This is an uncorrected draft of a paper now published in The Bulletin of the Hymn society of Great Britain and Ireland, Winter, 306 Vol 23 No 1 which should be examined and referenced for any citation and for acknowledgement of quotations within the text.
Setting the scene 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,". We have probably gone as far as we can in opening up Society. 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 to lockdown harder than we were doing at that time. The Government’s response to 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 things were 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. What does this say to those of us who seek to further the cause of hymnody in writing, singing and the study of hymns, living with COVID-19, even with the prospect of vaccination? During July 2020 the Hymn Society posted a series of thirty-one hymns (and then ‘one for luck’ on the first of August) at a time when it was not possible to gather for our Annual conference. These hymns reflected on COVID, on faith, shadowed biography and took those who read them, sang them and listened to them on a voyage of discovery of things old and very new. Through Advent and up to the beginning of the season of Epiphany further hymns were posted daily on the Society’s web-site. In 2014 I wrote that, in the context of worship, hymns have given voice to our fears and been a vehicle for our hopes. Echoing Don Saliers, I affirmed that at best 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, every bit as much as on the scriptures or 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 concluded that I felt that I had made the case that hymns were 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. I believed there was still work for writers, composers and hymnologists to do. In the light of COVID-19 perhaps my conclusion needs to be re-visited. Many of our expectations have been challenged. Elsewhere in this Bulletin J.R. Watson has provided a back-drop for us by exploring something of the history of pandemics and hymnody. He concludes, ‘Plagues – and mercies – are two basic elements of human life, with lessons for us all.’ Historically at times of challenge, be that from progress in human knowledge or natural events, Christians have made one of two responses. There has either been a reassertion of historic faith, belief and practise, often resulting in so called evangelical revival, or there has been a shift and adjustment in theological interpretation to take account of the new knowledge and challenge. In the USA this has been researched and analysed with the recognition of identifiable ‘Awakenings’. Arguably we are living through just such a time, and on a world-wide scale. For as long as I have researched hymns I have felt that if we lost them we would need to find a medium to replace them, so integral have they become to our worship and faith, But the shape of such ‘hymnody’ will need to evolve if hymns are to survive and continue to be helpful. This could be the first stumbling-block. J.R. Watson has stated, that ‘there exists a strong sense of what a hymn is in the popular imagination’ and 'hymn-writers practising the craft today have to bear this in mind'. Yet Elsabé Kloppers has most recently written: What is needed most are theologians who are acquainted with the imagery and histories of the Bible and are artists, true poets who can open up texts, give new form, and creatively speak a new language and a new captivating truth, and thereby regain a foothold in the non-argumentative and non-linguistic discourses of the public square, and in the imagination of late-modern, post-secular and secular people. It goes without saying that hymns are lyrical, faith-based and we expect them to be sung corporately. Historically they have affirmed in song that which had been argued, elaborated and stated as creeds of faith. This can be illustrated most obviously by John Henry Newman’s ‘Firmly I believe, and truly.’ Over time the medium has evolved so that hymns not only repeated the creeds, but sought to make sense of theology and to explore what that theology might mean. Some hymns have been polemical: ‘Come, sinners, to the gospel feast, Let every soul be Jesu's guest’, continuing, ‘Ye need not one be left behind,/ For God hath bidden all mankind’, as an Arminian repost to Calvinism. Hymn poets began to set their theology alongside human experience and began to ask questions. Struggling with his own Calvinistic experience, and possibly bipolar disorder, William Cowper wrote, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’. This God ‘…works his sovereign will’. But the believers need not be concerned by this and are bid to sing to and for each other, for ‘Behind a frowning providence’ God ‘…hides a smiling face’. Frederick Faber, struggling with the tension between the models of his parents, an authoritarian Calvinist Father and a mother who treasured him, would write in a similar vein, ‘Souls of men! why will ye scatter’…for ‘There's a wideness in God's mercy’. Alongside these progressions there were occasional sorties into areas which required broader speculation. I would place Charles Wesley’s hymns on earthquakes in this category. Within the last twenty years hymn poets have turned their attention to parallel natural disasters in which there has been a continuing exploration of the nature of theodicy through the medium of sung theology. Through the current pandemic our own members have continued to explore this theme and these possibilities. and lists of hymns have been drawn up by such as Hymnary.org and the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (HSUSC). All of this demonstrates that, though Watson was right in terms of his description of people’s understanding and perception of hymns, this falls short of a full understanding of the range and evolution of the genre. Hymns in decline – a reflection within a time of crisis What exercises me now is