Incarnation and all that…

If we believe the idea of incarnation, if we sense that people saw God, or something of God in Jesus, and I do, we set ourselves a problem. We raise questions.

People want to know how can that be? If we are content with the mystery of not knowing there is no problem. We create the problem by running with the question. The consequences are multitudinous.

Mark just says, in effect, this is the beginning of the good news. My feeling is that, when he was writing the question hadn’t arisen.

John uses logos to get round the problem of God becoming flesh, human. To my mind the most easily acceptable answer in 2022.

Matthew and Luke construct myths. In their time the nature of these accounts would have been seen for what they were I believe, largely fictional, yet true as a novel is true, a sort of, ‘look, it could have happened like this, not saying it did, but’. Then pulling in all the scriptural ‘prophecies’ to justify the assertions. It worked then and becomes less plausible now.

More worrying is that it sets train the whole plethora of myths – Trinity, Fatherhood, divinity over against humanity, virgin birth, Ascension, which become dogma which ‘we must believe’ some would say, in order to be saved.

How much simpler, less arrogant and more exciting to say, IT IS A MYSTERY, I don’t understand it but here in this person called Jesus, I glimpse something of what I think God would BE like as a person. I’m agnostic as to the details but that doesn’t matter one jot! Best of all is God is with us – ‘give me the Good News in the present tense’ – as Sydney Carter put it.

Touching the Void – hymns and trauma – the gap between author and congregation – Andrew Pratt

This is an uncorrected draft of a paper originally published in the Bulletin of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, Autumn 2021

Touching the Void was a book written in 1998 by Joe Simpson. It tells the story of two climbers stranded on a mountain and joined by a rope. One is injured. The other one can escape if the rope is cut. And the injured one could be killed as he falls. The risk is immense. In the event, both survive. The title of this paper has been chosen in recognition that working in the area of hymns and trauma, sometimes composing at pace, runs the risk of falling into a void in which hymns are written with good intent, yet never used; that such hymns can be helpful or, potentially, pastorally damaging.

The writing of hymns related to trauma may encompass reflective texts written in response to a natural disaster, a pandemic, natural or accidental death, death as a consequence of human action or inaction, or any one of a number of causes. Writers have addressed such trauma though hymnody for hundreds of years. Such hymns have very short windows of use or, if written in a generalised way, may well outlast the source of the trauma which inspired them. My hope is that such writing will not simply languish in a notebook or computer file but will find its way to being sung. In this way a hymn/poem can enable congregations or individuals to give expression to feelings that might otherwise be repressed. Such use can enable us to touch and admit to feelings that convention, or our understanding of religion, might wrongly lead us to believe were outside the compass of the church or of our faith. This is the void that we confront that blocks such hymns from being used.

To overcome these blocks, such writing needs to be validated and means put in place to enable their creation and use. To suggest a way forward I will offer:

  • a brief survey of some hymns already written related to trauma
  • an indication of responses to different types of trauma
  • suggested blocks to the public use of hymns related to trauma
  • possible ways to overcome these obstacles
  • ways of making hymns available at times of trauma.

A brief survey of some hymns already written related to trauma

I want to turn initially to a paper written by J. Gertrud Tönsing and published in 2019: ‘Responses to violence and human suffering in Christian hymnody: A study of responses to situations of violence in the work of four hymn writers’.[i]Tönsing provides a study of Violence, Response, Guilt and Pain in the writing of Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), Jochen Klepper (1903-1942), Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) and Graham Kendrick (1950-). In her paper she differentiates between those hymns that might be chosen by a pastor on a particular occasion and those which then become ‘owned’ by congregations. It is from this paper that much of what follows here has been developed.

The first critique that might be made of her paper is the limitation imposed by the choice of authors she has made. Here I intend to suggest how this could have been widened. Secondly, her suggestion that ownership of a hymn by a congregation is an indication of the quality or usefulness of a hymn must be challenged. Lastly, the question of how such new hymns can best be made available to congregations needs to be considered. In passing, the categories she has explored may need to be broadened by opening this study to other themes.

Many years ago I wrote an essay for a Pratt Green Trust competition. It explored the way in which hymns and songs could support people in various times of stress.[ii] This account pointed to the Psalms as a starting point. It sought to demonstrate the breadth of material contained within the corpus which touched on lament, both individual and corporate. It had the additional benefit of not focussing specifically on particular hymn or song writers, while giving a bench-mark for what history and tradition has found suitable in giving vent to, or expressing, trauma within the medium of song. It opened a door which reached back before the nascence of Christian hymnody and also suggested what might develop from it. As such it was less constraining than the model chosen by Tönsing. Themes like guilt or alienation, anger or fear, hopelessness or despair were present in my critique.

What becomes apparent when we delve into the Psalms is the naked audacity of their authors in language, expression and the willingness to push the niceties of polite liturgical language beyond its normally acceptable limits. One example from a Scottish paraphrase offers something of the raw nature of this language (though in translation, as it must be for us):

Happy who thy tender barnes,

From the armes

Of their wailing mothers tearing,

‘Gainst the walls shall dash their bones,

            Ruthless stones

With their braines and blood besmearing.[iii]

Such emotive language in the Hebrew of the Psalms led Calvin to write:

.. there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has drawn to life all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men [sic] are wont to be agitated.[iv]

From this point it is possible to trace, amongst others, the work of Charles Wesley responding to the London and Lisbon earthquakes, William Cowper struggling to cope with what might now be labelled bipolar disorder, Charlotte Elliot in Hours of Sorrow Cheered and Comforted, and Frederick Faber, unexpectedly writing in the voice of a mother who has lost a child:

Thou hast taken the fairest: he was fairest to me

Thou hast taken the fairest: ’tis always Thy way;

Thou has taken the dearest: was he dearest to Thee?

Thou art welcome, thrice welcome: – yet woe is the day![v]

It is rare for any of these texts, with the exception of Cowper’s ‘God moves in a mysterious way’, to last beyond the time in which they were written, except in single-author collections.

Jumping ahead into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we find pre-eminently John Bell reaching into the Psalms of lament for both inspiration and validation of his writing. In addition Jan Berry, June Boyce-Tillman, Mary Louise Bringle, Marjorie Dobson, Shirley Erena Murray, Thomas Troeger and, latterly, Martin Leckebusch and Adam Carlill have moved into this territory. The ground has previously been tilled by Fred Pratt Green, Fred Kaan and Brian Wren. All these names are absent from Tönsing’s account, yet the writers share the same concerns expressed by the four she analyses.

