Keeping hymns real and relevant

Your favorite hymns, including Christmas carols (which have already started to play on high rotation in shops and shopping malls), are probably around 200 years old. Which places them smack bang at the height of the Victorian colonial expansion era. 

I think the death and reporting of the funeral of QEII shone a spotlight on every mention of king, crown and throne across every verse, oath, scripture or hymn sung or said during what felt likes weeks of media coverage. I found it all suffocating and nauseating, to be honest. I felt for her and the family in that personal sense, but there was lot to unpack as expressed by all that pomp and pagentary.

If you’ve read this far, I will assume you felt the same. 

These concepts of crown and empire are ancient ones, repurposed as they were for the Church as it emerged out of the dark ages in Europe contributing to the relatively organized and structured society we recognise as Western civilization. But like many symbols and concepts, use has changed and history has shaped our opinion and views. A bit like the institution of the Church, now is as good a time as ever for reflection and a change of direction.  

For us inclusive and moving-toward-reconciliation modern Australians, the challenge is clear: how much of the past do we recognise, throw off, or repurpose to keep our song and worship real and relevant when much of what we sing, directly or indirectly, supports notions such as the sovereignty of European heritage and its earthly representatives in the members of the Crown?

How do we decolonise our singing palate?

First a disclaimer, I’m not an academic or a professional historian armed as I am with good research and reading skills and a fast internet connection. Neither am I an Indigenous person, with whose perspective our discussion here is preoccupied. I certainly welcome comments and contributions from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, just as I pay my respects to their Elders past and present. 

The things to watch out for

Watching out for expressions of empire and dominance over the world, is pretty easy. Take (TIS 458) The day you gave us, Lord, is ended for example – link below. Where the church ‘unsleeping’ spreads across ‘each continent and island’ but it’s verse 4 that is the most suss to me, where our friends beneath the western sky ‘hour by hour fresh lips are making your wondrous doings heard on high.’

Sounds as if those people might have been colonised. When you listen to the hymn, try and focus on the words not the music.
Glenn Loughrey

Uncle Glenn Loughrey, Vicar of St Oswald’s and Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, is Wiradjuri man from New South Wales, has made the point to us at St. Oswald’s that Australia’s Aboriginal nations were not kingdoms but self-organised large groups which formed nations with laws, traditions and rituals governed by Elders, older men and women who were respected as keepers of knowledge and culture. 

Not only was the political framework of the Western invaders’ world foreign the indigious people of Australia, but also how this related to social, commercial and religious ideas and expressions, such as we sing in hymns.

Take TIS 454 for example Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. It you put the person into the hymn, you get a good sense of its suitability for modern worship.

In this hymn fear is used as a motivator. Think of the person trembling in fearfulness. Most likely subjugated, it sounds more as if they are begging for life than approaching a loving and joyful Creator. In fact it sounds to me as if this is a last ditch attempt to save whatever and whomever they can by their sacrifice. It’s not a nice picture, in my opinion.  

Don’t just engage in deep thinking about metaphor and meaning at home alone 

Share your thoughts. I’m so lucky at St Oswald’s to have people who are genuinely interested in music and reconciliation with First Nations. I bet you too have people who are committed to social justice and very interested in the process of hymnody. Don’t discount your thoughts and feelings either, one of the great reasons we make good musicians is because we are expressive, we feel things and we communicate all this in our music and music choices. 

Do this through regular sharing activities; make hymn picking a group activity where you can talk about choices; or as I do write a little note for your pewsheet. This enables you to share context and thoughts about relevance or otherwise of the hymns sung during worship. 

Here’s what I wrote about the hymn Your hands, O Lord (you can listen to it above):

Edward B. Plumptre (1821 – 1891) wrote this text in 1864 when he was chaplain at King’s College, London, during which time health and healing were obviously on his mind, as they continue to be for us today. 

However, the way we talk about disease and disability has changed dramatically.The concept of wholeness – as in ‘physical perfection’ – is outdated. As I’m sure, like me, you have friends who are blind or deaf or hard-of-hearing or non-verbal (we’ll learn about autism after mass this weekend) who are complete and perfect in themselves. 

But in some respects, I think Edward was ahead of his time. ‘Troubled friend’ could easily refer to mental health and there is something beautiful and metaphorical about the breath of God fixing those parts of us in need of love and care to make us well and productive. 

Edward’s underlying wish is clear: that there be a shared humanity free of pain and suffering. That’s a message I can support wholeheartedly.

Don’t throw the baby and the bathwater out 

Texts may change, words and their meaning will always change, knowing when to ditch them is the tricky question. It’s one Catherine Winkworth understood very well in her translation work. Communication is about ensuring the meaning behind the words stays entact. Thinking about things from the person’s perspective really helps me to make those choices.

Encouraging poets and wordsmiths in your parish to express themselves, respond to current events and make new work is another sure way to keep things relevant. Celebrate every contribution because you never know when the next Isaac Watts might pop up. Perhaps Isaac-ette Watts! I am a HUGE fan of Shirley Erena Murray for example. Anything she writes.

I’ll leave you with the words of Robert Bridges (1844-1930) built from the words of the young Joachim Neander (1650-80), and thanks in no small part to the work of Catherine Winkworth (1827-78).

For context:

Robert, apart from being a brilliant Poet Laureate, took the time to save Gerard Manly Hopkins life’s work by bringing the poet’s work out into the light of the world.
Catherine used her considerable linguistic talents, overcoming gender discrimination to open bridges between worlds of literature of diverse language and culture.
And as for young Joachim, well, his star shone brightly, so brightly in fact that he was demoted in the church due to his popularity and ability to speak to power of the struggles of common people through his writings and hymnody. I say young because he died just shy of his 30th year from TB. 

Human pride and earthly glory, sword and crown betray our trust;

all we build with care and labour, tower and temple fall to dust.

But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.

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