Hymns beyond COVID

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)

21 thoughts on “Hymns beyond COVID”

  1. ‘And when I think that God, his Son not sparing,
    Sent him to die, I scarce can take it in,
    That on the cross, my burden gladly bearing,
    He bled and died, to take away my sin ……
    Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee:
    How great Thou art, How great Thou art!’
    (StF 82)

    This hymn, as well as fitting all Andrew’s criteria for what a hymn should be, is invariably among the top three of Britain’s best loved hymns in the annual Songs of Praise poll.
    Some might balk at the theology (though I suspect the ‘cosmic child abuse’ school of thought is now being viewed as very ‘woke’ and boring!) but, for the majority of Christians around the world, this is the very essence of our faith, and we are not ashamed to sing it.
    It is deep and meaningful. It is beautiful and profound. It is non-negotiable.

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    1. Yvonne, why did you feel the need to add the parenthesis in your post? Yes, many of us would worry about the possible theology behind this verse, but the poetry and imagery is strong enough to support a wide range of theories of the atonement.
      Why is ‘woke’ a pejorative for you? I can understand those who do not recognise the equal worth of different people and do not care about that seeing it as pejorative, but that is clearly not you.
      Defending Conservative theology, politics or social attitudes here, is something you have done eloquently; but why do need to attack more liberal thoughts? You have argued (quite possibly fairly) that more Conservative views are often attacked here and they should be acceptable. Indeed you rightly point out that liberals ought to be more accepting.
      Why ‘boring’? That seems particularly unhelpful.
      For many the depth of meaning, and beautiful profundity of the Passion lie in the self giving (mysterious) love, not in a theory that must be accepted as ‘non-negotiable’ (even if that theory were not deeply troubling).

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      1. Tim, I’ll get back to you when I’ve looked up ‘parenthesis’ and ‘pejorative’!

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    2. Dear Yvonne,
      Sorry to have missed this comment. Aside from the responses of others jus a thought and some information. How great thou art began as a Swedish hymn and a translation of the original third verse does not use the penal substitutionary language of God giving his son to die. Our is not a very good translation and has been influenced by the theology of the translator rather than tha of the original author. An earlier translation from 1925 is more accurate:

      When crushed by guilt of sin before thee kneeling,
      I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
      I feel thy balm and, all my bruises healing,
      My soul is filled, my heart is set at ease.

      Secondly, and speaking pastorally and evangelically, we are bid in scripture to regard ourselves as children of God. Take this literally and think of ‘God his son not sparing, sent him to die’ – paints a very unhelpful picture. Who would want to be a child of such a God?

      Our problem is our inadequate language when it comes to the Trinity, but this hymn, for me doesn’t help any, though in other ways it is elegant, if old fashioned in it language. I’d rather the original healing balm which Boberg first published in Swedish in “O Store Gud” in 1886.

      Andrew

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  2. Ok, I’ll try to answer your main points. Please bear with me!
    1) By parentheses, I think you mean the bits in brackets? Someone once asked me why I used brackets so much in my writing and, thinking about it, I realised that those are my ‘asides’ to God. They are my authentic thoughts, rather than the polite ones which I present to others. I do feel that ‘cosmic child abuse’ is an over-used cliche; it has become a stick with which to beat the traditionalist Christian. Jesus was a man, not a child, and he went willingly to the cross. I concede that on this occasion, maybe I should have shared my thoughts with God privately. Note to self: just because God loves your shadow side, it doesn’t mean everybody else does!
    2) I watch many Youtube videos and read the public comments, and I am a member of several chat groups on facebook. Believe me, I am not the only one for whom ‘woke’ has become a pejorative! The dictionary defines ‘woke’ as ‘alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice’. I believe in the innate worth and equal value of all human beings, so in that sense of the word I suppose I am as woke as the next person. But the reason it has become a derogatory term is because of the woke folks’ insistence that no-one has a right to disagree with them. So for instance, I have never been a fan of Piers Morgan because I think his aggressive style of interviewing makes him look like a bully, but I absolutely defend his right to say he didn’t believe Meghan Markle was refused help for her mental health issues. Also, I don’t support Black Lives Matter because I think all lives matter, and I only ‘take the knee’ to God. That does not make me a racist!
    3) This weekend we will be celebrating the most important events in the Christian calendar, the death of Jesus of Nazareth and the resurrection of the Universal Christ. Jesus died for our sins, Christ is risen for our salvation. Speaking only for myself now, this is non-negotiable. No apologies.

