Why don’t we sing some of the familiar hymns?

This is the third of three sermons looking as some of the questions relating to worship at St Mark’s which have been raised in recent months. Today we explore why we tend not to sing some of the ‘golden oldies’ – hymns that some of us have grown up with; but, equally, why it is that we sing the hymns that we do.

We begin, though, with an excerpt from a letter written early in the second century by Pliny, then governor of the Roman province of Pontus-Bithynia, Asia Minor, to emperor Trajan in which he describes the conduct of some Christians he had encountered:

They had met regularly before dawn on a determined day and sung antiphonally a hymn to Christ as if to a god. They also took an oath not for any crime, but to keep from theft, robbery and adultery, not to break any promise and not to withhold a deposit when reclaimed. (Book 10, Letter 96).

Pliny’s letter is interesting for all sorts of reason, but for our purpose it confirms what references in the New Testament (including our first reading, Colossians 3.16; also Ephesians 5.19; 1 Corinthians 14.26; Acts 16.25) suggest, namely that the singing of hymns has been a component of Christian worship from the outset and, in particular, hymns to Christ. In truth, some of these hymns may well have been included in the New Testament. Consider, for instance, the following verses from Paul’s letter to followers of Christ at Philippi:

Though he was divine,
he did not cling to equality with God,
but made himself nothing.
Taking the form of a slave,
he was born in human likeness.
He humbled himself
and was obedient to death,
even the death on the cross.
Therefore God has raised him on high,
and given him the name above every name:
that at the name of Jesus
every knee shall bow,
and every voice proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
(Philippians 2.6-11; cf John 1.1-18; Colossians 1.15-20; Ephesians 2.14-16; 1 Timothy 3.16; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Hebrews 1.3)

In the practice of singing hymns, Christians appear to have adopted a tradition already established in early Jewish worship, as is evident in our gospel reading where, at the conclusion of what purports to be a Passover meal, Jesus and the disciples sing a hymn – probably some of the psalms now contained in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf Hallel Psalms 114-118). And it is worth pointing out that the Book of Psalms initially came into being as a hymn book, perhaps for use in the Jerusalem Temple after it was rebuilt following the Jewish return from Babylonian exile in the sixth century BC.

Singing, then, has been significant within Christian worship from the outset. And this shouldn’t surprise us given that singing must be all but an universal currency as a means of self-expression, engendering a sense of community and emphasising shared convictions and aspirations.

Whether at a pop concert, football match or karaoke night at a local pub; whether in a Hindu Temple or an Olympic Stadium, people like to sing. Many cultures tell their stories through the medium of song. Many barriers have been overcome by people, previously alienated from one another, finding a common voice. Many a grieving heart has gained comfort and many an aspiring soul inspiration through words set to music.

And in recent decades the therapeutic benefits of singing have increasingly been recognised within the scientific community (cf Sidney De Haan centre) and are even beginning to influence government policy (cf £40m National Singing Programme). Singing exercises major muscle groups in the upper body and improves the efficiency of the cardiovascular system; it promotes well-being, reduces stress and aids pain management. It seems, then, that Ella Fitzgerald was on the right lines when she said, ‘The only thing better than singing is more singing.’

Now these observations are valuable, but in themselves do not account for the role of singing within Christian worship whether past, present or future. Although, I must say, the prospect of working out in church rather than going to the gym could prove attractive, but is likely to result in too many long hymns with exhausting tunes.

Acknowledging, then, that singing in a liturgical context has more to offer than stretching our vocal chords and inducing the ‘feel-good’ factor, brings into focus what is particular about singing within a Christian community, namely the words we proclaim and the tunes accompanying them.

Both are important and both are significant theologically, for music, no less than verse, can deepen faith, communicate profound truth, raise our horizons and mediate encounter with the mysterious otherness of God.

Whether it is the inspiring refrains of ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’ (Cwm Rhondda), the reassuring rhythms of Crimond’s setting of the Twenty-Third Psalm or the intricate cadences of Vaughan Williams’ setting of Bianco da Siena’s ‘Come down, O Love divine’ (Down Ampney), music possesses the capacity to minister to us – resonating within, taking us to the edge, giving texture and colour to human emotion and aspiration, bearing witness to another country.

It is for these reasons that music features substantially within our worship and in different ways, including the accompaniment of hymns. We try to select tunes of not only the correct meter to carry the words (although that’s always advisable!), but also that help to reinforce or explore further the substance of the verses. And hopefully you will have noticed that whenever we introduce a new hymn more often than not it is sung to a familiar tune. What is more, the attuned among us will also appreciate how Andrew and other of our organists play each verse slightly differently to add further nuance and emphasis to the words.

