Good Hymns Take Time

As part of this morning’s devotions, I decided that I would sing a Christmas hymn that (a) I don’t often sing, (b) is still appropriate on the 11th (i.e. not of the “this night/morning” variety), and (c) is really, really good.

Alas, such hymns are not so easy to find. Not chiefly because I know so many Published Views on the Matter of Long Hymns(criterion [a]), but more so many are written for the day rather than the season (criterion [b]). Also, too many are not altogether fantastic as hymns (see [c]), especially those written during and after the nineteenth century.

So, in my search, I gave up on Lutheran Service Book (LSB) and turned instead to Matthew Carver’s marvellous Walther’s Hymnal.* There, I found what I was looking for.

Not only does it contain Paul Gerhardt’s We Sing, Immanuel, Thy Praise, which was inexplicably left out of LSB (and its predecessor, Lutheran Worship), but it includes the whole hymn.

In this case, the whole hymn means all 20 (twenty) stanzas.** Now, in spite of my Published Views on the Matter of Long Hymns, even I would hesitate to include a 20-stanza hymn on a Sunday morning. At the very least, I would engage in some serious preparation and forewarning beforehand.

Continue reading Good Hymns Take Time

From God Can Nothing Move Me

Some notes on the hymn that will be sung at Our Saviour Lutheran Church and Brighton Lutheran Mission as the hymn of the day tomorrow, Trinity 14, 2016:

This hymn was written by Ludwig Helmbold (1532–98), a teacher, academic, poet and (in later life) pastor in central Germany. While he was serving as headmaster in Erfurt in 1563,a terrible plague broke out in the town, killing about 4,000 people. When a family of friends was about to flee the town, leaving the Helmbolds behind, he wrote this hymn (of 9 verses) to console the two mothers about to be parted from one another.

Continue reading From God Can Nothing Move Me

Jesus, My Husband?

Song-of-SolomonAnother story of a hymn ‘improved’ by hymnal editors.

John Newton, of ‘Amazing Grace’ fame, wrote another well-known, and a far better, hymn on the name of Jesus. It was published as part of Olney Hymns, a collaboration between Newton and William Cowper.

The original text of this hymn is given below. I have put in bold the parts that will be unfamiliar to almost anyone who will have learned this hymn from a hymnal other than Olney Hymns.

How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
’Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary, rest.

Dear Name, the Rock on which I build,
My Shield and Hiding Place,
My never failing treasury, filled
With boundless stores of grace!

By Thee my prayers acceptance gain,
Although with sin defiled;
Satan accuses me in vain,
And I am owned a child.

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
O Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought;
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Till then I would Thy love proclaim
With every fleeting breath,
And may the music of Thy Name
Refresh my soul in death!

Why might the fourth verse have been almost universally omitted? It’s not fantastic poetry—in the Olney partnership, Cowper was the poet while Newton’s verse tends to be wooden at the best of times—but it’s good enough theology. You choose.

Far more glaring is the other change, the replacement of just one word in the fifth verse. The most commonly published and known versions have the first line either  thus:

“Jesus! my Shepherd, Brother, Friend, …”

or thus:

“Jesus! my Shepherd, Guardian, Friend, …”

(Some substitute the word “Saviour” as well.)

While there’s nothing wrong with claiming Jesus as our brother or our guardian—not to mention Saviour—that isn’t what Newton wrote.

In fact, the change makes little sense of Newton’s original. In Olney Hymns, this hymn is placed in a section called “On Select Texts of Scripture”, with the Bible reference in question given at the top of each hymn. The text of Scripture in question here was Song of Songs 1:3, which reads,

Because of the savour of thy good ointments
thy name is as ointment poured forth,
therefore do the virgins love thee.

This reference is clear in the opening stanza of the hymn. But the wider context is equally important: these are the words of the Bride in the Song of Songs, addressed to the Bridegroom. In typological terms, it’s the voice of the Church addressing Christ (Eph. 5:31–32).

To substitute ‘Brother’ or ‘Guardian’ for ‘Husband’ is to miss this point altogether. So why was it?

I can only guess. First, a quick comparison of hymnal versions on Hymnary.org (which only seems to include hymnals published in the USA) shows that whereas in the early 1800s, the text was left unchanged, by the middle of the 19th century the change was widespread (though the first edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern, 1861, still kept the original text). Is this a case of Victorian prudishness, preferring a more distant ‘Guardian’ or ‘Brother’ to the all-too-intimate ‘Husband’?