An indication of responses to some different types of trauma

When I was studying zoology, I remember trauma being defined as that point when a loss of blood is so excessive that blood pressure drops to an irrecoverable level unless there is some intervention. We can define trauma in many different ways. Normally we tend to think of occasions when people are subjected to stress by the death of a loved one, or some extreme experience in war or accident. The causation of trauma can be the consequence of human action or natural events. Our response to different types of trauma will have different expressions. Aside from the event itself, there can be a sense of pain, grief or loss, and post-traumatic stress. Often there is questioning: ‘Why?’, ‘Who caused this?’, ‘What caused this?’ Some people seem to be able to sidestep the consequences of questioning. There is simply an acceptance that ‘this happened’, or ‘it’s God’s will or plan’. More often it is helpful to be able to direct blame at something, or someone, or God.

Here are three reactions to very traumatic events:

  1. I remember an image in Victor Gollancz’s second Letter to Timothy: a young man runs towards a camera. ‘He had no eyes … he had to stand … he was no longer covered with skin, but with a crust like crackling which broke easily.’ Napalm had done its work. Gollancz responds with what sounds like denial, at least avoidance: ‘The orchard is very peaceful this morning …’.[vi] He is looking through his window.
  2. A very personal response: a phone call at 4 in the morning – my 22-year-old son had been killed in an accident. Totally stunned I wasn’t going to turn over and go back to sleep. I moved, metaphorically, to a place where I was close to my son, how I imagined him, and my mind framed a tribute to him, in the form of a hymn text. My nickname for my son was ‘sunshine’; he befriended Big Issue sellers, he was an artist, he danced. By 9 a.m. the text for his funeral hymn had been written:

Friend of the world, bright shining sun!
Reeling and dancing, life begun[…]

Autumn is coming to the trees,
Colour is drained from falling leaves;
Darkness is covering all the earth,
His dance goes on, it finds new birth.[vii]

Now this was intimately personal, but fed on a human link between a father and his son.

  • A small boy sits in the back of an ambulance – a widely viewed video image of a child rescued from a bombed building in Aleppo, Syria. I felt anger welling up in me as I watched. I wanted to do something physical to assuage the grief I saw in the eyes of this helpless child. But I could do nothing. So I began to write, a form of therapy for me. This was remote, distant. Yet something was happening to me that Jesus had arguably experienced and knew. A common aspect of human life. A sense of pain communicated through empathy with another.

We touch the void, sometimes risking imagining the pain of another so that it becomes our own. We reach across that void.

We see something horrendous and our inclination is to turn away, to walk by on the other side. But Jesus’ Samaritan crosses over, mirroring Jesus reaching out to the leper seeking help and healing, to emancipate him from the dual ills of a skin disease and the consequence of the disease, that of alienation. Jesus feels the pain of this man in himself, pain expressed in the same Greek word as that attributed to the Samaritan who crossed over. And this keys into our hymn writing if we are to write in a way which enables others to respond to trauma as they sing. It requires visceral language. Years ago I had written of crucifixion:

            Tortured, beaten, scarred and tainted,
            Not a picture deftly painted,
            More a tattered, battered being,
            Torn, disfigured, stark, unseeing […]
           
            Curses scattered, insults flying,
            Spurned, derided, God is dying.[viii]

And now, confronted by this image of the boy in the ambulance on a screen:

            A bloodied child foreshadowed by a cross,
            both share their taste of evil and of loss […]
           
            … Good God, forgive us when inaction’s voice
            speaks loudly of our violent, hurtful choice.[ix]

While Jesus felt and expressed a deep sense of being forsaken, I can find no evidence that ‘the Father turns his face away’.[x] And neither should we turn our faces away in the light of the horror that we can inflict on one another. Should we not, perhaps, admit our own complicity and find ways to reach and touch and heal? Here are some familiar words by John Bell and Graham Maule:

            Christ’s is the world in which we move;
            Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;
            Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,
            and Christ is the one who meets us here.
                        To the lost Christ shows his face,
                        to the unloved he gives his embrace,
                        to those who cry in pain or disgrace,
                        Christ makes, with his friends, a touching place.[xi]

Sometimes that touch is literal and real, like the touch of a nurse who pressed my shoulder at a time when I was projectile vomiting after an operation, while quietly reassuring me, ‘It will pass.’ It made me feel that, through her interaction, I could write:

Each hour marks a mighty resurrection,
            a time of overcoming fate and fear,
            the dawning of a common understanding
            in which the grace of God is drawing near.
                       
            … Each morning brings a sense of new creation.
            New life, new love, encompasses the earth.[xii]

In this sequence of memories and texts we mirror common human horror at events, questioning, anger, self-searching and, ultimately, reassurance. But the way to life, to resurrection, is found here not through something supernatural or miraculous, though it might be viewed as such, but through simple empathy and love mirroring that of Christ in a way that is profoundly incarnational.

But there are other, less personal, and no less poignant, aspects of trauma.

A slag heap wipes out a school in the Welsh valleys; a mud slide takes away a whole village; on Boxing  Day a tsunami devastates Indonesia; in New York aircraft fly into the twin towers; floods destroy houses and communities. How did we respond? How do we react when these things happen again? My experience and expectation is that, in many congregations, at best we utter again, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’; at worst we rest in denial, not acknowledging the trauma or giving a channel through which lament might be expressed.

I believe it is the responsibility of the church to address such issues. Those who write hymns, like Psalmists in the past, need to grapple with these themes and provide the vehicles for congregations to identify with – or give expression to – such feelings and needs.

The words need to be written, and some examples have been cited already. The writing continues, most recently (to my knowledge, at the point of my editing of this paper) by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette:

Just seven hundred dollars 
buys joy instead of dread—
a flight here from Honduras
with luggage overhead.
A flight attendant offers:
“Here’s soda, milk or tea …”
Just seven hundred dollars
brings joy and dignity.

And with five thousand dollars
(it’s what the journey costs),
the ride is on a train top
and countless lives are lost.
Some end up being trafficked;
what troubles they endure!
Some pay five thousand dollars—
the cost of being poor …[xiii]

She notes:

A friend of ours is an immigration attorney who recently described a situation in which two youth were able to legally immigrate to the U.S. by taking an airplane flight from Central America to the U.S.— instead of taking the much more dangerous journey of many others who are brought across the border by smugglers.  

The immigrants who pay smugglers— out of desperation because they aren’t allowed to come any other way— travel North on a series of freight trains called El tren de la muerte (“The Death Train”), or La Bestia (“The Beast”); they ride on the roof of the train, and they risk falling to their death or being killed or trafficked along the way.  After La Bestia, they still have to walk through the desert on another dangerous part of the journey. 

And most recently she posted a text: ‘We pray for Afghanistan’s people today’.[xiv]

We have the hymns, and more will be written, but how can they be made available to pastors and congregations?

Blocks to the public use of hymns related to trauma

A number of obstacles can prevent such texts being from being used.

