A rant about the words of hymns

“What is your favourite hymn, psalm or spiritual song?” is a frequently asked question.

Less often asked is: “What about your least favourite?”

I have the interesting privilege of attending a church with three very different worship styles. One is worship from the book Mission Praise: basically hymns interspersed with hymnish songs from the 70s up to about 2000. Another is modern worship, constantly replenished (it sometimes seems as if we have a new song every month), and this means that almost nothing lasts very long. The third is mainly songs, but not so new, and some more child-friendly.

Well, I’m a lover of the old, and a believer in keeping a mix of old with the new. Part of this is my innate conservatism (with a small c), but also I believe with CS Lewis that we need the wisdom of previous generations to temper our current prejudices and biases. I also think that if people drift away from the church of their youth, and return ten years later, it’s nice for them to find something familiar – especially in services that don’t have much liturgy.

The 19th century teenager Laura Ingalls Wilder used to dutifully attend church, and amuse herself by rearranging/correcting the grammar of the minister’s address. In similar unholy and grumpy vein I stare at song words on the screen, and add what I consider to be the additional punctuation and words to make them make sense. If I can.

I especially dislike the song that tells me to bow before “The Lion and the Lamb”, as if I worshipped two animal deities, instead of one God who can sometimes be described metaphorically, although surely neither of those metaphors is actually hugely helpful in today’s society?

And so many modern songs are about the singer’s individual experience rather than a shared theology.


Enough grumbling about modern songs. After all, I don’t object to singing the individual experience, which again is not mine, of Charles Wesley (“And can it be…?”) or John Newton (“Amazing grace!”) But then they are so familiar – and have such wonderful tunes.

However, and despite the above, my nomination for Least Favourite is not new, but a hymn from the 19th century. You may not know it, but I can assure you that this is still frequently sung in churches, including mine. Possibly, again, because of its extremely stirring tune.

“Thy hand, O God, has guided

Thy flock, from age to age;

The wondrous tale is written,

Full clear, on every page;

Our fathers owned thy goodness,

And we their deeds record;

And both of this bear witness,

One Church, one Faith, one Lord.”

(Full lyrics can be found here:  ttp://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/hymn-lyrics/thy_hand_o_god_has_guided.htm)


Well. The tune is wonderful. The hymn seems to be about God’s providence and leading, and church unity, both of which are nice things.


But even the first verse raises questions. Firstly, who are the “flock”? Is this a reference to ancient Israel and Judah, to the church universal, to the English church, or to the English/British nation?

Later verses refer to “heralds” calling people to join “the great King’s feast”, and people fighting “to guard the nation’s life”. I find this suggestive, but not in a good way.

Can anyone genuinely say that God’s guiding hand is “full clear” in the history of Britain, or the British church, or any part of it?

Secondly, the first verse, and the whole hymn, repeatedly suggests that the Christian gospel can be summed up as “One Church, one Faith, one Lord.”

This is of course nonsense.

In any case, what is the “one church”? Is it a hymn saying “we, the C of E, are the ONE TRUE church, no one else is?” Or is it saying “all churches are part of the one church universal”?

Not clear, so what we have is a triumphant chorus that succeeds in being both incomprehensible, and plainly wrong..

In fact I don’t feel the hymn says anything helpful or useful or even specifically Christian at all; rather the reverse. My secret interpretation is that it’s anti-Catholic, but maybe I’m wrong, because a quick google of the author (Edward Hayes Plumptre, prominent Anglican clergyman) didn’t reveal anything monstrous.

But the fact that it’s still often sung lustily (it’s that tune!) makes me worry about some of the other hymns we sing with no less enthusiasm. Are they equally rubbish?

What is your least favourite song or hymn, and which bits do you refuse to sing?

Love from the PPI Blogger

  • Eleanor Wallace

    9th November 2018 at 8:15 pm Reply

    I get so annoyed by modern worship songs that don’t have gender inclusive lyrics, like ‘how deep the Father’s love for us’ and ‘here I am (majesty)’. I always sing the gender inclusive alternative, and got the words changed for the former when I led worship!