Of course, the other possibility is that hymnal editors found that the first-person approach was an illegitimate application of bridal mysticism to the individual believer, rather than to the church as a whole. While misguided, this could be understandable. Within Lutheran circles one might think of a reaction to the popularity of this theme in many forms of Pietism—but this shift didn’t take place in Lutheran circles. Since Methodism broke away permanently from the Church of England, Anglicans didn’t have a pietist problem, while presumably the pietists themselves (i.e. Methodists) wouldn’t object. I’m not convinced.

The third possibility is that such portrayals of the believer’s (and, by extension, the whole church’s) intimate relationship with Jesus were unfashionable because the theology underpinning them was unfashionable. Not only among Anglican and other Protestant hymn editors but seemingly across the churches of the Reformation.

For example, one of the notable features of The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) is the consistency with which bridal mysticism has been obscured or even removed from the translations of Lutheran hymns—all of which pre-date the heyday of Pietism (as I have complained here and here). There seems to have been a general disdain for this biblical theme which has an extremely good pedigree in theology and piety throughout the Church’s history.

The fact is, the Church is the bride of Christ. The husband’s body is no longer his but belongs to his wife, and the wife’s body is not hers but belongs to the husband (1 Cor. 7:4). And so, not only the Church as a whole but individual members of the Church belong to Christ as His bride, just as His body is given not only to the whole Church, but to each individual member.

Jesus is my brother and friend, but he is also my husband—or else, I’m not his at all.

How to sing the faith, and how not

Have I told you lately that I’m no great fan of ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’?

What strikes me about that, and some other famous and very popular hymns by Cecil Alexander, is that they were written to help her young godchildren to understand the Creed. A laudable goal indeed. Setting anything to rhyme, rhythm and music is going to be a great way to teach it. And if you are going to teach only one thing to a child, the creed is that one thing.

But it has to be done well. And I don’t think Mrs. Alexander did it all that well. What she produced was frequently trite, often moralistic, and occasionally plain false (but in fairness, not always).

Another British hymn writer of the same era, the Rev. Samuel Stone, also gave himself the task of expounding the creed through hymn, though this time in response to a theological controversy. Let’s compare and contrast their efforts.

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth”

C. AlexanderS. Stone
1. All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all.

2. Each little flower that opens,
Each little bird that sings,
He made their glowing colours,
He made their tiny wings.

All things bright ...

3. The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

All things bright ...

4. The purple headed mountain,
The river running by,
The sunset and the morning,
That brightens up the sky;−

All things bright ...

5. The cold wind in the winter,
The pleasant summer sun,
The ripe fruits in the garden,−
He made them every one:

All things bright ...

6. The tall trees in the greenwood,
The meadows where we play,
The rushes by the water,
We gather every day;−

All things bright ...

7. He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
Who has made all things well.

All things bright ...
None else but Thee, for evermore,
One, All, we dread, believe, adore:
Great Earth and Heaven shall have their day
And worn and old shall pass away,
But Thou remainest, on Thy throne
Eternal, changeless, and alone!

None else we praise! in every form,
In peace of calm and power of storm,
In simple flower and mystic star,
In all around and all afar,
In Grandeur, Beauty, Truth, but Thee
None else we hear, None else we see.

None else we love! for sweeter grace
That made anew a ruined race:
The heirs of life, the lords of death,
With earliest voice and latest breath,
When days begin, when days are done,
Bless we the Father for the Son!

None else we trust! our flesh may fail,
Our heart may sink when foes assail,
But Thou art strength to be our stay,
And Glory not to pass away:
None else in life and death have we,
But we have all in all with Thee!

Yea, None but Thee all worlds confess,
And those redeemed ones numberless:
None else, from everlasting One,
And evermore beside Thee none.
Of all that is, has been, shall be,
Father of Life, None else but Thee!

“I believe in Jesus Christ … who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the  Virgin Mary …”

C. AlexanderS. Stone
1. Once in royal David's city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little Child.

2. He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

3. And through all His wondrous childhood
He would honor and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

4. For he is our childhood's pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

5. And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heaven above,
And He leads His children on
To the place where He is gone.

6. Not in that poor lowly stable,
With the oxen standing by,
We shall see Him; but in heaven,
Set at God's right hand on high;
Where like stars His children crowned
All in white shall wait around.
THE Son forsook the Father's home
For mercy to lost man,
And did not scorn the Virgin's womb
To bear the sinner's ban.

Meekly the Maiden pure believed
The great Archangel's word,
And by the Holy Ghost conceived
The Saviour Christ the Lord.

The Word made flesh creation sees,
Its mighty God in Man:
Great mystery of mysteries
Since ever time began!

That we might gain a second birth
The Holy Son was given:
T'was God Himself came down to earth
To win us back to heaven.

