by Professor Graham Tulloch, Flinders University, South Australia

Professor Graham Tulloch The language of worship is intensely important. When we address God, whatever our theology may be, we must speak in a language which we understand, and which can express our deepest beliefs, thoughts and feelings, but we must also speak in a language which fits the occasion. It is equally inappropriate to address God as you would speak to the CEO of a major company, or to your best mate at the pub or club. Like Donald Bell, I was lucky enough to grow up in the days when the Authorised Version (the King James Bible) reigned supreme. Furthermore, being an Anglican, I was also exposed to the equally rich and sonorous language of the Book of Common Prayer. And then there were the hymns, the traditional hymns of the English-speaking church, written in a language which sat at ease beside the glorious language of the Bible and the Prayer Book, each of which existed for me only in one form.

My personal favourite amongst Hymns Ancient and Modern, a preference I know I shared with many people, was that great hymn of Isaac Watts:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Why? What appealed immediately was the language and that appeal began and still begins in the first line. What do we see when we examine the language of that first line? Survey is used in a way we would not use it nowadays - we speak of surveying a wide scene, not a single object - and wondrous is not an everyday word although wonderful is. Yet we have no difficulty in understanding what is meant. We understand that this is something more than an everyday wonderful thing but something wondrous and we realise that we look at it with a special kind of attention which needs a special kind of word to describe it. Thus a favourite hymn, a favourite first line, is not in our everyday language, but in a special other language, yet one which is entirely intelligible.

Then there came a change of feeling. Some people began to feel the language of the familiar Christian texts, the Bible, the Prayer Book, the hymns, was too old-fashioned and remote. It was argued that we needed the language of the here and now - an everyday language such as we used in our everyday lives. The culmination of this trend was perhaps the Good News Bible with its deliberately limited vocabulary. While it had the advantage of sounding up to date, the GNB took the poetry of the Bible away - and that is disastrous since there is a lot of poetry in the Bible. Fortunately another change of mood has followed. The GNB has yielded in popularity to translations which use a wider and more traditional language, and the time has come for us to look again at the language of hymns.

As Donald Bell points out in his introduction to this fine collection, what was presented as a change from old-fashioned and outdated language to modern, everyday language was actually a change from poetic to prosaic language. And hymns need poetry - not a self-consciously artistic diction, and certainly not an obscure modernist diction, but a poetry, a poetic language, which lifts us out of our everyday lives at the moment in which we celebrate our connection with another life, a poetry which, to use Don's own phrase, is language seeking to point beyond itself. Such hymns would connect with an ancient tradition but they would also be new - we cannot regain our connection with a poetic language for hymns simply by reverting only to the old hymns. The intervening years have raised new expectations which make a mere return to the old diction unacceptable. A new language is needed, but it must be a poetic language, and it cannot afford to forget totally the resonant old language of our favourite hymns.

Don has been passionate about the language of worship for a very long time. In particular, of recent years he has been concerned about that special part of Christian worship, the singing of hymns. This is a collection of hymns that are meant to be sung, and here they are beautifully joined to the music of Maarten Ryder. They offer a language in which modern people can express their beliefs, but also a language fit to be addressed to God.

It is hard to speak of favourites amongst so many good things but one that catches my attention is Having here no lasting city, a hymn for All Saints. The subject matter of this hymn nicely matches the language in its mixture of tradition and modernity. The image of the earthly and heavenly cities, which has been so powerful in Christian tradition, still speaks strongly to a modern world in which so many of us are city-dwellers - as were those early saints, Christianity being at first the religion of the urban poor, here described poetically as the very world's offscouring. This is hymn that shows how much can be achieved by the simple poetic devices of repetition and balance, in the wording and structure of

They, the saints, the bold, the just,
yearned our yearning, trod our journey,
left their footprints in the dust.

or the structure and sound of

mark their warfare, tread their wayfare.

This is not everyday language, but it is not unintelligible language either. Above all it is fitting language. For the most part it uses words we know, but maybe uses them a little differently. Most importantly it connects us through our own language with the language of the Church's long tradition - just think of the Christian resonance of those two little, entirely modern words just and dust, here emphasised by their rhyme. Equally I like the opening of In time's enormous heaven, a new-born star appears which somehow manages to capture the wonder of the universe, reminiscent for me of the opening of John Donne's Holy Sonnet  At the round earth's imagined corners.

I could go on. There are many riches in this collection, both in Don's verse and in Maarten's music. I suggest you go on, and read and sing them. I commend these new traditional hymns to you - a new addition to an old and venerable tradition. They are hymns for today's people and they are hymns for today's worship.

Graham Tulloch
Professor of English
Flinders University