  1. Publishers’ block

Many popular publishers have tended to avoid texts and tunes that do not have a ‘feel-good’ factor. Even the cross is so deeply theologised as to expunge any visceral elements of execution. Elsabé Kloppers has offered a critique of the consequential falsification of worship:

If illusions of authenticity are created, if nothing is fake but merely controlled, and if one accepts that hymns are also cultural products that offer meaning, then a number of questions arise: Who controls things, who holds the power regarding what is sung in public and in worship? Who benefits financially? Who is allowed to speak and who is silenced? What truth is presented? Whose truth? Who or what are the gods constructed, and who are the gods controlling us – performers, publishers, pastors, priests or presidents who present the ‘truth’ by sounding the sacred?[xv] Ganzevoort and Knegt (2004 n.p.) refer to the ‘imprisonment of the truth’, emphasising that practical theologians should not only analyse, describe and expose – to be more than ‘sociologists studying religion’, they have to take a stand and actively reject the gods that manipulate people and the fake reality which is presented. They conclude: ‘It is our task to fight for authenticity, for truth and indeed, for beauty.’ (Ganzevoort and Knegt, 2004, n.p.).[xvi]

Shirley Erena Murray declared that:

she [despaired] of ‘outdated hymns and songs that are irrelevant to contemporary life and the way we live it’. Of her 2013 hymn collectionA Place at the Table, she observed: ‘Now that I find my life further away from the church and closer to what Jesus is actually pointing to, new elements come into play.’[xvii]

Yet this eponymous book title and the hymn from which it derives, underscores the void that we are seeking to bridge.For everyone born, a place at the table,Yet this eponymous book title and the eponymous hymn from which it derives,

For everyone born, a place at the table,
            for everyone born, clean water and bread,
            a shelter, a space, a safe place for growing,
             for everyone born , a star overhead.
                        And God will delight
                        when we are creators of justice and joy,
                        yes, God will delight
                        when we are creators of justice,
                        justice and joy![xviii]

underscores the void that we are seeking to bridge. While the hymn was included in Church Hymnary 4 (2005), it was considered for Singing the Faith (2011) but discarded as being pastorally dangerous – yet such is the scandal of the gospel. And so, when addressing trauma, if we keep close to the Jesus of the Bible, we are likely to explore new images, develop novel metaphors, which will not always be acceptable to those who have become accustomed to forms and language which are ‘comfortable’ yet remote from twenty-first-century experience.

  • Commercial considerations

Not all publishers or hymn book compilers are willing to risk having such material in their catalogues, fearing it may either not be commercial, or might throw a shadow over their credentials in providing (safe?) worship songs and hymns. Some, however, take the risk. John Crothers brought Shirley Erena Murray’s ‘Away and in danger’ to my attention:

I saw this text by Shirley for the first time this morning (Away and in danger) – clearly based on ‘Away in a manger’ and able to be sung to the same tune – and couldn’t help linking it with the conclusion of [a] piece from this morning’s Media Guardian. Shirley acting as a ‘prophet’?[xix]

               Away and in danger,

   no hope of a bed,

   the refugee children,

   no tears left to shed                

                   look up at the night sky

                   for someone to know

                   that refugee children

                   have no place to go…[xx]

Coincidentally, to the same tune, my own text, ‘Young Mary, survivor’[xxi] has only appeared in one hymn collection. After Jan Berry had been working with survivors of abuse who had read the gospel accounts of the annunciation as depicting abuse, she asked for a hymn on the theme of Mary being a survivor of abuse.

               One area where commercial and denominational publishers have recognised and sought to meet a need, in relation to trauma, is in providing hymns relating to natural deaths and care in terminal illness. Hymns for funerals abound, but certain situations have, in the past, been avoided. John Bell’s ‘We cannot care for you the way we wanted’, focussing on the bereavement consequent on a stillbirth, appears in a number of mainstream collections, including Ancient & Modern (2013), Church Hymnary 4 (2005) and Singing the Faith (2011). Care in the face of long-term or terminal illness has been addressed by Marjorie Dobson in ‘When our caring love wears thin’ (Singing the Faith, 2011), while ‘When memory fades and recognition falters’ by Mary Louise Bringle faces up to grief in the face of dementia (Ancient & Modern, 2013; Church Hymnary 4, 2005; Sing Your Faith, 2009).

  • Sensitivities of worship leaders

The block exhibited by publishers and compilers is mirrored where one might least expect it, among clergy and worship leaders:

The Sunday morning after the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, my husband and I made our way to church in England’s Cheshire countryside. It was a long way from New York City where I had lived in the 1980s and 90s before we were married. Disoriented and upset, feeling far away and powerless to help, I was looking for connection, solace and acknowledgement of loss in a congregation I’d known for five years.

Moments before the service began, the minister came over to me and whispered in my ear: “I feel we should carry on as normal this morning.” I felt my stomach turn over and my back stiffen. What followed was a service with barely a mention of events an ocean away. Prayers towards the end of the service included a few generic words about what was taking up 24/7 television coverage on almost every channel.[xxii]

We need to ask whether this block was of the ‘we need time to reflect’ category, or through a conscious unwillingness to handle issues which might be deemed contentious. Secular authors and composers can be far less squeamish. Chris Martin of the group ‘Coldplay’ is reported as saying that ‘Politik’, a track released on a later album, ‘was written the week of September 11 and [was] based on his realization of his mortality and the feelings revolving around that’.[xxiii] During the year that followed 9/11, Bruce Springstein issued ‘Up into the fire’, while The Bellamy Brothers exhorted, ‘Let’s roll, America, there’s a battle to be won’.

In a religious context, however, within twenty-four hours of this event we do find that some hymns had begun to be posted and made publicly available on the website of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.[xxiv] We need to ask whether those concerned with leading worship on the Sunday following 9/11 would have been aware of any of these resources, had they wished to find ways of addressing this event in worship.

In more recent times, on the Sunday near to the closing of routes out of Afghanistan for those seeking asylum (29 August 2021), the worship I attended made very little reference to this, save a sentence in the intercessions, and no hymns included bore any relation to the situation.

There are two issues here. The first is whether it is appropriate to respond to issues and situations when we are alerted to them, or whether considered reflection is a more responsible route to take. At the time of Princess Diana’s death in an underpass in Paris (31 August 1997), I heard the news while travelling to lead worship. It was 9am and worship was due to begin at 9.45am. Anyone who, like myself, had heard this news would have had it on their minds as they entered church. By 9.45 I had altered my readings and choice of hymns to be sensitive to the event. The organist who was accompanying the hymns was able and willing to adapt. It was the opposite of Kathleen LaCamera’s experience cited above (see footnote 23). A colleague, in conversation sometime later, reflected that his response would have been more restrained, to give time to evaluate and reflect on the situation. For me, worship is not constrained by a written liturgy, but is intrinsically contextual and responsive even within the expectations and framework of liturgy; it is pastorally responsible to be cognisant of the worshipper’s situation as they enter church. Of course, sometimes it is simply not practicable to provide relevant material in the time available, when there is no opportunity to resource hymns, readings or prayers other than those readily available in the church or in my bag. But in relation to 9/11, a number of hymns had already been posted online in the USA by the Sunday following, even though that was only a few days after the event. Any minister who needed more time to reflect missed an opportunity to enter into the religious and intellectual conversation which had already taken place, and was filling the media, as though faith was something unrelated. As I wrote my own text, ‘God’s on our side’, I was beginning to anticipate what people would say coming from an ‘us and them’ religious perspective. Politicians were talking, understandably, of an enemy and what began to be enunciated as a ‘war on terror’.[xxv] Islam as a whole was frequently condemned, yet Muslims – though not the terrorists – were sisters and brothers of an Abrahamic faith. I wanted to say, from a Christian standpoint, that these folk also had the God I worshipped on their side. My hymn was one of a number published a year later, on the anniversary of 9/11, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, September 2002.[xxvi] Hymns such as this were already being used in worship just days after the anniversary.