some speculation as to where we might go from here. It has been argued, with some, credence, that hymn singing is much less prevalent than in previous generations. In the last two hundred years there have been occasional revivals of such singing. Often these have been associated with evangelistic revivals. The names of Moody and Sankey with their editions of Sacred Songs and Solos, together with Billy Graham and his series of crusades in the twentieth century are examples of this. Toward the end of the century worship songs, some charismatic, others evangelical, held sway in terms of popularity, but neither their intention nor construction was to develop faith beyond an initial commitment or re-affirmation. That is not to deny their place or effectiveness, but to acknowledge their limitations. At the same time, these media were often predicated on being led by an individual or group that would play a central role in singing. The worldwide nature of this influence is indicated by the predominance of Hillsong, emanating from Australia. The congregation (audience) watch, listen and sometimes sing along. There is nothing novel in this as many Cathedral sung services are modelled on the same principle, frequently with even less congregational participation. Since April 2020 the United Kingdom has had varying levels of restriction on the gathering of people, social distancing becoming the norm. As I write we enter yet another phase with a 4th Tier added and in consequence of the virus having mutated and increased its ability to be transmitted. Worship has taken place in individual homes. Recordings have been used. Attempts have been made, with various degrees of success, to assemble performances by people in their own homes singing or playing together in a virtual environment using Zoom. or other media platforms. Which traditional hymns or songs might we use at such times? Perhaps this is a moment for that style of effervescent worship that lifts us above physical reality and, for a moment at least, takes us out of the world to which, inevitably, we will return when the time of worship concludes. Taizé chants can also immerse us in a sense of the other, calm and wondering. Or is it time for ‘Abide with me’? Are there texts which recognise the finality of our existence, which sharpen our focus and, maybe, our faith ‘till we cast our crowns before Thee, lost in wonder, love and praise’? Is there a middle way which acknowledges the finitude of human earthly existence while, at the same time, offering some reassurance of the persistent love of God in spite of all things, that love from which, metaphysically, or in ultimate reality, we can never be separated? Timothy Dudley-Smith’s ‘Safe in the shadow of the Lord’, with its recurrent, ‘I trust in Him, I trust in Him’ running through each verse works at this level. ‘Performance worship’ either recorded or virtual has come to the fore, particularly with restrictions being put on corporate singing. There is less likelihood of the words sung being available for reflection, except when such worship is shaped around a readily available printed resource, or words appear on screen. The July presentation of hymns on the HSGBI web-site was helpful in providing words, commentary, sometimes music and often recordings of items. But there is little if any sense of corporate togetherness, or the opportunity for spontaneous harmonisations or descants to be sung by those who are proficient. There is probably no easy way around such constraints, but it raises the question as to whether hymns, or hymns as we have inherited them, are the best vehicles for worship in lockdown and beyond. At a personal level I have found it profoundly unsatisfactory, when it has been possible to attend church, where words have been projected on a screen but not sung, while an accompaniment to the silence has been provided by the organist. This in no way reflects on the organist. It is the lack of singing that is problematic, aside from the use of the screen to project the words. Screens are best for visual presentation as I have argued elsewhere. This has led me to the use YouTube videos in which we can both see and hear singing by a congregation, or individual singers, or recorded singing being illustrated visually with printed or projected images. Some Fresh Expressions have intentionally jettisoned hymns altogether. Certain contexts make this a sensible option. It is understandable, yet I feel that something more has been lost than just a good sing. Yet what can replace hymns, or how could hymns evolve to at least fulfil something of their original intentions? I think the answer requires that we begin to examine analytically what hymns have done and how we can best achieve the same ends with what we have today. In doing this, as a hymn poet, I will concentrate mainly on the words, but I will start with music. Music evokes feelings, which Albert Blackwell suggests, can effectively be sacramental, sacred, channelling God’s grace. The argument is made throughout his book that all music can be deemed sacred. If it is felt not to be, it is because of the words or associations that a particular piece evokes. If this is so, then we are released from two constraints. One is the ethic or morality of, say, using Wagnerian music because of Wagner’s Nazi associations. The music itself is neutral and can be deemed sacred. Of course, what one person associates with awe and wonder another might relate to fear and contempt. Our use of music has to be managed with care. The second constraint is the false distinction between the sacred and the secular. In an era where theology is contextualised, we need to be able to look for evidence of the divine in the world around us as well as in traditionally accepted religious contexts. Brian Wren pointed to the Spirit of God being present, ‘When a hungry child is fed’ or ‘when a stranger’s not alone’. So, in our choice of music we have, with care, free range. We can