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    1. Thank you Yvonne, that is very helpful.
      I too dislike the term ‘cosmic child abuse’; in my case because it is so anthropomorphic and literalist. However, I do worry about (what I see as) the extreme version of penal substitution as a theory for the atonement that it seeks to describe. However, I wonder if in fact you are necessarily advocating that extreme theory (at least not claiming it is the only legitimate response for a Christian). Although I am not overly fond of the Hymn you quoted I have often sung it with no (well may be few) qualms, because I believe it is capable of broader understanding. I may not use the precise words you use in your point 3 but I have no difficulty in agreeing with their sentiment (apart from the ‘non-negotiable’, which I do not understand) provided there is no implied detailed understanding of the mechanism. I like your use of ‘Jesus (of Nazareth)’ and ‘(the universal) Christ’ in speaking of these wonderful events.
      Forgive me, I do not really understand how your comments about the unaccepting of different opinions amongst some who are described as Woke applies to this discussion -I don’t doubt the failing is all mine! I note you do not elaborate on ‘boring’ and perhaps that is just best forgotten and let us commemorate and celebrate these wonderful event with out the need to be dismissive of other people.
      As I write on Mundy Thursday, may I add that I see the events of this day as hugely significant too. Although I am sacramental, it is the foot washing rather than the institution of the Eucharist, that I would particularly point to; and to the struggle in the garden. The nature of God as self-giving servant (who says ‘do likewise’) and the genuine concern and genuine option in facing the cross, speak far more to me of the nature of what God is doing in Christ than any detailed theory of how I might be ‘saved’ by this death (or frankly, even what that means). That of course is not to denigrate anyone for whom such an expression has the deepest of meaning.

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    2. Hello Yvonne, I’m not sure if this page is the right place for this conversation but I think that being ‘woke’ with the definition you found is a crucial part of Methodism. Disagreeing well (i.e respectfully and lovingly) is also something which Methodism has come to stand for I’m glad to say. The thing you and I may, currently, disagree on is that if we believe Jesus died for all then we do need to take seriously the fact that ‘black lives matter’ (even if we don’t want to join the political group perhaps) because mostly, world-wide and in the UK, white people have not believed that and we know God does, because of Jesus. So, we need to join campaigning which helpfully reminds people that black lives matter, I believe. I’m glad that a recent strategy has been adopted by the Methodist Council to help us put the belief into practice that all lives matter equally.

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      1. I think I did say that I believe all lives matter, and I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus died for ALL people, regardless of race, colour, faith or creed. As such I don’t feel the need to join any protest group (whatever their cause) if it means shouting, rioting and causing unrest on the streets of our towns and cities. I believe in the power of prayer over placard-waving, and I trust in God and democracy to see that justice prevails. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’
        If the Methodist Church is as diverse and inclusive as it likes to portray itself, I shouldn’t have to keep defending my conservative religious or political views.

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      2. Maybe this isn’t the right page for the conversation and I’d be really pleased to have a phone chat if you’re willing. I’m a Methodist minister, I have a job relating to helping all people to have their voices heard respectfully and my number is 07745 020597 if you’d like a conversation. No worries if not. Thanks for your honesty and faith, Jill