This intention to enable the feelings of the people to be expressed in worship is nothing new. The term ‘liturgy’ means ‘the work of the people’, yet so often the illustrations and metaphors we use are archaic and the language is that of our forebears. If hymn-poets can provide the words and there is a willingness to risk using these in worship, how can they be made available?

Possible ways to overcome obstacles to the use of hymns related to trauma

The difficulty in addressing the issue of trauma being blocked by pastors, publishers or congregations has been navigated in a singular way by Tapani Innanen. In his native Finland he has tapped into a melancholic aspect of Christmas when, traditionally, Finns will visit the graves of loved ones on Christmas Eve. This is an unexpected starting point. The performative nature of worship enables a sharing of items which, if restricted to traditional means of publication, might have little exposure. Innannen notes:

For many Finns, Christmas songs are all about singing together. The Finnish tradition of public sing-along events called The Most Beautiful Christmas Songs (MBCS) was started at the third Advent Sunday in the year 1973. During this time that particular Sunday attracted very few church-goers, and the idea of singing Christmas songs together was an experiment to activate people to visit churches.[xxvii]

These events, run by the Lutheran Church of Finland, now take place between the first Sunday in Advent and the Epiphany. In 2017 the weekend of the third Advent Sunday was the most important time to sing Christmas songs together. In December 2017 some 500,000 – 1,000, 000 Finnish participants, out of the 5.5 million Finns, were estimated to attend these events each year.[xxviii] A key text speaks of a sparrow singing on Christmas morning. As the song develops, the sparrow is shown to represent a little girl’s dead brother.[xxix] These songs may seem morbid, or sentimental, but they enable remembrance; and out of melancholy there is, ironically, a sense of corporate warmth and remembrance.

This is a starting point, but the texts are not immediately contemporary.

Making hymns available at times of trauma

It is clear that many traditional routes of publication will not work, notwithstanding those collections of generally suitable texts and music which are fine for reflective worship in the face of trauma. But more immediate responses require something different. For a time the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada’s website was one of only two places of which I was aware, world-wide, where such a resource was available. The other was a site curated by the United Methodist Church in the USA. Neither any longer offers this facility, though a number of organised online collections have been curated and are available, most recently, as far as I aware at the time of writing, by the Jubilate Group.[xxx]

As this essay has developed it has been clear that even at the point where the validity of such hymnody is accepted, there are a number of stumbling blocks to publication. Publishing houses and hymn book compilers work to lengthy schedules of years. This is necessitated by the process of setting words and tunes, selecting and editing. House style must be complied with. As an example, this Hymn Society Bulletin takes more than a month to progress from receipt of contents to finished article. Publishing a single hymn can take a similar time, sometimes much longer as decisions are made and procedures followed.

If the end point of presenting a hymn is electronic, on a website or through social media, this presentation can be immediate. But there are still several practical considerations to be addressed and questions to be answered before what appears on an online platform can reach a congregation.

1. Texts on screens are ephemeral and do not give people the opportunity to reflect on the text as a whole.

 2. Printing texts on paper takes longer to prepare but does give people an opportunity to read the whole text and to take it home.

3. Texts can be posted on people’s electronic devices, but there is an obvious divide between those who can and those who can’t use technology, notwithstanding the multiplicity of formats which might be used.

4. There needs to be an agreed policy between worship leaders, musicians and the technical team about how to approach the provision of material in an emergency, with a contingency plan in place to deal with such situations.

5. If texts are to be sung they must use standard metres which ‘instant’ music will fit. Groups such as the St Martin’s Singers or the BBC’s Daily Service Singers can sightread anything, but the average choir and congregation cannot.

These difficulties notwithstanding, the accounts of hymns related to 9/11 above indicates the pace that can be achieved. At that time the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada did this by having part of its website comprising a section where registered users could post items at will. The site had administrative oversight but editing was minimal, if existent at all, and posting was swift. Items were made freely available by authors who held copyright. This facility no longer exists.

While individuals can post on their blogs, and many do, circulation is necessarily limited in spite of links through social media.

When the Methodist Church (UK) was preparing for the publication of Singing the Faith, it explored different ways of publishing. As a denomination which stringently guards its ‘Authorised Hymnody’ it worked through many levels of scrutiny involving layers of committees. Clearly this did not operate at pace. Selection began in 2004 and a draft contents list was issued in 2009. The book’s committee was then ‘reconfigured’ and the collection, which had undergone quite extensive alteration, was finally published in 2011.

During the editing process from 2004 to 2009 the Music Resource Group (MRG), charged with selection, compilation and editing, became aware that following the publication of the Methodist Hymn Book (1933), a suggestion had been made to keep a running catalogue of subsequently written hymns, in order to make compilation of later books easier. This was not acted on. The MRG began to see the sense of this, particularly following the renewal of writing since 1960 and the masses of material being generated by the worship song/hymn movement. Again the authorisation question raised its head, but the idea was kept on file. At the same time the idea of some form of immediate publication of time-specific texts emerged. The question of authorisation and denominational authenticity was raised again. After a discussion in the Methodist Conference it was decided that a provision of levels of authorisation could be explored. These would comprise full authorisation, a waiting list of hymns yet to be fully authorised which might be made available, and the facility for posting hymns swiftly after examination by a small committee. This latter was formed, with Conference agreement, from five members of the MRG. It operated until 2009. The five members could receive new texts from anyone, then had the facility to decide on their suitability for posting on the national Methodist website. Received texts were distributed round the group by email. A majority of the members had to agree to the use of a text for it to be posted and all texts had to be available copyright-free for local use. No editing or correspondence was entered into with authors, other than to indicate acceptance or otherwise. The system worked exceptionally well with this small, committed group of ‘editors’. On one occasion a text was posted inside twelve hours of being received. When the MRG was reconfigured (2009), this process stopped.