choose heavy metal or Elgar or Bach. Works by Giacinto Scelsi might evoke feelings of chaos, dissonance and disorder, while Saint Saens third symphony could generate a sense of awe and wonder. But there is a rider here. What I feel and what you experience might be totally different. I recollect playing an item by Scelsi as a class was coming into a lecture. I assumed that the dissonance and discord might have a certain consequence. The first student to come in said, ‘Oh isn’t that beautiful! Beyond Blackwell’s recognition of the sacred nature of music there is the association, of which singers in church are aware, of words with a particular tune, giving rise to the discomfort when the ‘wrong tune’ is chosen. All music may be sacred, but the words with which tunes are paired can give rise to strong reasons for not using some music in religious settings. Music matters. But this need not always be negative. A different tune can allow us a different perspective on the words we are singing. I invite musicians to explore this further. How are hymns written? I will now turn to a consideration of the words. What happens when a hymn poet sets out to write? Timothy Dudley Smith reflects on the somewhat solitary nature of writing on holiday in Cornwall. There is, he confesses, ‘an element of inspiration […] coming from somewhere other than the conscious mind’. Added to this is ‘skilled labour [which] is mostly within our own control. What unfolds is a process of extremely careful editing, amendment and alteration in which the right word is sought sometimes over long periods of time. The work is occasionally swift, but rarely instantaneous. In the words of Scotty Gray and David Music, Dudley-Smith is ‘continually seeking ways to express in an ever finer way the noble themes of the Christian faith’. Brian Wren, whose writing has a singularly different feel, nevertheless begins with, what he once called ‘inspiration’, but now calls, ‘receiving’. There is the same sense of something coming from outside ourselves. But Wren warns against ascribing this to God or the Holy Spirit, as such inspiration covers the whole process of writing and not simply the spur with which it might have begun. What is clear is that the process of composing a text is not one which ever becomes fixed and final. Wren enters into a sequence of revision which has enabled him to maintain his hymns in continuing use through generations of hymnbooks. The necessary down-side of this is that a single text might have variations from one edition of a book to another. Both writers, working within different self-imposed expectations, have composed items which have received consistent attention from hymn book compilers in the latter half of the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first. While both are overtly Christian and trinitarian in basis, Wren’s compositions tend to make a more natural use of contemporary language and vivid imagery than those of Dudley-Smith. Both use ‘skilled labour’ (Dudley-Smith) or what Wren would term, ‘poetic skill’. There is no sense of a phrase, couplet or stanza arriving complete, without the need for attention to be given to language, scansion or rhyme. Wren’s editing of his texts has often been used to enable them to be more gender inclusive. In Barefoot in the Dust he makes the most lucid recent case for gender inclusivity of which I am aware (notwithstanding Ruth Duck’s continuing work in this area ) basing this in Biblical theology and hermeneutics. Hymnody looking forward From this starting point any evolution of hymnody must involve a wider inclusion of authorship, both in terms of gender, but also ethnicity. This will challenge vested interests. Janet Wootton drew attention to this need in providing a showcase of women writers in This is our song. The original publication by Epworth Press (a now defunct Methodist imprint) is somewhat ironic as, between the draft presentation of contents of Singing the Faith (the most recent Methodist UK hymnal) in 2009 and the presentation of a revised collection in 2011 four texts by Wootton and others by Mary Louise Bringle, Shirley Erena Murray and Marjorie Dobson were omitted or edited with the omission of verses. A Methodist report justified this by stating, ‘the MRG [Music Resource Group] has expressed concern that there is some evidence that female authors’ work is being rejected because of the type of imagery they use and we believe that this issue needs further analysis and reflection’. Meantime a very popular text was included in spite of use of the phrase ‘scheme of man’ while the editors had stated that all recent texts (post 1983) should be gender inclusive in reference to humanity (preface to Singing the Faith). This is a simple illustration that the conservatism of hymn book compilers referred to some years ago by Erik Routley is still alive and active. The recent iteration of the The English Hymnal when compared with, say, Church Hymnary 4 provides further evidence of the tendency to preserve tradition rather than to encourage innovation. Having acknowledged this inherent conservatism I am still of the opinion that hymns have something to offer to theology, liturgy and worship. It has been demonstrated elsewhere that hymns can offer access to the public space and enable expression of religious sentiment that might otherwise be unexpressed , notwithstanding the way in which such use can be abused. What form, then, should new hymns take? Wainwright argued that theology is developed through liturgy and does not simply inform it. Speaking personally, my initial motivation as a writer was to understand the theology I was being taught as an ordinand. Over time these hymns have been the tool I have used to both reinterpret scripture and as a lens through which to focus on the breadth of our growing human understanding. 