by Andrew Pratt.
On July 31st 2020 Prof Whitty (Chief Medical Officer for England) said ‘The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong’. It made sense. We had reduced the constraints with which we had learnt to live but, at this point the virus was still reaching a growing number of people. This suggested that the release of lockdown was enabling the spread. It indicated a need for further limitations. The Government’s response was to put a break on some proposed further easing of restraints.
In the Church many were still trying to return to ‘normal’ – to things as they were. But life was already changing. Love of our neighbour as well as preservation of ourselves, demanded that we act quickly. Churches are not very good at swift change. Sociologically they are predicated on maintaining and promulgating the institution, rather than on loving the individual.
As far as worship was concerned, singing was off the agenda. What does this say to those of us who see hymns as integral to our spirituality?
In 2014 I wrote that, hymns had given voice to our fears and been a vehicle for our hopes. Echoing Don Saliers, I affirmed that they have enabled the exploration of humanity’s ‘Amen!’ to God’s initiative in the world, in a way that music or words alone could not encompass. They have been dependent on politics, culture and experience, as well as scripture and the traditions of the church. Sometimes they have expressed ‘wonder, love and praise’, at others they have cried to God ‘out of the depths’.
I believe that hymns are still a useful – a lively and relevant component of Christian liturgy. They can form theology as well as being a vehicle for its expression. If we lose them what can replace them? Or how could they evolve to at least fulfil something of their original function?
Over time I have written hymns to both reinterpret scripture, and as a lens through which to focus on the breadth of our growing human understanding of the world. I have been seeking to make sense of God for myself. This is even more necessary as the church seeks to enable worship which does not require us to suspend any connection with the twenty-first century world in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. Yet so much religious song labelled ‘modern’ uses archaic language and shows little evidence of having been edited with any degree of aptitude or skill.
For hymn writers to work in a contemporary manner it is helpful is to know how others work in similar genres. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Wilfred Owen, G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Philip Larkin, Simon Armitage, Dylan Thomas, Carol Ann Duffy and Leonard Cohen are all worthy of our attention.
If we are to begin with words which will offer something of the inspiration that others have found in hymns in the past, and if we are not simply going to rely on what has already been written, how should we write and what should we sing? I want to set out some guidelines for our further exploration of the medium:
Hymns should be beautiful. That does not mean they should describe things that are beautiful, but they should be aesthetically pleasing, elegant. This should apply even in a hymn of lament, or one that identifies with pain in the reader/singer.
Rhyme, rhythm and pattern are still helpful tools which enable memory.
Honest. The words we sing should be true to our own experience. Life is rarely ‘all sunshine’ even for Christians.
Theologically honest. For instance, as we approach Easter it is unhelpful, on the one hand to think of ourselves as ‘children of God’ while singing of the greatness of a God who ‘His son not sparing / sent him to die’. The language of Trinity often pushes us towards uncomfortable compromise in terms of incarnation and, in this instance, is resonant of ‘cosmic child abuse’. We need to be theologically literate.
Understandable. Theological language, or outdated metaphors, may confuse more than clarify the Biblical material which we are seeking to communicate.
Contemporary words and concepts make texts accessible and this should be of greater concern than hoping for perpetuity. Let this be our pattern for the future, in and beyond COVID-19, that we may serve the age in which we live and, when we can, in which we sing. We are writing for today, not tomorrow, nor yesterday, not seeking for posterity, as more than ever we have been reminded that we do not know what tomorrow might bring, what testing of faith it may assert, what new expressions of fear and wonder initiate, what images of God will be drawn from human minds to meet our needs and those of our contemporaries.
(a longer version of this article can be found in the Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Winter 2021, 306, Vol. 23, No. 1, p 9-24 – a draft of the article can be viewed on my blog)