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  3. You are obviously a very well-educated man, Tim, and I feel a bit out of my depth here, but I think we more or less agree on the main issues. By ‘non-negotiable’ I mean that I believe the death and resurrection of Christ is the essence of the Christian faith. Without that, I would not go to church, though I acknowledge and respect that others may differ.
    On a personal note, How Great Thou Art was the first hymn I sang when I returned to church after an absence of more than 40 years. It was the second verse that provoked the tears, because I realised then that God had been with me constantly throughout my ‘desert’ years; I just didn’t know it at the time. But it was the third verse (the words I quoted above) that brought me to my knees, and it still does to this day.
    I didn’t elaborate on ‘boring’ but as you brought it up again, I will. Again this is just my personal opinion but I think it would be a very boring world if we all agreed on everything and no-one was allowed a different point of view. Also, for years traditionalists have been told that their style of worship is dull, dry and ‘boring’ and the reason why young people don’t come to church. Maybe taking part in these discussions has honed my self-defence strategies; I’ve learnt to bite before I’m bitten!
    With hindsight, I would use the word ‘predictable’ instead of ‘boring’. When I used to comment on A Word in Time I could go back and edit anything that I had second thoughts about, but this site does not seem to have an ‘edit’ facility. Maybe something for the admin team to work on?

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    1. Amen. I would (personally) add incarnation and ascension and giving of the Spirit, although I am not at all precious about separate historical events for the Resurrection, Ascension and Giving of the Spirit, to your list too. However, what I would not say is that any particular interpretation or theory is important (and indeed, like you, I would certainly not require even my minimum to be necessary for anyone else).
      Thank you for your kind comments about my education. I suspect it is more my lack of clarity (hiding behind technical words, quite probably not used entirely correctly) that causes any confusion rather than any erudition on my part!
      Incidentally, despite my liberal theology (actually I think it is mainstream but others seem to find it liberal), I am quite definitely a traditionalist, and don’t find Hymnody boring in the least; rather I often find ‘worship songs’ either too literal or lacking in any depth and often both.
      May I wish you a reflective GOOD Friday and a blessed, Holy Easter.

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  4. 02.04.2021
    This is the day I nail my opinions to the cross.

    ‘Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
    save in the death of Christ, my God;
    all the vain things that charm me most,
    I sacrifice them to His blood.’
    (StF 287)

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  5. This is all very cosy, but I find it difficult to believe there be any possible defence for the penal substitution theory for the atonement, whether we call it “cosmic child abuse” or not? Jesus was obviously a child of God, since he referred to God as his father and spoke of God’s unconditional love for all humanity, so how have we ended up with this loveless, unethical, judgmental concept of God?
    Perhaps from the point of view of a more liberal theology we could see the Cross as some sort of strategy or deal with God, or even embrace a pagan scapegoat theory, but for me it was a disaster. It was actually God that is hanging on that Cross; a mortal God, dying, suffering, vulnerable, powerless and exposed.
    In a world desperate for meaning the church is failing to give that meaning and this metaphysical stuff does not help. It would be great if the Church could find a way to embrace change but, I suspect that the changes, as a result of falling numbers and closures, will be forced upon us.
    And, before I am excommunicated for non-credal views, I would add that Jesus was probably the most “woke” person that ever lived.
    I intended to comment on Andrew’s thoughtful contribution, but got waylaid. His message was clear, positive and encouraging. It has made a considerable difference to my thoughts and prayers over Easter. Thank you Andrew.

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    1. Thank you Robert, I fear I may have done many people a miss service by my replies to Yvonne. First of all to Andrew and and readers of his excellent post. I certainly did not mention its many excellent thoughts and I may have encouraged a distraction from them. Secondly to Yvonne, probably in two opposite directions. In my genuine delight in sharing much in common (albeit I expect with very different understandings) I may have given the impression of more agreement than there really is (although I do not wholly regret that, particularly writing as I was on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday). However, I also may have left the impression that I thought the trivialising of the very serious concerns over the version of Penal Substitution referred to as ‘Cosmic Child abuse’ were a minor difference. I find that theory utterly abhorrent (only slightly emolliated by the thought that I can not understand the ways of God or judge them by human understanding -but that is all I have and with that limited understanding it is abhorrent!).
      I must say too that I am not keen on the ‘strategy or deal’ theory either, although that is less troublesome. I actually agree with your assessment, Robert, almost entirely. May be I am deluding myself and being a blockage to real change with this metaphysical stuff but I do believe one can hold that the central message of the cross is of self-giving love of the incarnate God, as you describe, Robert (and that needs to be expressed far more by the church; and being genuinely worried about other emphasises) and still be part of a broad mainstream (and even traditional) Christian community.

