Methodism – its fracture and re-union in 1933 – (c) Andrew Pratt extract from my Liverpool University PhD – also ‘O for a thousand tongues’, Epworth Press

Seeds of Division

Prior to the death of John Wesley in 1791 Methodism already held within it the seeds of division. The characters of John and Charles Wesley were different,[1] the elder, John, having to remonstrate with this ‘sprightly, rollicking young fellow, with more genius than grace’.[2] During John’s temporary absence from Oxford Charles began to receive communion weekly in Christchurch Chapel  (Oxford Cathedral) encouraging others to do likewise. In all their conduct they were methodical. They gained the name ‘methodist’[3] as a consequence, but they were also called ‘sacramentarians’ or ‘supererogation men’[4]. The nature of the movement, begun here, was one of seeking perfection in all things, but particularly in those things that would lead to holiness. John later defined Christian perfection as ‘the humble, gentle, patient love of God and man, ruling all the tempers, words and actions: the whole heart and the whole life’.[5]

It was in John’s character to organise this movement in an authoritarian manner so that those adhering to it could be enabled to conform. Currie notes that this is a satisfactory method for those in the hierarchy of the church who seek to apply principles to their followers, which should be adhered to in minute particular. It is less satisfying for ordinary Christians who lack the abstract commitment of their leaders, yet hold deep loyalties to people and to their community, formulating their faith on a basis of individual freedom and fellowship, rather than obedience to an ethical code. ‘The conflict between these viewpoints was intensified in Methodism’.[6]  John Wesley was an autocrat who could not envisage the mantle of authority resting on anyone else. He wrote of those who ‘demand a free Conference … wherein all things shall be determined by most votes … It is possible after my death something of this kind may take place; but not while I live’.[7] This autocracy was applied to everyone.  Disunity was bound to result following his death.

Unification

At the time of John Wesley’s death, because of the manner in which he had made decisions and taken judgements, many matters were left unresolved.[8] What was the relation of Methodism to the established church? Could Methodist ministers administer the sacraments? How was the Connexion to be governed?  The majority sought to retain links with the Church of England following John Wesley’s express wishes.

The first Conference took place in 1791. William Thompson, then at Halifax, was elected President[9] and Dr. Coke, Secretary. Alexander Kilham pressed for a Wesleyanism which would administer its own sacraments and give parity of  power within the denomination to ministers and lay people alike.

The Wesleyan Conference of 1797 expelled Kilham. Along with William Thom he established the New Connexion in 1797. The year 1807 saw the first Annual Meeting of the Independent Methodists and in 1812 Hugh Bourne and William Clowes adopted the name, ‘Primitive Methodists’. O’Bryan and James Thorn took the name ‘Bible Christians’ in 1815 and the first Conference of the Bible Christians was held in 1819. The year 1836 saw the first Assembly of the Wesleyan  (Methodist) Association followed by the failure in 1837 of negotiations for a union between the Association and the New Connexion.[10] Each group developed its own traditions and, importantly for this study, published its own hymn book.

The division was not at an end with the differing claims of democracy and autocracy providing rallying points in Wesleyan Methodism.

Reunion began to be considered with the first Methodist Ecumenical Conference taking place in 1881. In 1906 the Bible Christian Church, United Methodist Free Churches and the Methodist New Connexion agreed to unite and The United Methodist Church[11] was formed by Royal Assent on July 26th 1907.[12]

In 1911 the fourth Methodist Ecumenical conference took place. The process of reunion continued inexorably, if slowly.[13]

From 1918 to 1932 negotiations, which were to result in the organic union of the United Methodist Church, the Primitive Methodist Church and the Wesleyan Methodist Church, took place. The Methodist Church Union Act was passed in 1929, the sixth Methodist Ecumenical Conference took place in 1931 and in 1932 the Methodist Church was formed.[14]

The Churches and their Hymns

The Wesleyan Methodist Church

At the time of Union in 1932 the Wesleyan Methodist Church used the Wesleyan Methodist  Hymn Book which had been published in 1904.[15] This was considered to be a lineal descendant of John Wesley’s  A Collection of Hymns for the Use of  The People Called Methodists.[16] This appellation is interesting on two counts. Firstly, given the description of the MHB of 1933 as ‘a lineal descendant of Wesley’s collection’,[17] the parallel is noted. Secondly, the Methodist Hymn Book, was closer in structure to the Wesleyan Methodist Hymn Book of 1904, than that had been to A Collection of Hymns for the Use of  The People Called Methodists. The WMHB was to have a profound effect on the shaping of the MHB.

