To introduce a new set of resources to encourage and enable churches to reflect on the hymns and songs they use in worship, Research Associate Peter King invites us to watch our words…
It’s so easy to do. One minute we are listening to a stirring sermon on radical inclusion, the next moment we are singing ‘Lord, on us thy Spirit pour, Kneeling lowly at the door, Lest it close for evermore’. In a flash radical inclusion had morphed into eternal exclusion. There are, of course, theological issues to be debated here, but my point is how easy it is to contradict what we say in our sermons, or profess in our statements, by what we sing in our hymns and worship songs.
There are obvious examples: Many of us would refrain from singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ because of our concern that the Church be compared with an army, and the Christian Life with a war. But other examples are more subtle. Do we really want our children to be ‘mild, obedient, good as he’, as Cecil Frances Alexander clearly felt when she wrote ‘Once in Royal David’s City’? And how do we feel about the strains of empire and imperialism in the original versions of hymns such as ‘Hills of the North Rejoice’ still used in many of our churches?
Of course, my choice of examples reflects my own context. But as Carolyn Whitnall observes in her recent post ‘In the Presence of Whose Enemies?’, it is not just traditional hymns which pose problems. Modern (and not so modern) worship songs present problems too. What exactly does it mean when we sing that ‘You [presumably God] come back with the head of my enemy’? And, whatever it means, is it a lyric we want to sing in public worship? In the same way, many of us would be uneasy with the second verse of the hugely popular song ‘In Christ Alone’, because of its theology of wrathful redemption.
This month, the CSBV launches a set of resources designed to encourage and facilitate reflection on the hymns and songs we use for worship. These can be found here. They include an Introduction which sets out who we are and why we think this is an important task for the churches, so I will not repeat what is said there, other than to say that I hope the set proves a useful addition to our Resources for Churches & Groups. They are, moreover, a work in progress and I hope that anyone reading this who has an idea or suggestion for ways in which we could develop this set of resources will add a comment below. I am particularly aware that more topics could be added to the existing focus on Warfare, Violent Atonement, and Nationalism.
What we are suggesting in our resources is that we as churches and individual worshippers begin to watch our words. One way in which all of us can begin to do this is to listen out for the message that our worship services are giving about God. What picture of God is evoked by the words, both spoken and sung, in our times of worship? Is it a picture of God which we would wish a first-time attender to take away with them? Is it a picture of God that is consistent with our core beliefs and values as a congregation? Is it a picture of God we ourselves can identify with?
It is not just the words of the sermon, but the words of the hymns, songs, and prayers which will contribute to that message. Even the layout of the building, though for many of us there is a limit to what we can do about this, can contribute to this.
And if it is true, as it is so often said, that for those in non-liturgical traditions hymns and songs serve the function of creeds in affirming the content of belief, then it is even more important that we ask ourselves whether our hymns and songs are presenting a God in whom we ourselves believe and in whom and wish to share. Furthermore, words are formative: we are formed by the words we hear, sing and say in worship each week, so those words had better be the well-considered ones!
Different congregations will come to different conclusions about which particular hymns and songs are right for them, and that is to be expected. It is not a ‘one size fits all’ scenario, and our resources are not intended to offer a final word on suitable and unsuitable hymnody. But all of us owe it both to ourselves and our fellow-worshippers to ask these questions. Therefore, we hope that our set of resources will be of use to churches and individuals as they begin to explore these questions.
It is worth reflecting on our choice of hymnody for another reason too. Meanings change, and what once was a perfectly acceptable lyric in time can become anything but. Despite its worthy meaning, would any of us want to sing the hymn composed in 1719 by Isaac Watts which opens with these words?
Blest is the man whose bowels move
And melt with pity to the poor
Whose soul, by sympathizing love
Feels what his fellow saints endure
His heart contrives for their relief
More good than his own hands can do
He, in the time of general grief
Shall find the Lord has bowels, too
I suspect that is one hymn that we will all agree to leave on the shelf.
Peter King trained at Bristol Baptist College and was ordained in 1988, serving for eight years at Eynsham Baptist Church, Oxfordshire. He now works for the Anglican Diocese of Chichester in adult theological education. Peter’s work for the CSBV includes producing Bible study resources such as these, and running our preacher’s blog Sunday Sermon Monday Mourning.