Lord! we believe with love and praise
This wondrous truth of Thee:
Thereby in all our troublous days
How strong henceforth are we!

So near art Thou, so strong are we,
For now, if we are Thine,
Our Brother in humanity,
Thou makest us divine!

We see with peace in times of fear
Serene Thy human Form
Thy human Voice with joy we hear,
Sweet-toned above the storm.

So dread we not the deathly strife,
Knowing that Thou hast died:
It can but bear us into life,
Since nearer to Thy side!

“I believe in … the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints …”

C. AlexanderS. Stone
LITTLE children must be quiet,
When to Holy Church they go,
They must sit with serious faces,
Must not play or whisper low.

For the Church is GOD'S Own Temple,
Where men go for praise and prayer,
And the Great GOD will not love them,
Who forget His Presence there.

They were little Jewish children,
Who within the temple cried,
" Honour to the Son of David,"
Standing at our SAVIOUR'S side.

How much more should Christian children
Know His Name and praise Him too,
Who of His Own Church are members,
Sons of GOD, and born anew.

They must walk in reverent order,
Stand for praise and kneel for prayer,
For the Church is GOD'S Own Temple,
And His Presence dwelleth there.
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.

She is from every nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation,
One Lord, one faith, one birth;
One holy Name she blesses,
Partakes one Holy Food,
And to one Hope she presses,
With every grace endued.

The Church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish,
Is with her to the end:
Though there be those who hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against or foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.

Though with a scornful wonder
Men see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed:
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!

’Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.

Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won,
With all her sons and daughters
Who, by the Master’s Hand
Led through the deathly waters,
Repose in Eden land.

O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee:
There, past the border mountains,
Where in sweet vales the Bride
With Thee by living fountains
Forever shall abide!

Now, this isn’t entirely fair. Mrs. Alexander wrote for little children, Mr. Stone for adults. All the same, as I have suggested before, what children learn to sing as children has a very profound influence on their whole lives.

So here’s my advice for hymn writers: if you are going to set the creed as a series of hymns, you do well. But please can you make sure that the hymns are worthy of the creed they paraphrase!

And here’s my advice for teachers of little children: there aren’t better resources than Luther’s Small Catechism.

Finally, justice demands that I add also that Mrs. Alexander was quite capable of writing a good hymn. Here’s one:

1. When, wounded sore, the stricken soul
Lies bleeding and unbound,
One only hand, a piercèd hand,
Can heal the sinner’s wound.

2. When sorrow swells the laden breast,
And tears of anguish flow,
One only heart, a broken heart,
Can feel the sinner’s woe.

3. When penitence has wept in vain
Over some foul, dark spot,
One only stream, a stream of blood,
Can wash away the blot.

4. ‘T is Jesus’ blood that washes white,
His hand that brings relief,
His heart that’s touch’d with all our joys,
And feeleth for our grief.

5. Lift up Thy bleeding hand, O Lord!
Unseal that cleansing tide;
We have no shelter from our sin
But in Thy wounded side.

For the children’s funeral

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.

Not until their taste improves

George W. Briggs (1875–1959) was an Anglican priest and hymn-writer, one of the founders of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland. His best-known hymn is ‘God Hath Spoken by the Prophets’, although my personal favourite is ‘Now Is Eternal Life’.

It turns out that he was a man of good judgement, too. In the bulletin of the Hymn Society, he wrote a review article dealing with criticisms that had been raised against Songs of Praise, a hymnal published in 1925 and edited by Percy Dearmer with the composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Martin Shaw.

Here are a couple of delicious extracts:

“… a great deal has been said about the omission from the hymn ‘There is a green hill far away,’ [a much over-loved hymn! TS] of the verse

‘There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin.’

This omission was not made to weaken the doctrine of the cross; for that doctrine is fully expressed in other lines of the hymn … . The reason for the omission was that the verse is a quite unworthy description of the Atonement. ‘There was no other good enough,’ is surely inadequate; and there is no ‘price of sin.’ There is a penalty of sin, and a price of redemption; but the ‘price of sin’ would only fit the gentleman who went up and down Europe peddling indulgences.”

* * *

“My correspondent writes [about hymn no. 396 in Songs of Praise]: ‘It surely takes First Prize for the world’s worst hymn.’ I am not so sure of that. There is a good deal of competition for that First Prize in every hymn book.”

* * *

“Of the tunes there is little that I need to say. People whose taste is for ‘sugar and spice and all that’s nice,’ will certainly not care for them; at any rate, not until their taste improves … .”

Abide with Me—some notes and original text

As a sort of follow-up to a past post on bad things done to good hymns (and more so), a positive story about how a great hymn came about.