Which brings us to the words themselves and, specifically, to addressing why is it that some hymns are conspicuous by the absence. Is this simply down to the preferences and prejudices of whoever is responsible for making the selection? I hope not although there is inevitably a measure of arbitrariness within the process because the sheer number of hymns. At St Mark’s, for example, we use HymnQuest a database giving access to nearly 41,000 texts and that is only a subset of what is currently available. Quite simply, it would be impossible to be familiar with them all.

The first two criteria for selection (if that doesn’t sound too grandiose) are, firstly, identifying texts that resonate with the thematic component of the service (whether defined by a festival, sermon series or scriptural readings set for the day) and, secondly, perform the appropriate function or transition within the liturgy: gathering in praise, attending to the Gospel, participating in the Eucharist, venturing forth in the service of Christ.

The next set of criteria reflect the kind of community we seek to be, namely inclusive. So gender inclusivity is a priority, but particularly challenging with older hymns that tend to reflect the social norms of their time. Some can be amended without loss of meaning or poetry; others, are simply unredeemable; others again are somewhere in middle.

But inclusion extends beyond gender to embrace, for instance, those judged by society as disabled. The recent visit of Professor John Hull alerted us to how ‘blindness’ is often used within the Christian tradition, including hymns, as a metaphor for sinfulness or faithlessness: ‘Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see’ (John Newton). Again, sometimes alternatives can be found, but not always and here, as throughout, a balance needs to be struck. For example, would you include Charles Wesley’s, ‘Christ, whose glory fills the skies’, with the following second verse:

Dark and cheerless is the morn
Unaccompanied by thee;
Joyless is the day’s return,
Till thy mercy’s beams I see;
Till they inward light impart,
Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

We also seek to be a peace-making community, within our own number as well as beyond; militaristic or triumphalist language, therefore, tend to be avoided. A community of practical faith so we look for hymns that challenge us to engage with the world and to translate the Gospel into daily living. A truthful community that is able to be honest about human nature and willing to recognise our capacity for evil as well as for good.

As I mentioned in the first sermon of this series, St Mark’s draws its inspiration much more from the life and ministry of Jesus than from interpretations others placed upon his death – yielding a this-worldly focus shaped by Jesus’ kingdom vision in which God seeks collaborators in transformation more than sinners preoccupied with personal salvation. Companions of Christ committed to embodying faith as authentically and fruitfully as he did and, through going so, to become workers for justice and channels of grace. Hope, of course, remains central within this vision, but it is one invested in a renewed earth before entrusting itself to what lies beyond the grave.

For this reason, hymns expounding the sacrificial, atoning death of Jesus and its benefits as well as those given over to heavenly speculation feature relatively infrequently in our worship, but they do feature, especially during Holy Week and Easter when, amongst others, we sing classics such as Isaac Watts’, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, Samuel Crossman’s, ‘My song is love unknown’, and Edmond Budry’s, ‘Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son.’

Which brings us to the theological content of hymns – how they relate us to God and, indeed, what kind of God they relate us to. In this respect, hymns possess both a devotional and a pedagogical function. Clearly, this is a massive area meriting a sermon in its own right, but on this occasion let me simply stress the formative influence of worship and with this the importance of singing hymns that bear witness to the faith we seek to practice and the beliefs animating our humanity.

To this end, we try to sing hymns that exercise a restrained humility over what is knowable about God and to sit lightly upon theological anthropomorphism and cries for divine intervention. Hymns able to open us up to transcendence whilst, respecting the mysterious otherness of the sacred, inviting us to look upon, even to experience, the God of Jesus Christ.

It is time to draw to a close. By now I hope it has become a little clearer not only why we sing hymns, but also why it is that we sing the hymns that we do. Along the way, I hope you will have gathered that selecting hymns for each service is a challenge and, yes, it would be much easier to run with our favourites as well as with the standards of feast and season – and sometimes we do (Christmas Eve and ‘Away in a manger’ immediately come to mind – through gritted teeth!). But to do so all of the time would quickly become artificial and inadequate as the words we tried to sing cleaved to our tongues and failed to resonate with our deepest convictions and profoundest hungers.

And whilst we would never wish to suffocate the life-giving capacity of language or imprison ourselves within a particular theological stance, it is our responsibility to take what we sing seriously so that, as much as it lies in our gift, each of us, whatever our personal journey, is able to sing wholeheartedly and with integrity.

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