The Wesleyans had begun to recognise the estrangement, and the need, of the masses. Centres of evangelism and social amelioration, such as St James’ Hall  (ancestor of Kingsway Hall), the Manchester Mission and the Central Hall in Birmingham, where Luke Wiseman (Chair person of the Hymn Book Committee which produced the MHB) was to minister, were established. In these places preaching predominated, with congregational participation limited to the singing of hymns. Choral performances took place. There was an awareness of the need of bodies and minds to be fed. ‘Growth in discipleship was as vital to them as conversion’.[18] To this end the hymns that were sung were important. Manning has commented that ‘Hymns are the safest protection and the surest vehicle of orthodoxy’.[19] The hymns that Wesleyan Methodists chose to sing were informed by this awareness. The consequence of this attitude was an inherent conservatism which was clearly demonstrated as the 1933 book began to take form.

Over 60% of the material in the WMHB survived in the MHB[20], a figure which was not exceeded by any other source.

The Wesleyan Methodist Conference of 1901 had appointed a Committee of Revision charged with the task of preparing a new hymn book. This committee took as its starting point the first edition ofA Collection of Hymns for The People Called Methodists of 1779 but they were also cognisant of the various revisions of that book which had taken place since its original publication. By their own admission ‘In the delicate task of removing hymns from Wesley’s original book, the Committee have sought to act in a spirit of reverence towards compositions which possess a special sacredness in the eyes of all Methodists’ endeavouring ‘to retain all the hymns that have gained a permanent place in the affections of our people’.[21] There was a conscious attempt to ‘preserve intact the clear and full expression of Methodist doctrine … ‘ in Methodist song’.[22] This conservative attitude did not, however, lead the compilers to retain the ordering of the original and this, together with the addition of some 300 hymns not in the edition of 1876, most of which were by hymn writers of the nineteenth century, enabled this book to be regarded in every sense as a new tome.[23] In this light it is interesting to witness the relative conservatism of the Committee charged with the production of the MHB.

Aware of the need to reassure people in the face of change, the 1901 Committee nevertheless stated that ‘The main object of those to whom the present compilation was entrusted has been to preserve the continuity of the present with the past’.[24] From a Wesleyan standpoint the Hymn Book Committee of 1933 more than lived up to this statement.

 In 1901 the church was regarded as ‘widely ramifying’.[25] Attention was given to the needs of children and young people, seasons and festivals of the church and the need of  ‘workers in sundry departments of active service’.[26] It was not thought necessary to include a specific section for mission or evangelistic services, the indication being given that hymns for such occasions could be readily found throughout the book. This bias continued in the attitude of the Wesleyans charged with the genesis of the MHB. The explanation was given that the book had a wider purpose than simply to furnish texts for use in public worship, echoing Wesley’s intention to provide ‘a little body of experimental and practical divinity’[27] that would serve its readers in their private devotions, at times of ‘sickness and trial’.[28]

            The volume totalled some 981 hymns, of which, as has been noted above, over 60% found their way into the Methodist Hymn Book. In addition there were a further eight Ancient Hymns and Canticles, the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. The book was produced jointly by the Wesleyan Methodist Church, The Methodist New Connexion and the Wesleyan Reform Union, and in correspondence with the Methodist Church in Australasia.  As well as being prepared for the Wesleyan Methodists Church and the New Connexion, it was also used by the Methodist Church of Australasia.[29]

Within the structure of the book worshippers firstly had their sights turned towards ‘The Glory of God’. They were presented with the call of the gospel which sought to help sinners to return to God. Thereafter ‘The Christian Life’ was described. Six hundred and 33 hymns, roughly two thirds of the content of the book comprised these sections. A further 47 were devoted to ‘Time, Death and Eternity’ the remainder of the book having two sections, ‘Family Religion’ and ‘Special Occasions’

Cultural and semi-cultural interests were built around the church or hall building. This ‘outreach or … creeping secularisation’,[30] depending on how you regard it, did not ignore the young who were taught to pray, to think, to debate and to question. Hymnody, however, was largely unaffected.