Abide with Me, by Henry Francis Lyte, is, by one measure, the most popular English hymn in the world (according to this table [PDF] from Christianity Today—online version here, behind a paywall). I first learnt it as a child—in the 1933 Finnish hymnal. It was so popular that when the new hymnal came out in 1986, the editors decided to (or were made to, who knows?) keep it as hymn number 555. That’s a testament to popularity if ever there was one.

But both the CT statistics and my little anecdote attest to a particular facet of this hymn’s popularity: that it has remained well-loved pretty much since its original publication. It has lasted.

And hardly anything will ever last unless it has substance.

Abide with me has substance.

However, there is more to this well-loved and well-known hymn than is known. I recently downloaded the first edition of Remains of the Late Henry Francis Lyte, M.A., a collection first published in 1850, three years after the author’s death. It would seem that the popularity of the hymn mushroomed as a result of its inclusion in this collection, which came with a Prefatory Memoir by his daughter.

I was not surprised to discover that there were more stanzas in the original work than there are in modern usage. Alas, we have become impatient with long hymns.

The text of the poem wasn’t immediately fixed however. The version of ‘Abide with Me’ given in Poetical Works (pub. 1907) is transcribed from Lyte’s own manuscript (a facsimile of which is produced in the book itself), and varies somewhat from the one given in Remains. Perhaps Lyte himself worked on the text on his ill-fated final journey to Nice, in the vain hope of improvement in his poor health.

Even then, some of the lines that have become obsolete are weaker poetically than the more popular ones. “Familiar, condescending, patient, free,”—had Lyte lived longer, he may have improved on this. The final line of the fourth stanza has one too many syllables in the manuscript version, which Remains fixes by changing ‘abide’ to ‘bide’. The later alternative of removing ‘thus’ seems to be a better judgement.

Yet, whatever criticisms one may have, this hymn is Lyte’s final work, presented to his daughter on the evening after his final sermon to his congregation, before his ill-fated journey to the Mediterranean coast in the vain hope of improved health. Therefore, it’s worth hearing the words of this dying man of God in the form he gave them.

So  here it is, in its original glory:

Abide with Me
Henry Francis Lyte (–)
“Abide with us: for it is towards evening, and the day is far spent.” —Luke xxiv.

Abide with me ! Fast falls the Eventide ;
The darkness deepens. Lord, with me abide. [Manuscript: “The darkness thickens”]
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee ,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me !

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day ;
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away :
Change and decay in all around I see.
O Thou who changest not, abide with me !

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word ;
But as Thou dwellst with thy disciples, Lord ;
Familiar, condescending, patient, free,—
Come, not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings ;
But kind and good with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus bide with me.
[Manuscript: “and thus abide with me”, mistranscribed in Poetical Works as “then abide with me”]

Thou on my head in early youth didst smile ;
And though rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord, abide with me !

I need thy presence every passing hour.
What but thy grace can foil the Tempter’s power ?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be ?
Through cloud and sunshine, O, abide with me !

I fear no foe with thee at hand to bless :
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is Death’s sting? Where, Grave, thy victory ?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold then Thy cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies ; [Manuscript: “Speak through the gloom”—an allusion to Sinai?]
Heaven’s morning breaks, and Earth’s vain shadows flee !
In life and death, O Lord, abide with me ! [Manuscript: “For life, in death”]

P.S. According to his daughter, Lyte also gave “an air of his own composing adapted to the words” with the text. That tune has not fared well. However, at a time of great personal sorrow, the English organist and hymn composer William H. Monk composed ‘Eventide’, apparently in 10 minutes, and that melody has become indelibly associated with Lyte’s poignant words.

Here is the manuscript of (click for full version):

page 1: Abide-with-Me_1
page 2:Abide-with-Me_2

Would this be sung at your church?

Unconditionally

Oh no, did I get too close?
Oh, did I almost see what’s really on the inside?
All your insecurities
All the dirty laundry
Never made me blink one time

Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally

Come just as you are to me
Don’t need apologies
Know that you are worthy
I’ll take your bad days with your good
Walk through the storm I would
I do it all because I love you, I love you

Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
There is no fear now
Let go and just be free
I will love you unconditionally

So open up your heart and just let it begin
Open up your heart and just let it begin
Open up your heart and just let it begin
Open up your heart

Acceptance is the key to be
To be truly free
Will you do the same for me?

Unconditional, unconditionally
I will love you unconditionally
And there is no fear now
Let go and just be free
‘Cause I will love you unconditionally (oh yeah)
I will love you (unconditionally)
I will love you
I will love you unconditionally

Source: YouTube
HT: twitter.com/richardengland, via Peter Ould

If we are going to sing long hymns

… as I advocated in my previous post, we are going to have a couple of problems.