After publication of the printed editions of Singing the Faith, a website was established as Singing the Faith Plus.[xxxi]This combined a guide with  supporting resources for the printed book, but also formed a collecting point for material written since publication. The vision from 1934 had at last been formally realised. Alongside this, some time-dependent texts have been posted, but without the immediacy that would sometimes have made them more useful. The need for the site-editor to be dependent on a reviewing committee has slowed the process. At the time of writing, ten years after the publication of Singing the Faith,this is being reviewed with a view to streamlining it and, I suspect (and hope), the Editor being given more freedom as to what is posted. In effect, a three-level publication process with different levels of scrutiny and authorisation has been established.

This is a step on the way, but is still subject to Methodist theological and ecclesiastical scrutiny. HymnQuest[xxxii] has run a far more open model, but is generally dependent on material already published.

This raises the question as to whether, going forward, the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland could provide such a service. With suitable curation, publicity and technical support this could become the ‘go to’ place for hymns written specifically in relation to current events, not least those which have traumatic implications for individuals and whole communities. Perhaps the void that we have hesitated to touch could be bridged. Here is the challenge for today, for us to ‘Go forth and tell!’

Andrew Pratt


[i] Tönsing, J. Gertrud, ‘Responses to violence and human suffering in Christian hymnody: A study of responses to situations of violence in the work of four hymn writers’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, ISSN: (Online) 2072-8050, (Print) 0259-9422; 2019.

[ii] Pratt, A. E., ‘A study of hymns and songs as they support Christians and agnostics in times of stress such as overwork, redundancy, bereavement and despair’; 1994, unpublished.

[iii] Attributed to John Donne but probably written by Francis Davison (circa1633-69); J. Donne, The Poems of John Donne, Edit. H. J. C. Grierson (Oxford, 1912), p 426.

[iv] Calvin, J.,Calvin’s Commentaries, Psalms Vol. I p xxxvii.

[v] Faber, F. W., Hymns, (London, 1861) p 486.

[vi] Gollancz, V., More for Timothy (Gollancz, London, 1953), p 11.

[vii] Pratt, A. E. (born 1948), © 1999 Stainer & Bell Ltd.

[viii] Pratt. A. E. (born 1948), © 1997 Stainer & Bell Ltd.

[ix] Pratt. A. E. (born 1948), © 2016 Stainer & Bell Ltd.

[x] Townend, S. (born 1963), ‘How deep the Father’s love’; 1995.

[xi] Bell, J. L. (born 1949) and Maule, G. A.(1958-2019), © 1989, 1996 WGRG, c/o Iona Community, Glasgow, G51 4XS, Scotland (www.wildgoose.scot).

[xii] Pratt, A. E. (born 1948), © Stainer & Bell Ltd.

[xiii] <http://www.carolynshymns.com/just_seven_hundred_dollars.html&gt; (accessed 23/8/2021). Two more stanzas continue this text which is set to the tune LLANGLOFFAN. Text: © 2021 by Carolyn Winfrey Gillette (born 1961). All rights reserved. Permission requested 23/8/2021.

[xiv] Gillette, C. Winfrey, Facebook, August 27th 2021,  [Date in same format as elsewhere?] <https://www.facebook.com/CarolynWinfreyGillette/posts/4502103266479589> accessed 2/9/2021.­­ [Previous web reference isn’t underlined.]

[xv] In 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa quoted Thuma Mina at the end of his State of the Nation address. In an address on Covid-19, he again mentioned the campaign which received its name from this song, saying: ‘… this is the most definitive Thuma Mina moment for our country’ (Ramaphosa, 2020). The aim certainly would be to instil hope in people amid a very uncertain situation. Instead of hope, another politician, the former Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, pictured a situation of hopelessness, describing the Australian government’s approach to the crisis as ‘go late, go half-measures, and go to Hillsong’ (Rudd, 2020). Hillsong is a huge charismatic megachurch that originated in Sydney, Australia in 1983, and which is known for its popular praise and worship songs. [Could add web reference? <https://hillsong.com/>%5D

[xvi] Kloppers, E., ‘Sounding the sacred in the age of fake news – Practical theology reflecting on the public sphere’, Hts Theological Studies 76 (2) (2020).

[xvii] Murray, S. E.,  https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/worship/singing-the-faith-plus/posts/a-jolt-of-reality-the-hymns-of-shirley-erena-murray/ >.

[xviii] Murray, S. E. (1931-2020), © 1998 Hope Publishing Company.

[xix] Crothers, J., personal email, 28/1/2020.

[xx] Words © 2016 Hope Publishing Company, 380 S Main Pl, Carol Stream, IL 60188.

[xxi] Pratt, A., Hymns of Hope and Healing, Stainer & Bell Ltd, 2017. Otherwise in the single author collection, More than Hymns, Andrew Pratt, Stainer & Bell Ltd, 2015.

[xxii] LaCamera, K. (2019), ‘Liturgy in Hard Times’, The Yale ISM Review Vol. 5: No. 1, Article 10. Available at <https://ismreview.yale.edu> Or <https://ismreview.yale.edu/article/liturgy-in-hard-times&gt;.

[xxiii]<https://web.archive.org/web/20161013155755if_/http://www.thefader.com/2002/05/27/coldplays-9-11-feelings-surface-on-i-a-rush-of-blood-to-the-head-i>, accessed 12/8/2021.

[xxiv] ‘God’s on our side, and God will grieve’, a hymn written within 24 hours of 9/11 (see picture) was published in an American newspaper (Philadelphia Inquirer, September 2002) with a print run of 400,000. Similarly, aA text on the death of Osama bin Laden (‘We cannot gloat: a time for grief’) had more hits on one website (The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, <https://thehymnsociety.org&gt;) in a week than any other text had in a year. (One UK user commented: ‘Very helpful for those of us who were struggling more and more with every news bulletin’.) <https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/worship/singing-the-faith-plus/posts/singing-the-moment/>.

[xxv] Seidler, V. J., Remembering 9/11:Terror, Trauma and Social Theory (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[xxvi] Daw, C. Jr., notes ‘twelve texts Songs of Remembrance: Hymns for the Commemoration of September 11, 2001, appeared as a centerfold [sic] in the July 2002 issue of The Hymn’. Personal communication, 14/8/2021.

[xxvii] Innanen T., ‘The Most Beautiful Christmas Songs in Finland and The Sparrow on a Christmas Morning’, <https://blogs.helsinki.fi/hymno-forum/the-most-beautiful-christmas-songs-in-finland-and-the-sparrow-on-a-christmas-morning/>, accessed 24/8/2021. Innanen also contributed an more extensive paper: ‘The Finnish Most Beautiful Christmas Songs in the minor tune land of melancholy – a case study of one sing-along event’, published in Innanen, T., Salimen, V-M., (eds), Hymn, Song, Society, Publications, The Church Research Institute 63, Helsinki (2016).

[xxviii] <https://blogs.helsinki.fi/hymno-forum/2017/12/21/the-most-beautiful-christmas-songs-in-finland-and-the-sparrow-on-a-christmas-morning/>, accessed 26/2/2020.