There are two ways of writing or speaking to children: the one is to let ourselves down to them, the other to lift them up to us. Dr. Watts has wrote on the former way, and has succeeded admirably well speaking to children, and leaving them as he found them. The following hymns are written on the other plan: they contain strong and manly sense, yet expressed in such plain and easy language as even children may understand. But when they do understand them they will be children no longer, only in years and in stature.[31]

The Wesleyans followed John Wesley’s adage. Material for children was, broadly speaking, of sound literary quality written to elevate them, rather than for them to sing from where they were.

Theology at this time was largely inadequate to meet the evolutionary mood of the age, and Methodism suffered from this weakness as did all basically non-liturgical churches. Free Church Ministers were left either to compromise with this mood, leaving themselves open to the criticism of being modernists, or to ignore it, which led to irrelevance. Hymns for Service and Influence related to a Christian call with little reference to the world of work.

The commitment to meet together in a disciplined fashion was beginning to wane. The local society could no longer claim unquestioning allegiance. The sense of corporate holiness that marked earlier periods of Methodist history was in decline and class divisions of the Victorian era, rather than fading, were being perpetuated.[32] In this situation hymnody served two functions. ‘Singing together brings us together’[33] and hymn singing enabled a sense of corporate unity to be maintained at least on a Sunday. What was sung perpetuated the Victorian ethos of the church. This influence continued as Wesleyans brought up on this book sought to put their stamp on the new project.

In spite of this, Turner has asserted that no succeeding generation achieved more in terms of mission to ordinary people.[34] There was an attitude of acceptance of the authority of the church. Along with this went a sense of being chosen, which heightened people’s obligation to their local congregation and to the wider Connexion. This in itself also gave rise to a certain arrogance evident in committee proceedings and Conferences as the new book of 1933 was in gestation. Willey recognised that respectability rather than reverence was the chief trait of the church he remembered from the opening decades of the century.[35] The church was both inbred and out of date.[36] Even in the 1920s this sense of estrangement from those outside the church remained. Bill Naughton, speaking of his experience in Bolton, related that he found the atmosphere at a mid week Methodist meeting ‘quite novel’, that the preacher’s appeals to avoid the evils of drink rang as half-baked’, knowing as he did ‘much less about them at first hand’ than did this adolescent observer whose father chose ‘to spend his hard earned money on beer every Saturday evening’.[37]

In spite of all this the possibility of change began to present itself through the work of ministerial training colleges. William Fiddian Moulton introduced critical biblical study at Richmond, while his son, James Hope Moulton, followed suit at Didsbury. Such work began to transform the training of ministers for the church and offered an opportunity for renewal.[38]

The Wesleyan church began to be able to hold together people of a broader theological and social disposition. By the time of Methodist Union the denomination was very much in need of a new hymn book and new hymns.

The United Methodist Church

The United Methodist Church, formed out of the union of 1907 between the Methodist New Connexion, the United Methodist Free Church and the Bible Christians, provided a wide and varied source of hymnody. The denominations retained their own hymn books, A Collection of Hymns for the use of People called Bible Christians,[39] the United Methodist Free Church Hymnal,[40] the New Connexion Hymn Book.[41]

The Methodist New Connexion had close links with Wesleyan Methodist and had collaborated in the production of the WMHB of 1904. The New Connexion used this book under its own covers.

The Bible Christians had their own book, published first in 1889. Its editors asserted that ‘a hymn is not the best vehicle for the expression of rigorous and exact theological views, but it is often the means of conserving the highest truths in all their divine beauty and completeness’.[42]   This view would seem to run exactly counter to that which had been a guiding principle in the editing of the Wesleyan/New Connexion book. It would become a source of dispute as it pointed to a fundamentally different manner of approaching the texts of hymns.

BC[43] was offered by its compilers as ‘“a labour of love” and even a “means of grace”’. They heartily commended it to the attention of the ‘pious and intelligent in the Churches’ for whose use it was particularly intended and ‘to the blessing of Him Whose glory has been sought that He may make it the channel of instruction and comfort to multitudes, and instrumental in extending His kingdom in the world’.[44]

