HT: The following thought process was triggered by a series of tweets by Kathryn
Because the church I serve is very small and not very well known, and it’s part of a denomination that no one in this country has ever heard of, my ministry has a slightly unusual shape. Unlike my CofE colleagues, I do baptisms once in a blue moon, weddings never, and funerals only occasionally. In fact, most of the ‘Official Acts’ I do carry out are funerals, so if I have any expertise in the baptisms-weddings-and-funerals line of clergy life, it’s with funerals.
Thankfully, most of the funerals I have taken have not been of members of my congregation. Rather, I get called on mostly either because the deceased had some sort of link to Lutheranism (say, Nordic or German background) or because of the work our church does in local nursing homes. And so I find myself often planning funerals of people I have never met, with family members whom I haven’t previously met.
Again, given the circumstances, frequently these are people with limited personal contact with the church, any church. Which gives me considerable freedom in suggesting what ought to, or has to, be included and what ought not, or cannot.
But the real fun starts when it comes to hymns. Now, if you are planning a funeral for a loved one who grew up in England in the last 100 years and you don’t go to church much and they didn’t either, let me put you straight out of your misery: we will sing All Things Bright and Beautiful and Abide with Me. No, seriously, no need to discuss. That is what we will end up singing.
Because if you don’t know many hymns, and love even fewer, I will suggest Abide with Me as one that you will know (from watching the FA cup final at least, as well as funerals in TV dramas), and because it’s a fantastic Christian hymn to sing at every opportunity, especially at funerals.
And we will sing All Things Bright and Beautiful, not only because everyone knows it, but because it’s Granny’s or Grandpa’s, or Mum’s or Dad’s, or your, favourite hymn.
Why? Because they/you sang it loads at school (and possibly Sunday school), and so you learned to love it as a child. Every time you sing it now, it takes you right back, like the smell of roast turkey or a Christmas tree on fire takes you back to the memory of childhood Christmas (for me, it’s walnuts and tangerines).
Which would be OK if All Things Bright and Beautiful wasn’t such an inept piece of Christian hymnody. There’s nothing as such wrong with it—no obvious heresy or anything really offensive after you have left out that stanza, as everyone since the 1890s has done. The problem is that it says nothing much, and still manages to say it in a twee, shallow and trite fashion. And I don’t think much of the tune either. Or the other tune.
I’m also quite convinced that no adult who likes All Things Bright and Beautiful likes it because they appreciate the theology, or the art in the poetry and music. They like it chiefly because they sang it as children. And why not? I still like ‘The Wise Man Built His House Upon a Rock’, especially in Finnish, plus a whole host of Sunday school songs. And the Finnish folk songs we sang in primary school, accompanied on a wheezy old harmonium (which is probably why I’m so fond of Dvořák’s Bagatelles). Because I sang them as a kid, and they take me right back.
Nostalgia rules (though not like it used to when I was young).
Which brings me to Kathryn’s point, one I would like to shout from the rooftops. It really matters what songs our children sing as children. Because the songs they sing now—at home, at school, in Sunday school, in church—are the songs that will be sung at their funeral.