[xxix] <http://www.puzzlingqueen.com/2007/12/most-beautiful-christmas-songs.html>  accessed 24/8/2021.

[xxx]https://www.jubilate.co.uk/page/Hymns_for_Our_Contemporary_World_(Until_your_earth_is_whole)

[xxxi] <https://www.methodist.org.uk/our-faith/worship/singing-the-faith-plus/>.

[xxxii] <https://hymnquest.com/>.

Prophetic Hymnody: How can we sing Magnificat today with the prophetic shock of scripture

This paper was originally used as part of a Webinar by the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
A recording of this and other presentations is available at Short Metre HSGBI

I ought to begin by clarifying something. When someone begins with the words ‘we all know’, someone usually doesn’t. So, for the sake of clarity, though not everyone would agree, I am taking Biblical prophecy as pointing people back to God. It offers hope; but also, judgment. And it can be found in both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament.

It's not primarily about predicting the future, though sometimes prophets say, ‘if you do this, that will happen to you’! 

I don’t believe that prophecy is just something past. Hence the opening words of one of my hymns:

	God still needs prophets who will rage,
	against discrimination,
	who speak God's words amid despair,
	to this and every nation;

It goes on:
	
	God still needs prophets who will hold
	a mirror to our blindness,

And then
		
	May we be prophets through our words
	and in our hands of healing,
	that others might see Christ in us
	while Christ to us revealing. 

But where does The Magnificat fit in with this? Don Saliers said that hymns, enable us ‘to say some things that we do not truly think we believe until we sing them’.  Singing scripture does not just make a pretty noise, it can embed belief in us, change us and transform belief into action. It can motivate us for good. 

So let us look at some hymns that have started with the Magnificat. My area of study is hymnody so I won’t address Chants.

‘Tell out my soul the greatness of the Lord’ is not the most political, nor the most prophetic hymn I’ve ever sung. Like most of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymns it is as near perfect as a hymn can be. So why does it need to be prophetic?

The title of the Magnificat is taken from the opening to the Song of Mary in a Latin translation – ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. Commentators suggest that the song is out of place in terms of the context of a young girl finding that she is pregnant and in the general flow of the gospel narrative. It is, however, very much in the Lukan voice which is later going to record Jesus announcing that he comes  

to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free, 

And here in Mary’s song we have:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, 
and sent the rich away empty. 

The tense is Past, but this is what Jesus is going to do. It is timeless, an out of time context. Where God is, where love is active, this is as it is. So we are seeking to describe something transcending chronological time. These Love has done, is doing, will be doing…

The words are very much in the tradition of prophecy and, perhaps, apposite to the world in which we live today. The problem is that, within the church prophecy, as with much other scripture that is visceral, has been eviscerated. We sing the words in a way which does little to underline the prophetic nature of the original words. The person about whom we are singing will upset the religious and political equilibrium of the day and perhaps that of the whole world. My question is what do hymns do to address this?


To return to ‘Tell out my soul’ - 

	Tell out, my soul, the greatness of his might!
		Powers and dominions lay their glory by.
	Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight,
		the hungry fed, the humble lifted high. 

‘Powers and dominions lay their glory by’, hardly. It sounds as though the powers and dominions do this voluntarily. Patently they do not and neither does the scripture suggest that they do. Think COP26. So what of Fred Kaan’s, ‘Sing we a song of high revolt’. This is, perhaps, more promising, where ‘God [is] at war with human wrong’. This deity ‘the proud disowns, / brings down the mighty from their thrones’.

	By him the poor are lifted up; 
	he satisfies with bread and cup the hungry ones of many lands; 
	the rich must go with empty hands.

The hymn becomes more difficult to sing as it progresses for we are bid ourselves to fight…
 
	with him for what is just and right, 
	to sing and live Magnificat 
	in crowded street and council flat. 

I expect there are laws against fighting for what is ‘just and right’ though perhaps they are being prepared in draft…but to sing this in church? 

And one possible tune: TANNENBAUM. We know it better as The Red Flag (socialist in the UK; or O Christmas Tree); a not unintentional choice I would guess. But so many congregations are inherently conservative – small or large ‘C’ and, by implication may find this interpretation difficult, if not offensive. The text is well known but has gained little traction. Sometimes side-lined as the last verse referring to a ‘council-flat’ feels either anachronistic or offensive.

Brian Wren is more subtle in ‘Daughter Mary, saying yes to the angel's visitation’. The hymn continues:

	As in heaven, so on earth,
	God will work salvation,
	as the child you bring to birth,
	checks the wealthy, feeds the poor,
	ending domination.

And verse 2 closes with the assertion that

	God's new invitation
	brings the outcasts to rebirth,
	lifts the humble, shifts the proud,
	ending domination. 

The problem with this text is the unusual metre with only one tune, ROSEWOOD being offered in HymnQuest.

In John Bell’s ‘Sing out, my soul, sing with joy to the Lord’ verses 5 & 6 imply that the miracle of reparation is complete:

5	God forces rulers to forfeit the throne;
	lifting the unloved, the lost and alone,
	God shows that favour reserved for his own.
	
6	Those who are hungry, God fills with good things,
	those who are rich into poverty brings;
	pregnant with justice, my heart gladly sings.

What is being sung is of God who will fulfil Hebrew expectations of a Messiah who will bring justice and just desserts for all, good and bad. This is less prophecy, more anticipation of faithful hope for ‘God, who is faithful, has come to our aid’. Translated into a hymn it coalesces a future hope with our necessary incarnational partnership with Christ – for ‘my heart gladly sings!’ 

As a writer myself I am motivated to write when I don’t find hymns which I feel express scripture with the force invested in it.

The challenge is to write a text that does justice to the scripture, that does not see actions complete with no future hope, which enables us to enter into the process of salvation and which is still singable. Here are snippets from work in progress.

A topsy-turvy, upturned world

1	A topsy-turvy, upturned world, 
	where values are distorted, 
	the first is last and last is first 
	with everything contorted.
	The rich are begging at the door 
	while ones they were despising
	are given charge of Godly wealth, 
	in stature they are rising.
	
2	Magnificat has come to stay,
	the proud have been extinguished; 
	the humble poor are lifted high, 
	their poverty relinquished. 
	The reign of God has come to pass 
	rebutting our world's choices, 
	each one that we would count as last 
	within this time rejoices.
	
3	And will we ever find a place 
	with pride and wealth rejected, 
	or will hypocrisy deny 
	our need to be accepted? 
	The choice is ours, the crisis dawns, 
	the time to make decisions, 
	to stand with God or walk alone 
	within this world's divisions. 

Might we sing this on State occasions, or at the opening of Parliament? 

At the heart of Jesus life and action are some very hard questions. In the Old Testament prophets underlined the sharpness of the distinction between justice and injustice. Prophets in the Hebrew scriptures called people to account and pointed them back to God. They were never afraid to criticise injustice, even if that put them in danger, or open to threat or ridicule. 