            This last clause is characteristic and the editors of the new book noted that, while its predecessor had been ‘improved and enlarged in 1838’ and slightly altered in 1862, at its core had been hymns gathered together in a section entitled ‘Missionary Exertion’.[45] Nevertheless the omission of some hymns, such as ‘Jesus shall reign where’er the sun’ they regarded as ‘unaccountable’.[46] This they sought to remedy by drawing on the great hymns of the church from all denominations, though it is recorded that ‘the proprietors of “Hymns Ancient and Modern” refused to allow the use of any of their copyright hymns’. The compilers sought to provide a source of hymns that would be useful in ‘The Service Song in the House of the Lord’.[47] In doing this they asserted that ‘a hymn is not the best vehicle for the expression of rigorous and exact theological views, but it is often the means of conserving the highest truths in all their divine beauty and completeness’,[48] a contention which would not ride easily with the Wesleyans when the MHB of 1933 came to be compiled. BC provided 53 texts for ‘Evangelistic Services’. Hymns for ‘Special Occasions’ included ‘Hospital Sunday’, ‘General Charities and Almsgiving’ and items ‘For Those at Sea’. Nine hymns were listed under the theme of ‘Temperance’. The picture is one of a church which, while holding to its roots (there are hymns for Class-Meetings), is altogether outward looking.

The Bible Christians were to find over 450 of their texts included in the MHB. They had, perhaps, mixed motives in entering into the Union, recognising the possible protection that such Union would provide against loss of members brought about by migration. 

The editorial committee of the UMFC of 1889 noted that ‘in recent years, many hymns have been published, whose fervour and poetic power have won the approval and acceptance of nearly all sections of the Christian Church’.[49] Many hymns in the 1860 collection had become obsolete and it did not offer the best form of classification.

 In preparing their new collection the committee were concerned not to remove any hymn which ‘had become familiar by use’ or that had ‘endeared itself to our Churches’.[50] The editors were more than willing to amend otherwise useful, hymns. By contrast, within Bible Christian circles hymns moved from book to book with little amendment or alteration.

 In looking for new material the committee boasted that ‘No collection of hymns or sacred songs of any repute has escaped attention’.[51] The criterion for inclusion was firstly, spirituality, but poetry was also important. The intention was to provide a vehicle ‘for the outpouring of the heart in prayer, the uplifting of the soul to nobler aims, holier aspirations and fuller consecration, and the realisation, through sacred song, of communion and fellowship with God’.[52] The hymns included were also to provide for praise and thanksgiving, the language of praise being regarded as the ‘universal language of the children of God’.[53]

 The committee hoped to have produced a collection which would stimulate practical Christianity and ‘to supply a medium for the devout utterance of the varied emotions and experiences of the Christian life’.[54] The hymns were to speak not only to those who could praise God out of comfort, but also those who sought courage in suffering.

 The collection was comprehensive, the spirit catholic. It provided 45 hymns for ‘Evangelistic Services’ and a section devoted to ‘Temperance Services’. Hymns in this book again related to the real world. ‘O Lord be with us when we sail/Upon the lonely deep’ is not metaphorical suggesting some spiritual pilgrimage but also providing images that seamen would recognise. The collection is altogether more earthy than that of the Wesleyans (for them Temperance was allied to Christian Philanthropy) but the common Methodist source is not denied, Watts and Wesley (both John and Charles) being well represented. A defence was given against those who might have questioned the inclusion of certain texts which are specifically Methodist in tenor.[55] Users of the UMFC would have found some 45% of its content repeated in the MHB.

The Union of 1907 had formed a body from disparate parts that had sufficient resources to support a properly trained ministry, with capital for expansion and the production of literature that was capable of political influence. This new Church adopted a more liberal position with regard to Scripture than Wesley had espoused. ‘The scriptures of the Old and New Testaments through Divine Inspiration contain a revelation of the will of God to man and furnish a sufficient rule of faith and practice’.[56] Thirteen hymns in the Wesleyan/New Connexion book were devoted to the scriptures, 15 in the UMFC and 12 in BC.  The sacraments were regarded by the United Methodists as of ‘divine inspiration and perpetual obligation’.[57] A mere 15 hymns in the UMFC were allocated to sacramental services compared with 20 in the Wesleyan/New Connexion book.[58] Interestingly 30 texts were provided by the Bible Christians and these were differentiated into Baptism of Infants (4), Baptism of Adults (2) and the Lord’s Supper (24).

Many of the United Methodist Free Church societies had been almost congregational in outlook. Churches which had been involved in the disruption of the 1840s and the consequent expulsions from the Wesleyan Methodist Church were represented. What had been formed was in effect a bridge church amalgamating those who had sought a more democratic form of organisation within Methodism. The United Methodists and the Methodist New Connexion were distributed for the most part in the North, the Bible Christians in the South and West of the country. This latter group, though not always financially secure, brought a virility to the wider body of the Church.

