What does Donald think he's doing?

 "Singing the Faith" was the title of a conference held recently (Oct 2006) in Canberra.  For me, and quite a number of others, a significant highlight was the PACT lecture by Rev. Dr. Peter Blackwood, "Music - A Gift of God for the People of God," alluding to a line well-known by Uniting Church people.  In that lecture he took us, with delight and not a little wisdom, through a brief overview of the history of song in the church's worship over the centuries, with an emphasis on how the church either succeeded or failed in giving "the song of the people back to the people."

 In his concluding comments Peter remarked that "we ought not take (hymn-singing in worship) for granted," and added, significantly I think, "by our carelessness it could get lost" - followed by quite a long pause.  It was not a throw-away line, I thought, despite being delivered in Peter's gentle style, and it made me realize how serious the hymn-writing enterprise is at this time.  "By our carelessness it could get lost."  Why would Peter say this at a time when so much song activity is actually going on in the church?  I will just let that question hang till later.  Except to say that, by calling our material "New Traditional Hymns," Maarten and I are perhaps suggesting something similar, that we are seeking to continue a tradition that seems in danger of getting lost.

 In his next paragraph, Peter, referring to the texts of hymns, points out how they have needed "poets who were theologians, and theologians who were poets."  Well, I am not a theologian - more a pretty ordinary minister and preacher.  Nor am I a poet - more a pretty ordinary literary critic (I did an M.A. in English at Flinders University - "The English of Worship"); and there is also a bit of linguistics thrown in from my experience of teaching English as a second language.  However I reckon all this at least gives me a foot in each camp, as they say, or certainly a toehold.  And it is that toehold which I try to maintain in my approach to writing verse for hymns, and also in discussing the language of worship more generally.

 Occasionally people ask me, sometimes searchingly, sometimes just casually, to tell them about my hymns.  And it always feels as if that one stumps me: how can I do this without a hopelessly long, drawn out explanation?  However I am starting to get something like a stock reply, and it runs somewhat as follows:

"Well, if you take a look at a few of our hymns, you would probably immediately think of them as rather traditional hymns, and you would be quite right - up to a point.  It's something about the quite formal poetic style (and the music; Maarten is impressively responsive to my verse).  But if you look again, perhaps a bit more closely, you might find something different is happening as well.  The hymns don't just imitate an older style - well I hope they don't.  But I do hope that they grow out of the older style, rather than consciously breaking with it; so that the tradition is extended, instead of being closed off.  For the latter certainly seems to be a possibility.  After all, we can't continue in the tradition for long, if we are not encouraging the tradition to grow now.  Otherwise, the tradition would slowly dry up - or perhaps not so slowly.  And we need to understand that congregational hymn-singing is the great gift of Protestant worship to the world-wide church.  The tradition is that significant.  We have a great responsibility to keep it open; otherwise (with a nod to Peter Blackwell) it could get lost.  Anyway, we call our work New Traditional Hymns, hoping that doesn't sound too pretentious."

 Well something like that is what I say to people.  And the reply would probably be a polite, non-committal "Hmm.  Interesting, Don."  And you could not be surprised at that.  After all, for the past forty years or so, we have been teaching in the church, at least by example, that songs are the modern hymns of the church.  But they are not, and they cannot be so.  This is not primarily an artistic judgement (though, of course, the bit of a literary critic in me doesn't mind artistic judgements).  It is actually a theological judgement.  Songs do have a theological validity - in terms of an interpretive (teaching/preaching) function.  However it is different from the theological validity of hymns, which are liturgical.  To put it in the proverbial nutshell, songs should teach or convince, but hymns should recall and celebrate.  It is the latter which seem in danger at this time.

 Well, that is about it - and if you are convinced, then good on you.  Go for it.  Straight to the indexes, if you like.  However at the above-mentioned Singing the Faith conference, I promised, in rash hour, to write more carefully, and at some length, about how I see the author's task in hymn writing. To make it a bit easier for busy people to cope with, I have cast it as five shorter articles, which probably read best in order, although each article can stand on its own.  You can find them if you click on the five points below when you have time for a bit of a read.  I think they serve to clarify what I am attempting with hymns; but I think they also hint at the issue of language in worship more generally.  So I hope you find it of interest.

1.  A Hymn must be Poetry 
2.  What Sort of Language Change?
3.  Poetry: the Language of Ordinary People
4.  The Poetry of Worship in a Prose Age
5.  Hymns and Songs

There are a dozen hymns on the website at this stage.  Most of these are suitable for general use throughout the year.  Still to come are some hymns which are quite specific to days or seasons of the Church Year.  We expect to put these on the website in time for these occasions next.  "Having here no lasting city" is already there for All Saints (though we think its discipleship theme could be more generally useful).  Likewise, "As treasure hid within our time" is suitable for Christ the King, but also very suitable for quite general use.  "How long the earth by signs perplexed" seems specifically for Advent, and will be on the website in plenty of time.  Keep an eye on the "What's New?" box.  There are also a dozen very short pieces - doxologies, choruses, etc. - designed for specific points in the liturgy.  One of these, a simple four-liner, is already on the website: the Trinitarian doxology "To the Father for earth's healing," to a delightful setting by Maarten - he doesn't say much about this one, but I can tell he is particularly pleased with it (and rightly so, I suspect).
      Altogether, then, there are about 35 pieces ready to go up on the website.  After that we expect the number to keep growing, but fairly slowly; we are both careful writers; in fact, I confess to being a total fusspot, and Maarten, I'm glad to say, is not much better.  But, to quote T. S. Elliot, "For us, there is only the trying.  The rest is not our business."  But worship, I assume, is your business, and we hope you like our work.  Love to the church.  Don.

Posted on February 15, 2008, 5:15 pm by Don
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