In the wake of COP26 this next hymn, from a time of financial crisis in 2015, feels redolent of the world in which we live, or for which we hope and echoes Magnificat.

Upturned world, the bankers humbled

1	Upturned world, the bankers humbled, 
	politicians brought to book, 
	children show new ways of living, 
	heads will spin and turn to look.
	Mary sang, exultant virgin, 
	birth would change her life and ours, 
	generations watch with wonder, 
	shaken like wealth's shining towers.
	
2	Love incarnate's gentle thunder 
	wakes the earth to truth and light, 
	hypocrites meet naked justice, 
	find no place in fear for flight.
	Mary sings, when will we hear her:
	revolution born of love, 
	heralding new dispensation, 
	cage the hawk and free the dove?
	
3	When the prison gates are broken, 
	when the poor can feast and dine, 
	then Magnificat is bringing 
	age of justice and new wine.
	Wine of joy and celebration, 
	end of hunger, God is near, 
	time of endless new beginnings, 
	birth of Jesus, end of fear.  

Finally to return more nearly to the original scripture:

Almighty God has done great things

1	Almighty God has done great things,
	an angel proffers stunning news,
	the news of human hope he brings,
	her baby heaven and earth shall fuse;
	and she will give her life for that,
	O, Mary, sing magnificat.

2	A mother and her unborn child,
	a man who ought to let her go
	to save his face, stay undefiled,
	as love and duty taunt and flow;
	and Joseph will consider that
	as Mary sings magnificat.

3	And all the greatness of a God,
	distilled to love, sets captives free,
	a single liberating Word:
	those born in darkness now can see;
	as human power considers that
	let Mary sing Magnificat…  





Theology after Singing the Faith – from ‘Methodism Abounding’, edited by John J Vincent Published by Church in the Market Place Publications

In 2004, following the Methodist Conference, Richard Jones and Ivor Jones, respectively words and music editors of Hymns & Psalms, met with the newly convened Music Resource Group (MRG) which had been tasked with exploring the provision of a supplement to Hymns & Psalms. They encouraged the group to be courageous in what they chose, recognising the conservatism of Hymns & Psalms and cognizant of the greater freedom that had pertained in the editing of Hymns & Songs. The warning against conservatism was well founded. Methodist hymnody, at least since 1904, has been conservative as I have argued elsewhere.[i] Hymns & Psalms had taken steps towards being an ecumenical hymnbook, and while this set it apart from the Methodist Hymn Book of 1933, it also meant that it offered an over-liturgical face for a denomination that was already questioning its free-church identity and raison d’étre, a process that has been accentuated in the signing of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant.

Theologically the weight of Singing the Faith was to be determined by the texts available for inclusion, the calibre of the members of the MRG and the ecclesiological and theological persuasion of those reviewing and overseeing the process of compilation and editing. While the MRG members tackled their task as effectively as they could through the period of exploration and eventual publication, compared with the committee that had produced Hymns & Psalms the group was both theologically and hymnologically light. From 2009 to 2011 the hymnological expertise of the group was further reduced.[ii] Nevertheless, a hymn book is never simply a theological tool, nor a hymnological construct. The MRG was, arguably, more democratic and representative of Methodism of the period than previous editorial groups had been.

The end result cannot be examined in detail here, but a summary is necessary in order to be able to proceed with the main task of this paper, that of envisaging the direction that Methodist theology might take in its wake. To begin with, Singing the Faith is far more eclectic than previous collections, containing material from a wider variety of sources and styles. There is, if anything, an uneven representation from current Scottish hymnody, but this was in-keeping with public taste current at the time of compilation. Some ephemeral children’s material is included, something that earlier in the process had been warned against by the then representative of Children’s Work on the MRG. Indeed the report to Conference of 2009 contained no such material in its draft. Another change, which can be discerned between 2009 and the final compilation, is the removal of some material from significant female authors. In justification, the salient report to Conference stated, ‘the MRG has expressed concern that there is some evidence that female authors’ work is being rejected because [of] the type of imagery they use’.[iii] A section entitled, ‘A World of Belief’ containing material to be used which related to other faiths, was completely removed. Though it is a generalization, the overall feel of the collection from the draft offered to Conference in 2009 to that accepted in 2011 was that it was broader, to some extent less erudite, less inclusive and more evangelical in tone. A single text demands comment: ‘In Christ alone’, that in 2009 had been suggested for inclusion subject to editing, which the author did not subsequently allow. While the Faith and Order Committee Secretary had indicated that the phrase in this text, ‘scheme of man’ is ‘diametrically opposed to Church policy on inclusive language’, the response of the MRG report was:

A considerable number of modern songs had already been rejected on precisely these grounds. But where does the balance lie between making a small number of exceptions, and excluding songs which are deeply meaningful to many in the Church? After careful debate we concluded that In Christ Alone should be included. While this was probably one of our most difficult decisions, it is illustrative of the depth of analysis and thought which has gone into the selection of the whole collection.[iv]

It is worth noting that no mention is made here of the theological objections which some might wish to bring against the inclusion of this text, these selfsame nuances being seen as positive by others. In addition the introduction to Singing the Faith effectively re-states the position of the Faith and Order Committee in relation to inclusive language.

Where then, does this take us?

While the integrity of Methodist theology as determined by CPD rests on the test of John Wesley’s sermons and his Notes on the New Testament, the hymns have implicitly offered another standard which, arguably, has been both more formative and instructive for the people called Methodists. Set alongside this is the theological integrity of those who seek to choose and sing hymns. From this perspective our hymnody has been dependent on our expression of historic beliefs and on the degree to which such beliefs are palatable to those who worship in our churches. This, necessarily, results in an innate conservatism in which those familiar texts which have served our forebears are retained as definitive. In this, what is forgotten is that John & Charles Wesley at a time when Calvinist theology, particularly that of double-predestination, predominated, sought to go against that flow by espousing an Arminian theology. This was expressed in the language of their time and gave rise to the ‘All can be saved’ language that still holds sway today and is epitomized in the text ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell’(‘All are welcome’), written, ironically, by a Roman Catholic, Marty Haugen.

However, the manner in which the Wesley’s sought to serve the age in which they lived was not predicated just on theology, but on an awareness of the politics, science and the events of their day and a practical outworking of their faith. They reflected on slavery, the American War of Independence and both the London and the Lisbon earthquakes. And this was translated into hymnody which questioned and reflected on theology, positing answers as the texts progressed.

These factors prompt the need for our examination of the way in which our hymnody works, if it works at all, on into the twenty-first century.