As with the Primitive Methodists benevolent lay domination was the norm for many societies. Such leaders had pastoral, preaching and financial responsibility which provided benefits, but also dangers, and was regarded as a threat to good order by the Wesleyans. This was to affect the way in which discussions would take place with regard to the production of the MHB.

Above all these people had a shared hymnody which demonstrated itself to be founded on historic Methodist tradition but also contained within it a wider spectrum of emphasis. The New Connexion Hymn Book was very much an ecclesial tome, UMFC offered a greater laxity in terms of literary quality while BC provided the denomination with a sense of enthusiasm and vitality.

The Primitive Methodist Church[59]

Free worship was championed by the Primitive Methodists with extempore prayer being of central importance. The denomination had two hymn books, the Primitive Methodist Hymnal of 1886[60] and the Primitive Methodist Hymnal Supplement (1912).[61] This latter book was the most recent denominational hymnal available to the compilers of the MHB.

Primitive Methodist hymnody began in revival and its first collection of hymns reflected this, being a collection chiefly intended for open-air meetings and evangelistic outreach. The contrast of purpose with that of Wesleyan hymnody should be noted. Hugh Bourne edited The Large Hymn Book in 1825 and this was superseded by John Flesher’s collection in 1854.

In spite of the origins of Primitive Methodism the PM of 1886 had no section devoted to evangelistic services and only 25 hymns for ‘Missions’. A closer examination of the book indicates that a revivalist influence, rather than resulting in specific sections, is evident throughout the book. This is especially true of the section entitled ‘The Christian Life’ which addresses issues of conversion, justification, and regeneration as well as declension and recovery. The section of the PMS devoted to ‘Service’ also has a distinctly evangelistic tone with the inclusion of texts such as ‘Rescue the perishing, care for the dying’. Hymns for ‘Mariners and Travellers’ in the hymn book are more metaphorical than those of the UMFC. This supports Turner’s assertion[62] that the denomination was closer to Wesleyanism than the more proletarian groups.

In spite of this, Primitive Methodism was characterised by a theology that went hand in hand with radical politics, and an anti-sacerdotal stance while worship was almost Pentecostal in style. Congregational participation was encouraged. This was very different from the Wesleyan Church and its church government was more democratic. Such democracy was to provide a point of contention in relation to the composition of committees delegated with the task of producing the MHB.

The PM[63],[64] was compiled by a committee appointed by the Primitive Methodist Conference of 1882. Over 40% of the hymns from this book are represented in the MHB. This is interesting, when compared with WMHB, given the amount of unique material available here.[65]

There had been a call for a book more suitable for contemporary use and so the compilers sought ‘to retain the older hymns which are endeared by many hallowed associations to the hearts and memories of Christians of every name, and to add the choicest productions of our own times’.[66] It was acknowledged that the greatest number of hymns included would still be attributed to Wesley and Watts but ‘selections from numerous other authors and translators’ were to be included.[67] Lengthy hymns were not abbreviated but lively, vigorous singing, characteristic of the connexion was encouraged, though ‘a hurried style … [was] deprecated’.[68] The arrangement of hymns within the hymnal was idiosyncratic. In each section they were grouped according to metre. The later The Primitive Methodist Hymnal Supplement  of 1912 continued this practice.

One would hardly expect a collection of 1051 hymns, together with a setting of the Te Deum and sundry additional tunes, to require supplementing, yet the Conference of 1910 saw the need to augment this considerable collection. There was a feeling that, good though the book undoubtedly was, after a quarter of a century, it might be ‘no longer completely adequate’.[69] The editors were aware of the amount of new material that had become familiar to the people of the church. There was also the necessity to address themes which had, thus far, been neglected. Consequently they felt comfortable including hymns in the Supplement simply on account of their merit or, on other occasions, in spite of their inferiority because nothing else relating to a particular theme was available. They recognised that the usefulness of a hymn does not relate solely to its literary qualities. Many popular hymns were included that, with a more stringent approach might have been eliminated from consideration:  ‘… we are taught that high poetical excellence may be but little help and its absence but little drawback’.[70]  The suspension of literary criteria later referred to in relation to the inclusion of ‘chorus hymns’ in the MHB is anticipated. Similarly, hymns which others might regard as ‘too austere, too mystical, or too subtle’,[71] found their way into the collection. The committee seem to have realised that what they were presenting was new and likely to be met with resistance.[72]   

Ultimately what was produced was later to be described by Turner as ‘a collection which catches the somewhat exuberant and romantic atmosphere of Edwardian Methodism’.[73] This was the most recent Methodist collection prior to the production of the MHB and 139 items from the Supplement found their way into it. This small percentage is probably indicative of two things. Firstly, hymn book supplements often contain material which, by its contemporary nature, is untested. Secondly, the lack of a literary-critical approach to the collection, observed above, meant that, in the view of some members of the 1933 Hymn Book Committee, much of the content fell below the quality required for the MHB.