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’. For this to be effective we need to regain the sense of imagination. Some will call this inspiration. I am thinking of the sort of prophetic imagination of which Walter Brueggeman writes. It is an imagination which is visionary, as in Ezekiel’s portrayal of a valley of dry bones taking on flesh, suggesting that exile was not isolation from the divine, nor need it be permanent. It is the poetic drive which fired William Blake to write of ‘dark satanic mills’ throwing a different light on things hitherto seen as productive. Or more radically, was he, as some have suggested, being satirical, seeing the mills as emblematic, a metaphor of churches which dominated England’s green and pleasant land from which God, as Dickens hinted, was somewhat absent. It is interesting that Whittier wrote: And yet the past comes round again, And new doth old fulfil; In sensual transports wild as vain We brew in many a Christian fane The heathen Soma still! This is the ‘foolish’ way that we plead with God to forgive in the hymn, ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’. Now, in modern images, concepts and discoveries we need to discern the presence, or absence of God, and then to weave these into our verses. But there is a warning here. When poetry or hymnody is agenda driven, the protest song for instance, it is very easy to lose any sense of real inspiration, elegance, or precision of language. An author who is supremely gifted in treading this delicate tight-rope is Sue Gilmurray . Graham Kendrick, coming from a very different standpoint, has allowed his writing to evolve. ‘Shine, Jesus, shine’ which is popular and easy to sing is unintelligible aside from immersion in a Hebrew understanding of sacrifice in which much of the New Testament is grounded: Lord, I come to Your awesome presence, from the shadows into Your radiance; by the blood I may enter Your brightness… Within a few years he had written in a way which was more closely related to the late twentieth century and addressed issues of justice clearly but elegantly, as evidenced in his text ‘Beauty for brokenness. We can only imagine how Fred Kaan would have responded to COVID-19; with force and an eye to justice we can be sure. Those tools used with such proficiency by Dudley-Smith and Wren, that of crafting and honing the results of imagination and inspiration, are still more necessary. Much, so called, ‘modern’ religious song seems to use archaic, rather than contemporary, 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 in similar genres. Secular poetry, and even popular song, can offer examples, tools and devices from which hymn poets might learn. A selection of authors who are worthy of examination could include the following: 1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, for his use of unusual images and obscure words. Sound and rhythm mattered to him, as did the colour of the language that he chose and the images generated in the narrative of a poem. His words act in a multi-sensory way enlivening imagination. 2. Poets of the First World War, in particular Wilfred Owen, who used language which was at once affective and visceral. Martin Leckebusch has recently pointed out that the gospel accounts of Jesus rarely make reference to current events. For poets such as Owen and Siegfried Sassoon the subject matter and expression was, of necessity, immersed in such matter. Also, Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy who saw Christ in the men to whom he ministered as a Chaplain: Purple robes and snowy linen Have for earthly kings sufficed, But these bloody sweaty tatters Were the robes of Jesus Christ. , 3 T.S. Eliot’s poetry carried through it a Christian, religious theme, some of which has had an influence on later hymnody, 4. W.H. Auden noticed contemporary images as in ‘Stop all the clocks’. The line ‘Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves’ pointed to a time of mourning, to the, often observed, policemen (at the time of writing) directing traffic while wearing white cotton gloves. 5. Philip Larkin similarly used familiar images, as in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ to draw the reader into a narrative. Neither was he averse to using rhyme and rhythm in his writing. 6. Such devices are not foreign to poetry, nor hymnody, but the nature of the rhymed words and their novelty is worthy of exploration. This is also true of the writing of Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate. 7. Dylan Thomas, like Armitage, used the spoken word. While Armitage may shock with a change of mood or expectation Thomas had moved in another direction in which the sound as much as the meaning of his language was significant. In his context sound, tone and rhythm were used to hold attention, but also to be affective in layering a further level of expression or feeling within a text which might be lost when it is not read aloud. 8. Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry is worthy of attention for her use of metaphor and simile. Her poem, ‘Prayer’ relates to loss, is inclusive in mentioning both female and male grief, and touches on the common place in the reference to places named in the radio Shipping Forecast. 