. It seems to me that a call for no new hymns to be written is less about numerical overflow and more, once again, about discomfort with change, with singing a new song. Hymn singers fiercely defend the hymns they love because these hymns are a very deep expression of their faith, their theology, and their spirituality. We find many reasons to resist making changes to our hymnal. We may fear that the new book will not embody our own theological beliefs. In resisting singing a new hymn or a song in a new style, we may really be expressing the fear that this music represents a shift in the congregation's belief system – or worse, that of the greater Church. However, modern voices like that of Jean Janzen have important insights to share for the church in our time.

In appreciation of Brian Wren's succinct "snapshots of hymnody", I offer the following snapshots of passion in the debate over contemporary hymnody:

My father, Andrew Donaldson, tells a story from his time on the committee for the 1997 Book of Praise of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. A critical series of sessions took place in which delegates could bring their questions and concerns regarding the nearly-finished book, before a final vote officially approving the hymn texts. "This came at the end of a long process of consultation with the PCC, involving workshops that we gave across the country, and a sampler that test congregations tried out, plus articles in the Presbyterian Record, many letters in reply to questions and so on," Donaldson says. "So, we hoped that the commissioners were already informed about the book. Having said that, they still had a lot to absorb." After an initial presentation by the two co-editors, the briefing session was opened up for questions. "Of course, people brought their hot-button hymns: what hymns were being omitted, what words were changed and why, and what controversial hymns were being included." In one of the sessions, a woman came forward who was visibly upset over the inclusion of Canadian composer Gordon Light's text "She comes sailing on the wind," which depicts different embodiments of the Holy Spirit, including the dove which descended on Christ at his baptism. This dove is the "she" of the title line. "[The delegate] didn't agree with the use of a female image of the Holy Spirit, since the Holy Spirit, being one with God, had to be masculine and addressed in those terms," Donaldson remembers. "Don and I pointed out that we were not addressing God in female terms, (in the words of the song), but using an image of the Holy Spirit, a metaphor in the form of a dove. The dove was, yes, female." Donaldson clearly remembers how deeply upset this delegate was as she addressed the committee. "She could hardly speak, she was so angry. She asked us why 'they' couldn't find a male dove." Singing is a serious undertaking – what we sing is what we believe.

During my undergraduate degree I attended a large Presbyterian church in downtown Montreal. This church prides itself on being a flagship church of the denomination, and steadfastly upholds its traditional approach to worship. The church is blessed with a rich music programme including masterful, grandiose organ playing and a large choir which proudly processes down the centre aisle each Sunday morning. Worship is dignified, sober, and well-ordered. As the daughter of the editor of the current Presbyterian hymnal, I couldn't help but notice in passing that this church had continued to use the older PCC hymnal of 1972. The books had grown so old and well-loved that the church had had them re-bound with covers bearing that congregation's name and insignia. One Sunday morning not long after I began attending, I was in the minister's office before worship. I could tell that he knew me as being related to my father. A considerate and sensitive pastor, he seemed to want to give me a reason to excuse the absence of the current hymnal (which, ten years later, many in our denomination still refer to as the "new" hymnal) from their pews. "You may have noticed that we don't use your father's book. I wanted to get the new hymnal here," he said to me, with the air of someone who is about to make something crystal clear. "But, you see, our church choir processes down the aisle each Sunday. The new book has so many hymns in it, you see – it's so big and heavy that it's too much for the choir members to carry!" I've always thought that was a very creative rationale, and it was kind of him to try.

Hymn writer Patrick Michaels remembers being asked to serve on a committee in his congregation charged with the planning and instigation of a monthly Service of Healing. Michaels was excited to be asked to participate, and anticipated being able to contribute helpfully to discussions about the nature of God's healing. He imagined the committee would consider issues of justice and healing for the world, healing for grief and loss in their community, healing of bitter disputes between nations and rifts in families, and other similar concerns. Michaels saw these needs and looked forward to addressing them prayerfully with the committee. However, when the committee met, he was severely disappointed – members were fixated on issues of personal, individual healing. The committee seemed unable to look beyond the needs of the individual (pressing though these needs might be) to the cares and concerns of the greater community or the world church. Michaels, upset by this, went home and wrote the line "sometimes a healing word is angry" – because he was angry. This gave him the impetus to write "Sometimes a healing word is comfort," a hymn which examines the different faces and characters of God's healing work in the world. Two of its stanzas serve as an example of the impassioned character of the text:

Sometimes a healing word is angry:
giving a name to discontent,
shining a light on sin and grievance,
calling a people to repent

Sometimes a healing word takes chances:
going where no one yet has been
facing the dangers of the desert,
hoping for shelter at the inn.