What is seminal, from the point of view of our understanding, is the sheer range of material provided for the editors of the MHB by this denomination (the two Primitive Methodist hymn books together provided in excess of 1,300 texts and many additional tunes) and their belief that hymn books ought to be updated regularly (25 years was regarded as a sufficient lapse of time after the production of PM to warrant the production of the Supplement).

Methodist Union  (1932)

Methodist Union and the background against which it took place is well documented elsewhere.[74] Churches of all denominations in this period had a declining influence.[75] At the same time the population of the United Kingdom had grown.[76]

Amalgamation of the more liberal Methodist bodies with Wesleyanism was made possible by the fundamental change which took place in 1878 when the Wesleyan Methodist Conference admitted lay representatives.[77]  The Rev. J. Scott Lidgett in 1909 regarded Union as fundamentally logical:

The theology of all branches of Methodism is identical. All attach the same 
importance, at least in theory, to church fellowship and offer similar means of 
satisfying it. All enforce the duty of unceasing evangelism, which is based 
on the will of God that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of 
the truth. All admit the right, and enforce the duty, of the laity to take part in 
evangelism, and in the pastoral supervision of the church. Above all, the 
emphasis is everywhere laid on the importance of experimental religion, and 
therefore on conversion, on the possibility of the direct witness of the Spirit 
of adoption giving the assurance of present salvation, and on the calling to the 
life of entire sanctification which is brought about by the reign of perfect love 
in the heart. 
[78]

At this stage the Primitive Methodists, led by A. S. Peake, continued to consider union. Conversely the Rev. Arthur Jones of the United Methodist Church asked at the fourth Ecumenical Conference  (1911), ‘have we not really had enough of Union to last us for a little while?’ adding, ‘And, further, I must frankly say that I, for one … do not see that we are particularly near our Wesleyan friends’.[79]  Conversations, nevertheless, proceeded.

These tensions would, naturally, continue in the united denomination and have an effect on the work of the committees delegated with preparing the MHB. They are further illustrated by the attitude of leading figures to the necessary rationalisation. When statistics relating to the location of churches other than Wesleyan were sought nothing was available. F.L. Wiseman, then Home Missions Secretary of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and later Chairman of the Hymn Book Committee, wrote to Aldom French when the same statistics were requested in relation to Wesleyanism, that neither did he have such information, ‘The work of compilation would be enormous’, and ‘the utility of the whole is not obvious to me’.[80]

Aside from the clear practical value of rationalisation there is a great sense of threat embodied in such a process. Ultimately, even after Union in 1932, such rationalisation was difficult to achieve. Those societies which were threatened with closure perceived themselves as defending a bastion, not only of their religious and theological heritage, but also, of a cultural, political and societal nature. This was to reflect on the process of union and the reception, if not the production, of the MHB.

The First World War brought a transformation of tone. Movements that drew people together, the League of Nations and a desire within the Church of England for a renewed church to serve all classes, became popular. In 1916 Toc H[81] had been formed to provide a place of respite where all ranks were regarded with equality. Such a spirit was threatening to the Wesleyans, a denomination which preserved a sense of hierarchy and order, of inherent conservatism. It was easier for the Free and Primitive Methodists to accept. Again this would be a source of tension for the Hymn Book Committee.

Nevertheless, in Methodism the social distinction between the Wesleyan Methodists and the free Methodist denominations had begun to reduce, so that in 1924 stipends of ministers across the three denominations approximately equated. This did not prevent a charge of snobbery being made against the Wesleyans, but a difference of preference as to styles of communion service was more deeply rooted than any class distinction.[82]

The Rev. J. Ernest Rattenbury, a Wesleyan and eminent hymnodist, stated that ‘There is a clearer kinship between many Wesleyans and Anglicans than with either of the junior Methodist Churches.[83] 

Ultimately  the Methodist Church Bill was passed in 1929 with each of the uniting denominations holding its final Conference in the summer of 1932. The Uniting Conference took place on 20 September 1932 at the Royal Albert Hall. The Deed of Union was signed and three Wesleyan Methodists were elected to office: John Scott Lidgett as President, Sir Robert Perks as Vice-President and Robert Bond as Secretary.

