In 2004, following the Methodist Conference, Richard Jones and Ivor Jones, respectively words and music editors of Hymns & Psalms, met with the newly convened Music Resource Group (MRG) which had been tasked with exploring the provision of a supplement to Hymns & Psalms. They encouraged the group to be courageous in what they chose, recognising the conservatism of Hymns & Psalms and cognizant of the greater freedom that had pertained in the editing of Hymns & Songs. The warning against conservatism was well founded. Methodist hymnody, at least since 1904, has been conservative as I have argued elsewhere.[i] Hymns & Psalms had taken steps towards being an ecumenical hymnbook, and while this set it apart from the Methodist Hymn Book of 1933, it also meant that it offered an over-liturgical face for a denomination that was already questioning its free-church identity and raison d’étre, a process that has been accentuated in the signing of the Anglican-Methodist Covenant.
Theologically the weight of Singing the Faith was to be determined by the texts available for inclusion, the calibre of the members of the MRG and the ecclesiological and theological persuasion of those reviewing and overseeing the process of compilation and editing. While the MRG members tackled their task as effectively as they could through the period of exploration and eventual publication, compared with the committee that had produced Hymns & Psalms the group was both theologically and hymnologically light. From 2009 to 2011 the hymnological expertise of the group was further reduced.[ii] Nevertheless, a hymn book is never simply a theological tool, nor a hymnological construct. The MRG was, arguably, more democratic and representative of Methodism of the period than previous editorial groups had been.
The end result cannot be examined in detail here, but a summary is necessary in order to be able to proceed with the main task of this paper, that of envisaging the direction that Methodist theology might take in its wake. To begin with, Singing the Faith is far more eclectic than previous collections, containing material from a wider variety of sources and styles. There is, if anything, an uneven representation from current Scottish hymnody, but this was in-keeping with public taste current at the time of compilation. Some ephemeral children’s material is included, something that earlier in the process had been warned against by the then representative of Children’s Work on the MRG. Indeed the report to Conference of 2009 contained no such material in its draft. Another change, which can be discerned between 2009 and the final compilation, is the removal of some material from significant female authors. In justification, the salient report to Conference stated, ‘the MRG has expressed concern that there is some evidence that female authors’ work is being rejected because [of] the type of imagery they use’.[iii] A section entitled, ‘A World of Belief’ containing material to be used which related to other faiths, was completely removed. Though it is a generalization, the overall feel of the collection from the draft offered to Conference in 2009 to that accepted in 2011 was that it was broader, to some extent less erudite, less inclusive and more evangelical in tone. A single text demands comment: ‘In Christ alone’, that in 2009 had been suggested for inclusion subject to editing, which the author did not subsequently allow. While the Faith and Order Committee Secretary had indicated that the phrase in this text, ‘scheme of man’ is ‘diametrically opposed to Church policy on inclusive language’, the response of the MRG report was:
A considerable number of modern songs had already been rejected on precisely these grounds. But where does the balance lie between making a small number of exceptions, and excluding songs which are deeply meaningful to many in the Church? After careful debate we concluded that In Christ Alone should be included. While this was probably one of our most difficult decisions, it is illustrative of the depth of analysis and thought which has gone into the selection of the whole collection.[iv]
It is worth noting that no mention is made here of the theological objections which some might wish to bring against the inclusion of this text, these selfsame nuances being seen as positive by others. In addition the introduction to Singing the Faith effectively re-states the position of the Faith and Order Committee in relation to inclusive language.
Where then, does this take us?
While the integrity of Methodist theology as determined by CPD rests on the test of John Wesley’s sermons and his Notes on the New Testament, the hymns have implicitly offered another standard which, arguably, has been both more formative and instructive for the people called Methodists. Set alongside this is the theological integrity of those who seek to choose and sing hymns. From this perspective our hymnody has been dependent on our expression of historic beliefs and on the degree to which such beliefs are palatable to those who worship in our churches. This, necessarily, results in an innate conservatism in which those familiar texts which have served our forebears are retained as definitive. In this, what is forgotten is that John & Charles Wesley at a time when Calvinist theology, particularly that of double-predestination, predominated, sought to go against that flow by espousing an Arminian theology. This was expressed in the language of their time and gave rise to the ‘All can be saved’ language that still holds sway today and is epitomized in the text ‘Let us build a house where love can dwell’(‘All are welcome’), written, ironically, by a Roman Catholic, Marty Haugen.