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  6. A very Happy Easter to all Methodists, conservative and liberal, and to the vast majority who just want a peaceful walk with God. What unites us is far greater than what divides us. Love and let live. God bless you all.

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  7. Thank you, Andrew, for your contribution to TE about Hymns and Hymn writing. I think one of the tripping up points for methodists in many ‘ordinary’ Methodist Churches has been the idea of continuing with a hymn book and the introduction of Singing the Faith in particular. Preachers have been sticking to this so singing has been very limited in variety recently.

    We can choose to sing along to any song or hymn we choose on YouTube or Spotify and have been doing this over Lockdown. I help create a Playlist for our Circuit each week. Songs and hymns are drawn from all genres usually on a theme. As a hymn writer you can write and record on YouTube and we will decide if we ‘like’ what you have written. The hymns and songs which have the values you have written about in your piece are the ones likely to survive. Put them out on the ‘market’, bypass ‘Singing the Faith Plus’ which no-one looks at. We each have to decide what theology we will sing 🙂

    I balk at singing such as ‘the wrath of God was satisfied’. In fact I stop singing if I am in Church! If the tune is such that it is not really singable (old or new) I have taken to just reading the words.

    We have to be honest in keeping and sharing the good and true. The tune carries the words. None of the hymns which survive have unsingable tunes. But beware, sometimes a good tune can carry theologically wrong words…….

    Again, thank you for your article, Andew. I feel there is a lot more to be said and done if we are not to close ourselves down into our previous ‘box’ of just using Singing the Faith (restricted by the ones we can’t sing because we don’t have a band)…..

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    1. I assume your tongue is firmly in your cheek Margaret, with your absolutist comments “no-one looks at” [Singing the faith plus] and “none of the Hymns which survive have unsingable tunes”. Singing the faith plus provides a similar service to me that you seem to be providing for your circuit. You are right about the danger of a tune carrying troublesome theology (‘wrong theology’ is in itself a troublesome concept) but a really timeless Hymn (and already there are signs of ‘worship songs’), even though starting with a tune/setting that congregations cannot easily sing can become well sung (in the Methodist sense, if not the musicologists sense).
      Bringing out Singing the Faith did seem like an odd thing to do -congregations and leaders of worship were increasingly moving to sources of ‘songs’ not all in one book. However actually many (at least that is my impression) have found it to be an excellent resource, organised as it is as a tradition (Methodist) hymn book, i.e. themed and theologically and liturgically literate but with a variety of style (and not seeking to pick what will become timeless I would suggest -some choices seem very of the moment and may have already passed).
      I worry about the Market Place as a metaphor for choice of Hymnody (or any liturgical music).
      As an almost irrelevant aside, it is not just the absence of a band that can make the choice of what to sing difficult (please don’t never use something that is worthwhile just because it is difficult); I often choose traditional Hymns in my local congregation that are difficult because we do have a band!

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    2. Thanks for the comments and affirmation. If the words make sense. Good. YouTube limits us to those items that have been recorded and I, as a writer, don’t have that facility, though this last year it’s been invaluable. For words though go to HymnQuest which has over 1500 of my texts but you’d need a subscription to see full texts. There is so much out there but getting ‘thoughtful’ theology in the mainstream is problematic – potentially costly. https://app.hymnquest.com/app

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  8. I’d also like to thank you, Andrew, for your own hymns which have certainly helped me, over the years, “as a lens through which to focus on the breadth of our growing human understanding of the world”. I particularly agree with the need for hymns which help people to engage with God for ourselves and agree when you say, “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’” In particular I hope that Methodists can continue to encourage new hymn-writing which uses the kind of language which makes sense now and which engages with human experience as it is today. I hope and pray this for my own sake but also for the many others who still seek God today.

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