Come, break the silence! Let us tell
the Word that makes us free and well.

[Text © Patrick Michaels, 1992. Used with Permission. Pat can be reached at 29 Norris St., Cambridge, MA 02140; 617 864-0101;]

I have seen this hymn used to great effect in Longest Night or "Blue Christmas" services on the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Typically falling on December 21 amid the glitter and gloss of the Christmas season, worshippers are invited to take a moment to examine the places that hurt in their lives and to pray for themselves and others. Michaels, an incisive poet, gives us words to express our hurt while urging us to take action when pain and injustice afflict those around us.


Hymn writer, worship consultant and song enabler John Thornburg asks the question, "What do we need to sing to become the church God wants us to become?" To answer this I turn momentarily back to our friend John Wesley. Wesley saw a need in the church for a revival, a renewal of people's faiths and of fervour for the church. He achieved this by all the means at his disposal, which included charismatic preaching in the open air and the penning of attention-grabbing hymns. We are blessed by the legacy left us by Wesley. However, Wesley spoke to the needs of a certain group of people in a certain situation at a certain point in time – not unlike the compelling teacher from whom our very faith takes its name. While we can continue to be blessed by singing Wesley's words, especially if we make the effort to understand his context, the theology of Wesley can never speak directly to our circumstances. Each hymn writer speaks in their unique voice to believers in their own particular time. Christian perspective is not universal; it is important that we in our own time do our best to express our unique understanding of God, the church and our faith, while also reaching back to sing in community with the believers who have gone before us. To paraphrase Walt Whitman (or, admittedly, Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society): "the powerful song goes on and we may contribute a verse – what will our verse be?"

The importance of all this was brought home to me in one of my conversations with Chelsea. "We must remember," she said, "that this is the body of Christ's hymnal and that it serves a greater need than pleasing our individual tastes in texts and musical styles." Chelsea considers that the upcoming Presbyterian hymnal will not be a limiting, permanent volume but rather an "addition to the ever growing, ever wonderful body of congregational song." Jean Janzen expresses a similar sentiment in her reflections on modern-day hymn writing. She says, "we carry this treasure, our hymns, with us into the twenty-first century, this bearer of good news, of God's story, of our story. Next to the Bible, they are our best source for light and hope. We hold them tenderly and close, and we hold them out to others with our open hands and voices, for the story is not ours to possess.

"It is ours to give away." [4]

(And, as to the 1997 Book of Praise being too heavy owing to an overabundance of hymns, I kindly offer the following photo, taken at my home church, as a visual rebuttal.)

[1] Brian Wren, "'Through All the Changing Scenes of Life': Glimpses of Congregational Song," in Praying Twice: The Music and Words of Congregational Song (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 1-46.
[2] Ibid., 1.
[3] Jean Janzen, "The Hymn Text Writer Facing the Twenty-First Century," in Music in Worship: A Mennonite Perspective, ed. Bernie Neufeld (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1998), 250.
[4] Ibid., 253-254.


  1. Great blog! I do however believe that the hymns of Wesley can speak to our own circumstances. Even though he wrote in 18th-century England, those words still speak truth today. In the words of Charles Wesley: "Depth of mercy! Can there be mercy still reserved for me? Can my God his wrath forbear, me, the chief of sinners spare?" Wesley words are timeless.

    I do agree that each generation is commanded by God to sing a new song, and we must add our own stanza! We are called, we are chosen, to be Christ for one another; by adding our own stanza we communicate the call of the Gospel in our own experience. I hope our generation can sing a new song to the Lord and leave something for future generations to have another perspective to sing and pray about.

    Singing about our own experiences in worship has for many generations has given hope to the hopeless, and life to the destitute. I know too that our generation can rise to the occasion.

    Darnell St. Romain

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. And thanks for including that wonderful photo of the young singer holding the hymnal!