However, the manner in which the Wesley’s sought to serve the age in which they lived was not predicated just on theology, but on an awareness of the politics, science and the events of their day and a practical outworking of their faith. They reflected on slavery, the American War of Independence and both the London and the Lisbon earthquakes. And this was translated into hymnody which questioned and reflected on theology, positing answers as the texts progressed.
These factors prompt the need for our examination of the way in which our hymnody works, if it works at all, on into the twenty-first century.
I want to begin with what might be termed traditional theological constructs by reference to the Trinity, incarnation and atonement. Much historic and current hymnody contains within it an inherent contradiction. To some extent this has been determined by the theology that the church has perpetuated and that hymnodists simply repeat. The most overt expression is found in the popular text, ‘How great thou art’:
And when I think that God His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die-I scarce can take it in.
That on the cross my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin:[v]
The contradiction is in the idea of God sending his Son, a problem presented when we seek to express Trinitarian theology in terms of the anthropomorphisation of the God-head without knowledge of the associated philosophical modelling from which it derives. Taken as metaphor the images perhaps pose little problem. More often, at a popular level, the words are taken literally which simply denies any incarnational currency, suggesting that God sends God, which makes no logical sense at all. Hence the conundrum. The simplicity and popularity of this text makes it all the more insidious in continuing a false theology, notwithstanding that the fault is with the translation and not the original.[vi]
This raises for me a wider question, that of the usefulness of archaic creeds to continue to convey beliefs still held by the church. I am led to question what are the underlying suppositions of these creeds and their derivative translation into hymns. Incarnation, the understanding that Jesus is truly human and truly divine, seeks to affirm the intimate relationship of the divinity to humanity and the reconciliation of the one to the other. This allows for, amongst other things, an assumption that God understands our human condition. Seeking to explain how this can be, we have employed philosophical models extant at the time of the formulation of the creeds. We have also taken as real the image of a virgin birth, an interpretation of Hebrew scripture which is, in any case, suspect. Why not simply accept such divine intimacy without absorbing ourselves with the biological mechanics of divine impregnation or philosophical models, intended to be used metaphorically, which over time have been defended as representing literal truth? Yet within the church, belief in these self-same models is defended by many as being conditional for membership, if not salvation.
This can be illustrated further in relation to Atonement. Within the church the Penal Substitutionary theory still holds sway with many. For some its acceptance is a test of the integrity of faith. This ought to be regarded as perverse, given the manner in which early twentieth-century theologians unmasked the inconsistency of the model:
‘That Christ died in the place of the sinner would, at one time have been beyond question. For many this had already been challenged by Lofthouse in his Ethics and Atonement (1906) and Altar, Cross and Community (1921). In these works he broke away from traditional substitutionary theories, approaching atonement from an ethical standpoint. For him ‘morality was determinative of religion,’[vii]
In 1926 Kenneth Kirk wrote, ‘We may dismiss at once any explanation which leans to the suggestion that […] God demanded a victim – any victim, but still a victim – on whom to wreak vengeance for man’s sin’;[viii] and in support of this challenge he cites Hooker’s Ecclesiastical Polity (1648)[ix]. What is at issue here is the clear expression of belief, not the preservation of outdated metaphors. I believe that in the twenty-first century we need to elaborate images and metaphors which work today. We are slow within the church to re-express our beliefs in language which is contemporary. Can someone on the fringe of, or outside of, the church make sense of a phrase like, ‘by the blood I may enter Your brightness’. I fear that, like those who opposed the Reformation, we are fearful of losing control and power, exercised through the imposition of a belief system contained in language which only the initiated fully understand? Perhaps this is what lay behind the resistance to the hymns by some female authors whose material was edited out of the final collection between 2009 and 2011? Do we perhaps espouse the belief that there is no language, or image suitable for those with no knowledge of the faith, so worship has to be reduced to practically nothing to meet the presumed starting place of the enquirer? If we have any wish to communicate outside the confines of the church community, the language and metaphors, even the material that we subject to theological scrutiny, ought to be of contemporary significance and interest. This is not to pander to fashion, nor to reduce our theology to some common denominator, but to ensure that our theology has integrity, is contextual, apt and appropriate; that it will ‘serve the present age’. It all comes down to the question of how our theology can best be presented for the twenty-first century and some material within Singing the Faith is not adequate for this purpose. This is not to criticise the book per se, for it represents the faith and practice of the church as it has been for many years. What it ought to do is to raise the question as to how our theology can be presented clearly in language and metaphor, in a way best suited to today and, more importantly, tomorrow.