The membership of the denominations at the point of Union was as follows:[84]

DenominationMembershipOrdained MinistersLocal Preachers
Wesleyan Methodist (Great Britain)517,5512,51018,785
Primitive Methodist222,0211,13112,896
United Methodist179,5277295,232

The Union was an uneasy one that did not address the issues that were presented by society or the church. The amalgamation did not provide a source of new ideas about church organisation but, rather, a source of compromise.[85] At least they would sing from the same book, the outward and visible sign of their unity, but this would not be published until December of 1933.


[1] G., ‘Charles Wesley: A New Evaluation of his Life and Ministry’, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Liverpool, 2002, provides a new appraisal of the relationship between John and Charles Wesley.

[2] Brook, D., The Oxford Methodists, in A New History of Methodism, ed. Townsend, W.J., Workman, H.B., Eayrs, G., Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1909, Vol. I, p.139.

[3] See Heitzenrater, R.P., Kingswood, Mirror and Memory, Reflections on Early Methodism, Nashville, 1989, p.13 –32, for a discussion of the origin of the name ‘methodist’ and its significance.

[4] Brook, D., The Oxford Methodists, in A New History of Methodism, p.145.

[5] Wesley, J., The Letters of John Wesley, edit. Eayrs, G., Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1915, p.83.

[6] Currie, R., Methodism Divided, Faber and Faber, London, 1968, p.17.

[7] Baker, F. quoted by Currie, Methodism Divided, p23.

[8] Lloyd, G., Charles Wesley: A New Evaluation of his Life and Ministry, p.237 – 283, examines this in some detail.

[9] Turner, J.M., Conflict and Reconciliation, Studies in Methodism and Ecumenism in England 1740 – 1982, Epworth, London, 1985, p.67.

[10] Currie, R., Methodism Divided, p.317ff.

[11] See Thorne, F. S., ‘All together now! The United Methodist Church 1907 – 1932’, Proceedings of the Wesley Historical Society, Volume 51, Part 3, 1997, p.73.

[12] Currie, R., Methodism Divided, p.317ff.

[13] John Munsey Turner provides a detailed assessment of this period in Davies, R., George, A. Raymond, Rupp, G., A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, p.309 – 361

[14] Currie, R., Methodism Divided, p.321ff.

[15] Wesleyan Methodist Hymn Book, Wesleyan Conference Office, London, 1904. Hereafter referred to as WMHB.

[16] See The Works of John Wesley, Vol.7.  A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists, Edit., Hildebrandt, F., Beckerlegge, O.A., Oxford University Press/Abingdon, Nashville, 1983.

[17] MHB, Preface.

[18] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p.312.

[19] Manning, B.L., The Hymns of Wesley and Watts, Epworth Press, London, 1942, p.143.

[20] This figure raises the question as to the degree to which the material chosen form each book was unique or overlapped with that of the other books. Examination of Appendix 3, p.198, demonstrates that such a question is simplistic. The overlap varies from section to section through the book. The significance of the choices that have been made is addressed in the body of the thesis.

[21] WMHB, (1904), Preface, p.vi.

[22] WMHB, (1904), Preface, p.vi.

[23] Wiseman, F. L., ‘Early Methodist Psalmody, with a note on Wesleyan Methodist Hymn Books’, in A New History of Methodism, Vol. II, p.561f.

[24] WMHB, Preface, p.vi.

[25] WMHB, Preface, p.vi.

[26] WMHB, Preface, p.vi.

[27] WMHB, Preface, p.v.

[28] WMHB, Preface, p.vi.

[29] Townsend, W.J., Workman, H.B., Eayrs, G., edit., A New History of Methodism, Vol. II, p.561f.

[30] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p.314. Newton has also noted the Wesleyan concern over such secularisation voiced by the Methodist Sacramental Fellowship following Union. Newton, J., Heart speaks to heart, Darton, Longman and Todd, London, 1994, p.70.

[31] Wesley, J., Preface to Hymns for Children, 1790, quoted by Works of John Wesley, Vol.7.  A Collection of Hymns for the Use of The People Called Methodists, p. 132.

[32] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p.315f.

[33] Wren, B. Praying Twice, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2000, p.84.

[34] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p316.

[35] Willey, B., quoted by Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p317.