First, it will lead to longer church services. Which, to be perfectly frank, isn’t a problem at all, but a good thing. There are 168 hours in a week, most of which we spend working, sleeping, eating, drinking and washing. Being very busy. So setting aside more time for church must only be a good thing. At least Martin thinks so.

Secondly, and this is a real problem, people are going to get tired of singing. I don’t mean bored. Tired. Singing is a physical activity, and like all physical activities, it requires stamina. Most people don’t get that much practice at singing these days—I’ve heard anecdotal claims that it’s mostly football fans and Christians who do any singing in today’s Britain—and so they aren’t particularly fit. As a result, if you ask them to sing for ten, fifteen minutes without a break, their voices will get very tired. And when that happens, the spiritual benefit will also begin to be lost, because the pain and the fatigue will start to take over the singers’ attention. It’s like going for a jog in the mountains: when your lungs hurt and you can taste the blood in your mouth, the scenery won’t be quite so beguiling. And this second problem needs to be taken seriously. So here are a couple of suggestions for dealing with it on a Sunday morning:

  1. Alternate between the congregation and other singers.
    Have the congregation sing some of the stanzas (always the first and the last!), but give some of the other stanzas to the choir,  to a soloist, to the Sunday school. That way, there will be a breather. It’s also benefitial to listen to a hymn with the words in front of you.
  2. Alternate within the congregation.
    Split the congregation into sections and assign different stanzas to different sections: men/women, adults/children, gospel side/epistle side, etc. The benefits are the same as above. And when everyone joins in for say, stanzas 7, 14 and 21, the sudden increase in volume will give them extra oomph.
  3. Split the hymn.
    Sing some of the stanzas in one part of the service, the rest later on. For example, the offertory hymn could continue as the communion hymn, the hymn of invocation could be finished off as the sending hymn, or as a gradual hymn. There are plenty of possible permutations.

These are just some ideas. There are others, depending on the resources available to your congregation. The real point is this: there is no reason not to sing long hymns, and there are lots of good reasons to sing them!

Some thoughts on long hymns

An extract from the Sunday Cantata episode for Trinity 24, first aired on 3 November 2013 on Lutheran Radio UK.

In my life so far, I have been fortunate enough to have lived in a number of different countries. In fact, I have moved around enough to consider myself a bit of a home-grown expert on culture shock. And one of the things I have noticed is that often the experience of culture shock is greatest when the differences are small but significant, rather than really big. So, for example, moving from Northern Europe to East Africa was very interesting in all sorts of ways, but going from England to the Midwest of the USA brought about a much bigger shock to the system!

Going from a church service within one denomination to a different one can also be a bit of a culture shock. Things that you take for granted are missing, or done very differently, and you will encounter things you didn’t expect at all.

So if you engaged in a bit of time travel and went to church in Leipzig in the second quarter of the eighteenth century, when Johann Sebastian Bach was serving as the director of music to the main churches of that city, even if you are a lifelong Lutheran, I suspect that you would be quite vulnerable to a good dose of culture shock—precisely in the area where the differences are small but significant. The powdered wigs, the body odours, the strange language—those you would expect. But the three-hour service with its one-hour sermon? That might be harder to take.

But it wasn’t only the sermon that made the services last so long. There was, of course, the church cantata for the day, which would usually last between 15 and 30 minutes.

And then, there were the hymns! Lutheran hymn singing is rarely done these days as it was then. I mean, a first-time visitor to a Lutheran church in England may have a look through our hymnal and think that some of our longer hymns with, say 10 stanzas, are a bit on the long side, not to say heavy in their content. But consider this: many of those 10-verse hymns were originally much longer. Some of the longer ones have been split into two separate hymns with, say 6 or 8 verses each. And some others fell out of use altogether as people grew impatient with three-hour services and 30-minute hymns. The longest hymn I have quoted in Sunday Cantata in the course of the past church year had 32 verses. The longest Lutheran hymn I’ve ever sung has 41 verses of eight lines each.

There’s a very good reason for this phenomenon. In Lutheran theology, hymns serve a wider range of purposes than perhaps in most of the rest of Christendom. All Christians sing hymns that praise God and hymns that are prayers addressed to Him. One of the distinctive features of Lutheran hymnody is that much of it is catechetical, which is to say that it is designed to teach God’s word to the congregation. And teaching takes words, and it takes time. And so, we have long hymns—but we also had congregations who were immersed in biblical doctrine through singing it repeatedly, without a hurry. It’s hard to deny that we have lost out when we have opted to spend our time differently as a church.