Where, then, does this take us? C.S Lewis once wrote, ‘Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it or you don’t believe it’.[x] The challenge is to understand our theology well enough to re-express it in ordinary language that people who are not theologically educated can understand, interrogate and internalise. It is a matter of hermeneutics and translation, the bed-rock of apologetics. Yet for this to work, we need to go on seeking to answer questions related to theodicy, to scientific and sociological advances, to global relations and the insights offered by world faiths. Historically hymn writers have sometimes enabled such exploration, reinterpretation and expression. In the middle of the nineteenth century Frederick Faber wrote of God offering ‘grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this’. At the time astronomy had not offered evidence of such worlds. Theology was often national and colonialist. Where today are the hymns that address the scientific advance, inter-faith cooperation and the theodicy of earthquakes (for instance), let alone a recognition of the place and voice of women? Theology after Singing the Faith needs these areas to be addressed and, who knows, we might have to move some treasured texts to a museum of hymnody where, like madrigals, they will be appreciated by specialists and enthusiasts. Perhaps, even, beyond this the church needs to move towards expressions of faith that are less creedal and confessional, but more contextual and incarnational, a living faith expressed in each succeeding moment.
Andrew Pratt (2016)
[i] Pratt, A.E., O for a thousand tongues, Epworth, London, 2004.
[ii] The membership of the group can be reviewed in consecutive reports to Conference from 2004 to 2011.
[iii] conf10a-29-singing-the-faith-160211 – 126.96.36.199. – accessed 6/12/2015
[iv] conf10a-29-singing-the-faith-160211 – 3.4 – accessed 6/12/2015. It is worth noting that many so called ‘modern’ songs are, in terms of both literary style and theological language, archaic.
[vi] O store Gud, när jag den värld beskådar – the original hymn ‘O Store Gud’ by Carl Boberg approached this doctrine somewhat differently:
When I behold His Son to earth descending,
to help and heal and teach distressed mankind;
When evil flees and death in fear is bending
before the glory of the Lord divine,
With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!
With rapture filled, my soul Thy name would laud,
O mighty God! O mighty God!
When, crushed by guilt of sin, before Him kneeling
I plead for mercy and for grace and peace,
I feel His balm and, all my bruises healing,
He saves my soul and sets my heart at ease.
(Translation by E. Gustav Johnson (1893–1974) From Hymnary.org http://www.hymnary.org/text/o_mighty_god_when_i_behold_the_wonder accessed 9/6/2014).
[vii] Davies, R., George, R. A., Rupp, G., A History of the Methodist Church in Great Britain, Vol. 3, p.215. Quoted , Pratt, A.E., O for thousand tongues. See also: Selwyn E. G., edit., Essays Catholic and Critical, Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, 3rd edition, London, 1929.
[viii] Kirk, K. E., (1926) ‘The Atonement’ in Essays Catholic and Critical, SPCK, London, p262.
[ix] Hooker, R., (1648) Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity: Books VI, VII, VIII, , from the edition of 1981 published Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.v
[x] C.S. Lewis, ‘Version Vernacular’, The Christian Century vol. LXXV (31 December 1958) p 1515, reprinted in God in the Dock, p 338.