I want to begin with what might be termed traditional theological constructs by reference to the Trinity, incarnation and atonement. Much historic and current hymnody contains within it an inherent contradiction. To some extent this has been determined by the theology that the church has perpetuated and that hymnodists simply repeat. The most overt expression is found in the popular text, ‘How great thou art’:           
            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:[v]
The contradiction is in the idea of God sending his Son, a problem presented when we seek to express Trinitarian theology in terms of the anthropomorphisation of the God-head without knowledge of the associated philosophical modelling from which it derives. Taken as metaphor the images perhaps pose little problem. More often, at a popular level, the words are taken literally which simply denies any incarnational currency, suggesting that God sends God, which makes no logical sense at all. Hence the conundrum. The simplicity and popularity of this text makes it all the more insidious in continuing a false theology, notwithstanding that the fault is with the translation and not the original.[vi]

This raises for me a wider question, that of the usefulness of archaic creeds to continue to convey beliefs still held by the church. I am led to question what are the underlying suppositions of these creeds and their derivative translation into hymns. Incarnation, the understanding that Jesus is truly human and truly divine, seeks to affirm the intimate relationship of the divinity to humanity and the reconciliation of the one to the other. This allows for, amongst other things, an assumption that God understands our human condition. Seeking to explain how this can be, we have employed philosophical models extant at the time of the formulation of the creeds. We have also taken as real the image of a virgin birth, an interpretation of Hebrew scripture which is, in any case, suspect. Why not simply accept such divine intimacy without absorbing ourselves with the biological mechanics of divine impregnation or philosophical models, intended to be used metaphorically, which over time have been defended as representing literal truth? Yet within the church, belief in these self-same models is defended by many as being conditional for membership, if not salvation.

This can be illustrated further in relation to Atonement. Within the church the Penal Substitutionary theory still holds sway with many. For some its acceptance is a test of the integrity of faith. This ought to be regarded as perverse, given the manner in which early twentieth-century theologians unmasked the inconsistency of the model:

‘That Christ died in the place of the sinner would, at one time have been beyond question. For many this had already been challenged by Lofthouse in his Ethics and Atonement (1906) and Altar, Cross and Community (1921). In these works he broke away from traditional substitutionary theories, approaching atonement from an ethical standpoint. For him ‘morality was determinative of religion,’[vii]

In 1926 Kenneth Kirk wrote, ‘We may dismiss at once any explanation which leans to the suggestion that […] God demanded a victim – any victim, but still a victim – on whom to wreak vengeance for man’s sin’;[viii] and in support of this challenge he cites Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity (1648)[ix]. What is at issue here is the clear expression of belief, not the preservation of outdated metaphors. I believe that in the twenty-first century we need to elaborate images and metaphors which work today. We are slow within the church to re-express our beliefs in language which is contemporary. Can someone on the fringe of, or outside of, the church make sense of a phrase like, ‘by the blood I may enter Your brightness’. I fear that, like those who opposed the Reformation, we are fearful of losing control and power, exercised through the imposition of a belief system contained in language which only the initiated fully understand? Perhaps this is what lay behind the resistance to the hymns by some female authors whose material was edited out of the final collection between 2009 and 2011? Do we perhaps espouse the belief that there is no language, or image suitable for those with no knowledge of the faith, so worship has to be reduced to practically nothing to meet the presumed starting place of the enquirer? If we have any wish to communicate outside the confines of the church community, the language and metaphors, even the material that we subject to theological scrutiny, ought to be of contemporary significance and interest. This is not to pander to fashion, nor to reduce our theology to some common denominator, but to ensure that our theology has integrity, is contextual, apt and appropriate; that it will ‘serve the present age’. It all comes down to the question of how our theology can best be presented for the twenty-first century and some material within Singing the Faith is not adequate for this purpose. This is not to criticise the book per se, for it represents the faith and practice of the church as it has been for many years. What it ought to do is to raise the question as to how our theology can be presented clearly in language and metaphor, in a way best suited to today and, more importantly, tomorrow.

Where, then, does this take us? C.S Lewis once wrote, ‘Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it’.[x] The challenge is to understand our theology well enough to re-express it in ordinary language that people who are not theologically educated can understand, interrogate and internalise. It is a matter of hermeneutics and translation, the bed-rock of apologetics. Yet for this to work, we need to go on seeking to answer questions related to theodicy, to scientific and sociological advances, to global relations and the insights offered by world faiths. Historically hymn writers have sometimes enabled such exploration, reinterpretation and expression. In the middle of the nineteenth century Frederick Faber wrote of God offering ‘grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this’. At the time astronomy had not offered evidence of such worlds. Theology was often national and colonialist. Where today are the hymns that address the scientific advance, inter-faith cooperation and the theodicy of earthquakes (for instance), let alone a recognition of the place and voice of women? Theology after Singing the Faith needs these areas to be addressed and, who knows, we might have to move some treasured texts to a museum of hymnody where, like madrigals, they will be appreciated by specialists and enthusiasts. Perhaps, even, beyond this the church needs to move towards expressions of faith that are less creedal and confessional, but more contextual and incarnational, a living faith expressed in each succeeding moment.

Andrew Pratt (2016)


[i] Pratt, A.E., O for a thousand tongues, Epworth, London, 2004.

[ii] The membership of the group can be reviewed in consecutive reports to Conference from 2004 to 2011.

[iii] conf10a-29-singing-the-faith-160211 – 5.1.4.1. – accessed 6/12/2015

[iv] conf10a-29-singing-the-faith-160211 – 3.4 – accessed 6/12/2015. It is worth noting that many so called ‘modern’ songs are, in terms of both literary style and theological language, archaic.

[v] Stuart K Hine (1899-1989) © 1953 Stuart K Hine/The Stuart Hine Trust/Published by kingswaysongs.com. http://www.kingswaysongs.com. Worldwide (excl. North & South America).

[vi] O store Gud, när jag den värld beskådar – the original hymn ‘O Store Gud’ by Carl Boberg approached this doctrine somewhat differently:

When I behold His Son to earth descending,
to help and heal and teach distressed mankind;
When evil flees and death in fear is bending
before the glory of the Lord divine,

With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!
With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!

When, crushed by guilt of sin, before Him kneeling
I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
I feel His balm and, all my bruises healing,
He saves my soul and sets my heart at ease.

(Translation by E. Gustav Johnson (1893–1974) From Hymnary.org http://www.hymnary.org/text/o_mighty_god_when_i_behold_the_wonder accessed 9/6/2014).

[vii] Davies, R., George, R. A., Rupp, G., A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p.215. Quoted , Pratt, A.E., O for thousand tongues. See also: Selwyn E. G., edit., Essays Catholic and Critical, Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, 3rd edition, London, 1929.

[viii] Kirk, K. E., (1926) ‘The Atonement’ in Essays Catholic and Critical, SPCK, London, p262.

[ix] Hooker, R., (1648) Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Books VI, VII, VIII, , from the edition of 1981 published Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.v

[x] C.S. Lewis, ‘Version Vernacular’, The Christian Century vol. LXXV (31 December 1958) p 1515, reprinted in God in the Dockp 338.