  • Stephen Sheridan

    10th November 2018 at 6:45 am Reply

    So my least favourite hymn is Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” – not one sung much in England. It was known as the Battle Hymn of the Reformation and later used as the military anthem for Swedish armies as they rampaged across Germany during the Thirty Years War. The wording (which you can see in translation in Wikipedia) is very aggressive, presenting Christianity as an endless battle against evil, rather than an attempt to find a relationship with God and show that love is the way. The title was still so iconic that it was used for board and fantasy role playing games of the 1980s depicting the period – quite apt that its modern usage was for combat simulations, stripped of any pretence at the religious feeling the hymn is supposed to have.

    Many older hymns have surprisingly aggressive tones, but then many modern ones risk sounding shallow and twee. “I vow to thee my country” got discarded long ago as being too nationalistic, but I thought they should have just kept the second verse, which for me is the direct antidote to the bigotry and aggression of “A Mighty Fortress” and reminds me of Gandalf’s description of “a far green country” when trying to describe life after death in the Lord of the Rings:

    And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,
    Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
    We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;
    Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
    And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,
    And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace

  • Ruth Price

    10th November 2018 at 8:45 am Reply

    I don’t like song where you have to sing what I see as filler lines like “sing with me” or “oh oh oh”. I think it works OK on stage but it doesn’t seem right for a congregation to sing. Ben doesn’t like the lines in Indescribable “storehouses laden with snow” because he thinks it sounds delusional 🙂 Actually, I don’t have a problem with the picture language in songs like the lion and lamb, thinking about God’s strength and gentleness but I agree it’s not that helpful if you don’t know about those descriptions in the bible…

  • Matthew Perry

    10th November 2018 at 8:56 am Reply

    My bete noire is the (fairly modern still) song that begins “Be still and know that I am God…” to a tune that makes me want to dance. This is ridiculous, the whole concept has been missed.

    The verse in “All things bright and beautiful” about the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate is shameful political messaging and contrary to the gospel message.

  • Malachi Malagowther

    10th November 2018 at 9:49 am Reply

    I think Edward Plumptre was a product of his times. I think that Cambridge at the time he was ordained would still only award degrees in theology to men who were members of the Anglican church. It was established thinking that the C of E was the only true church I think and Plumtre at least in his later years wouldn’t have thought to challenge it. Apart from that for someone who was born only seven years after the battle of Waterloo it must have seemed that God did favour the English. Hymns like that and particularly their tunes are so familiar that I don’t really think about their theology.

    The ones I object to are the more modern choruses that quote Old Testament verses such as Deuteronomy 10:17 about the God of gods. In the second millenium BC people did think there were many gods but the idea that there are still minor deities flying around who are periodically rounded up and forced to bend the knee to God I find to be offensive.

  • Matthew Perry

    10th November 2018 at 11:31 am Reply

    One other thing I change when I sing is modern songs that refer to God as “thee”. I am not living in the 16th century and do not use thee as my familiar term for my nearest and dearest.

  • Judith Leader

    16th November 2018 at 5:10 pm Reply

    I am doing this from memory so the words may not be as accurate as they should.
    Like your favourite book, trying to do one is difficult, my pet hate amongst other things are some Christmas Carols, from the ridiculous to the anti-semitic.
    Of course the time of year of the birth of Jesus is not known but it rarely snows in Jerusalem/Bethlehem so the English Jesus in the carol ‘In the Bleak mid-winter’ is inaccurate and I find fairly sickly. Ding Dong Merrily on High seems to make no sense especially the verse containing the words And I oi I oi….., which may have some deep religious meaning, sounds to me like gibberish. I find The First Noel tedious as a child I wondered what ‘to certain poor shepherds’ meant. I only liked Away in a Manager when I was very young as the idea of have ‘Fritters for ever’ sounded really good. I will not carry on as my remit was one and I have overstepped that.

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