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