[36] Turner notes that in the church of  Peter Fletcher’s parents once a year there would be a ‘mission’ with the emphasis on conversion and ‘Sankeys’ replacing the more sober Methodist hymn book. For Fletcher this marked the end of Christian observance, while others made their way to the Church of England.  (Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p317)

[37] Naughton, B., Neither Use Nor Ornament, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1995, p.135f.

[38] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p.318.

[39] A Collection of Hymns for the Use of People Called Bible Christians, Bible Christian Book-Room, London, 1889. Hereafter referred to as BC.

[40] United Methodist Free Church Hymnal, United Methodist Free Churches’ Book Room, London, 1889. Hereafter referred to as UMFC.

[41] The Methodist Hymn Book, Methodist New Connexion Book-Room, London, 1904.

[42] BC, Preface, p.vi.

[43] BC; see Mankin, K., ‘How they sang on the way to Zion – An Examination of the Major Hymn books of the Main Methodist Traditions during the period 1875 – 1890 and their Relationship to Church and Society’, unpublished M. Phil. Thesis, Council for National Academic Awards, 1992, p.135-151. According to him ‘almost a quarter of the total number of hymns in the hymn book [belong] to the Bible Christian Tradition alone’.

[44] BC, Preface, p.x.

[45] BC, Preface, p.v.

[46] BC, Preface, p.vi..

[47] BC, Preface, p.vi.

[48] BC, Preface, p.vi.

[49] UMFC, Preface p.1.

[50] UMFC, Preface p.1.

[51] UMFC, Preface p.1.

[52] UMFC, Preface p.1.

[53] UMFC, Preface p.1.

[54] UMFC, Preface p.1.

[55] UMFC, Preface p.1.

[56] Quoted by Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p326.

[57] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p326.

[58] Newton, J., Heart speaks to heart, p.70. Newton’s commentary implies that some Wesleyans recognised this as symptomatic of a diminished view of the importance of Eucharistic observance and a source for concern.

[59] For a summary description of this denomination see Lysons, K., A Little Primitive, Church in the Market Place Publications, Buxton, 2001.

[60] Primitive Methodist Hymnal, Primitive Methodist Publishing House, London, 1886. Hereafter referred to as PM.

[61] Primitive Methodist Hymnal Supplement, Primitive Methodist Publishing House, London, 1912. Hereafter referred to as PMS.

[62] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p.328.

[63] See Mankin, K., How they sang on the way to Zion, p.123-134. Mankin comments particularly on the uniqueness of this book.

[64] See Lysons, A Little Primitive, p.201 – 206.

[65] Mankin notes that 254 hymns are in the PM alone which he regards as ‘significantly more than those unique to the Wesleyan tradition’. Mankin, K., How they sang on the way to Zion, p.123.

[66] PM, M.T. Pickering, London, Reprinted with the Supplement, Preface p1.

[67] PM, Preface, p1.

[68] PM, Preface, p2.

[69] PM, Preface, p.iii.

[70] PMS Preface, p.iii.

[71] PMS, Preface, p.iii.

[72] PMS, Preface, p.iii.

[73] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p329.

[74] See Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol.3, p.333 – 361.

[75] Stevenson, J., British Society 1914-45, The Penguin Social History of Britain, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990.

[76]Whitaker’s Almanack, J. Whitaker and Son Ltd, London, The Softback Preview, 1997, p112.

[77] Kent, J. The Age of Disunity, Epworth Press, London, 1966, p1.

[78] Lidgett, J.S., in A New History of Methodism, Vol. I, p421.

[79] Currie, R., Methodism Divided, p248.

[80] Currie, R., Methodism Divided, p250.

[81] Philip Thomas Byard Clayton went to France as an Army Chaplain in 1915. He opened Talbot House in Poperinge. This club, just behind the lines in Flanders, which became known to thousands of soldiers by the nickname of TOC H (TH in the army signallers’ code of those days). After the war he enabled the rebirth of TOC H. This was an attempt to preserve and to hand on to succeeding generations the special atmosphere which had characterised Talbot House in Poperinge, an atmosphere of friendship which made all the barriers that normally keep people apart seem totally irrelevant. (from the official Toc H website, http://www.toch.org.uk)

[82] Kent, J.,  The Age of Disunity p6.

[83] Currie, R., Methodism Divided, p250f.

[84] Davies, R., George, A. R., Rupp, G., A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 4, Epworth, London, 1983, p.648f.

[85] Turner, J.M., in A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p340.

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…