9. Leonard Cohen demonstrated how metaphor can have a powerful effect when skilfully used and unexpectedly chosen The way ahead In times of tension and trauma we take comfort and reassurance from those things which are familiar, which have spoken to such situations in the past and still resonate with us in the present. Over millennia the Psalms have been a resource from which to draw inspiration for contemporary material. In our own era this accounts for the work of authors and translators such as John L. Bell, Martin Leckebusch, Adam Carlill, Carl Daw Jr., and others who have re-worked Psalms in paraphrase or through allusion. There has been an increased recognition of the Psalms of Lament and how they might be transferred to our current context. Nevertheless, at a popular level, people often reach for what might be criticised as being escapist. We sing praise songs and hymns which lift us out of our current situation. Those justifying this, half quoting Bertolt Brecht, might well say In the dark times Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing… Yet they do Brecht a disservice by omitting what follows; ‘Yes, there will also be singing,/ About the dark times’, or as Edwin Morgan translated it: ‘There will be singing even then. / Of how the times darken’. Yet we face a problem in the presence of COVID-19 in that we are told that singing could spread the virus. Amid all of this some congregations find it difficult to envisage worship without singing. If these constraints are to be applied and adhered to whither hymns? Bernard Manning in The Hymns of Wesley and Watts recounted how, as a young person, during the sermon he would read hymns from the hymn book. The 1933 Methodist Hymn Book had a devotional section designed as much for prayer as for singing. John Keble’s The Christian Year, was published in 1827 with similar intent. Perhaps this is something that we might seek to regain but, if so, our approach to writing will require the same fastidious attention that Timothy Dudley-Smith and Brian Wren have applied to their texts. At a time prior to COVID-19 while popular choral singing has become more prevalent, church choirs have seen a decline. I would want to argue that, while the reasons for this decline are complex, in part it is due to the paucity of the material that those who observe from outside assume is being sung. Those in power within the churches have controlled what others might sing and what they might sing has been immutable. Sydney Carter on the other hand, grasping the truth that religious song must be of the folk, insisted that it is likely to be constantly changing from generation to generation, evolving to fit new situations and different expressions of humanity. This applies not only to the words, but also to the music, it is more jazz improvisation, than static notes or formulaic bars on manuscript paper or digital descriptions in a file. It is human, from, to and for humanity. Andrew Thomas has recently argued that the act of corporate singing can be formative in enabling people to become the Body of Christ in their own context and situation and that the act of singing together binds people corporately. His argument is that for this to happen congregations need to be able to sing together, but with the expectation that those of other cultures, and sometimes those from outside the church might also be incorporated and allowed to influence that which is sung. The hope is that this very process, which is in essence inclusive, will enable those who sing in harmony to live similarly in community. In all of this we are not simply penning ‘pretty ditties’, popular songs, neither are we intent on showing of our erudition and scholarship, our literary excellence, we are seeking to enable the voice of the people to be expressed, theirs, not ours. The content of that which is sung will need to reflect the belief, understanding and experience of those who are singing. The music will also offer a vehicle that is similarly apt and contextual. The instrumentation for this can be varied but must be able to accommodate those members of the Body of Christ with their mixed skills, gifts and inclinations. In a real way we should be providing the hymns of the people, folk songs, that by their very nature are not elitist. If we are to begin with words which will offer something of the inspiration that Manning and 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? In answer to that question, I want to set out some guidelines for our further exploration of the medium in which we have invested. 1. Hymns should be beautiful. That does not mean they should describe things that are beautiful, but they should be aesthetically beautiful, elegant. This should apply even in a hymn of lament, or one that identifies with pain in the reader/singer. 2. Rhyme, rhythm and pattern are still helpful tools which enable memory. 3. Honest. The words we sing should be true to our own experience. Life, for instance, is rarely ‘all sunshine’ even for Christians. 4. Theologically honest. For instance, 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. 5. Understandable. Theological language, or outdated metaphors, may confuse more than clarify the Biblical material which we are seeking to communicate. Many writers have not yet come to terms with the challenge presented by such works as Honest to God, or The Crucified God. 6. 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. Finally, let me suggest a way forward. Faith and scripture, while so often expressed primarily in words, frequently evoke images. At a time when we cannot sing in church perhaps visual images, art, photographs can begin to interpret scripture and inspire faith. A poet I mentioned earlier was Leonard Cohen. One of his songs, ‘Suzanne’, began the second stanza with the words, ‘And Jesu was sailor’. This was not scriptural, but Cohen played with the idea for eight lines, then returning to the love song about Suzanne with which he began. Jesus was imagined looking from ‘his lonely wooden tower’, he saw all people as sailors but was, himself, ‘Forsaken, almost human’, so that ‘only drowning men could see him’. The allusions were clearly Christian, but the imaginary picture of Jesus as a sailor played on my mind. Many years later I tried to develop this image further, in a hymn ‘Always missing, never grasping’. The second verse took inspiration from Cohen’s song: But I saw his body hanging silhouetted like a sail, blood was draining, rigor rising, movement quietened, life gone pale. Now they say that sail is filling, spirit billows drive him on, Christ is cresting all disaster, life returns and death is gone. Perhaps our hymnody needs re-imagining completely taking inspiration from poets, artists, musicians and, even more, the people for whom we are writing.