In which Ruth ponders why congregations don’t like new hymns

Two complaints came to my ears this week. The first was that we didn’t know the last hymn. Indeed, when I announced said hymn I did ask Mad Margaret, our deliciously eccentric organist, if it was a new one as I didn’t recognise the first line. Half the congregation shouted NO and the other half shouted YES, so just so be on the safe side MM played it through first. Indeed we did know it, except, it would seem, the person who complained. And her friend.

This is an ongoing problem. New hymns. And I wonder why it is that so many people don’t like them. If I thought it was because they like to sing everything with gusto and not hesitation then I wouldn’t mind. But it is rare that a congregation really lets rip with joy and abundance when singing. (Easter and Christmas being the exception and strangely enough we only sing those hymns once a year.) We like familiarity in Church. We like things to be the same. We like the same liturgy, the same pew, and it would appear, the same hymns. Nothing to disturb us. Nothing to upset us. Tosh!

hildegard-musicI mean, if we never learned any new hymns we’d still be singing some Gregorian Chant with a bit of Hildegard of Bingen for the girls. And I have one person who can’t stand the modern Iona hymns set to well-known tunes. ‘Hymns should never be set to folk tunes,’ they say. Like Vaughan Williams never did it! Ha!

Then there’s the words, the content. Some of the modern hymns (and I don’t mean those banal choruses) are really powerful and far more relevant to some of us. But its like the bible, isn’t it? Some still prefer the King James version to the NRSV – until you ask them to read it aloud, that is. We want to encourage new folk into church but we also want them to sing ‘consubstantial co-eternal’ and understand what its all about. 

Of course not all congregations are like this about new hymns. Actually, that’s not true. They are all like this. But teaching organist with fagthem takes great skill. Now, I don’t sing. Actually, that’s not strictly true – I do sing, perfectly in my head. It just doesn’t always come out the way I’d hoped. So my method for teaching new hymns has always been to get the organist to play it through first and then we all have a bash. It works. Not always well, but in time we all catch on. And often some people do know the hymns anyway. I hate it when organists or choir leaders say ‘Oh we don’t know that one’ as if they speak for everyone. They may never have sung it in that church before but people do visit other churches and places and do pick up different hymns. (I’m starting to get really angry now – teeth clenched etc.)

In Christ Church they only teach new hymns if the choir can sing it first, perhaps a few times, before the congregation is ‘allowed’ to join in. Now the choir sing/lead one hymn and that’s just after communion. And frankly, not all hymns are suitable for the post-communion slot. When I first came here I was told that nobody knew Sweet Sacrament Divine and the choir would have to sing it a few times first. How smug was I when everyone joined in? (Yes, that was considered one of the ‘new’ hymns a few years ago.) A friend was visiting a church in Fife a few weeks ago and told me, in shocked tones, that the Rector had taught them three new hymns in one service. Three! I ask you! How brave is that man?

Anyway, back to the other complaint… that the hymns were too long. This poor person was exhausted by the end of it. Really? For those of you who don’t do liturgy or choose hymns to go with it, let me give you a few hints:

  1. The Introit hymn (entrance) should be jolly and majestic, suitable for a procession, long enough to get the altar party down the aisle and to their places. Sometimes, if there is incense, it needs to be a little longer to allow the Celebrant to cense the altar too and find their seat which make time with all that smoke about. 
  2. The Gradual hymn (just before the Gospel) can be short and snappy and preferably the words should suit the reading of Scripture or fit the theme of the readings. This is not always possible but the Lord knows we try.
  3. The Offertory hymn (when the bread and wine is brought and the collection taken) should be long enough to allow all this to happen. In some churches it involves more incense and there might even be two hymns (eg St Michael & All Saints). Bonus points are given if it also fits the theme of the service.
  4. The Communion hymn(s) are just as people are coming for communion or going back to their seats. The choir may do a beautiful piece as a solo, or in our case the congregation can join in if they have got back to their hymn books. The second one is usually when everyone is back in their place and is slow and reflective and usually sacramental in nature. It may have to be long to allow the priest to also get out to those in wheelchairs and unable to get up for communion. (Unless you have an organist who can ‘twiddle’.)
  5. The Recessional hymn is the one the altar party march out to and might have ‘sending out’ words to encourage us. It should be a bit like the coming in one – fast and uplifting. You Shall Go Out With Joy is a good and bad example of this. Good because of the words, bad because it is only one verse and you’d have to make it a sprint which is never dignified. (Yes, we sometimes play it three times.)

In my defence, the hymns last Sunday had (1) Jesus is Lord! (3 verses with chorus); (2) God of mercy, God of grace (3 verses); (3) All hail the power of Jesus’ name (6 verses with chorus – but the verses had 3 lines); (4) Such love (3 verses) and then O God who at thy Eucharist dids’t pray (4 verses) and still not long enough; (5) O Lord all the world belongs to you (5 verses). Well I managed them and I have COPD and Asthma! 

So there we have it. Rant over. Want to share your love of new hymns? Any suggestions on how to share your enthusiasm?

PS MM is a lovely organist and is extremely obliging and willing to have a go at anything. Anything.

13 thoughts on “In which Ruth ponders why congregations don’t like new hymns

  1. We no longer have a choir. If two or three of us happen to be missing, no-one sings. And yet they all have opinions about the hymns chosen (by the organist with the help of the lectionary and the RSCM). In my opinion we sing too many hymns at the Eucharist, and if I had my way we’d just sing Dame Hildegard and There is a Redeemer. (I jest, but only a little). And we’d never have to sing a Victorian dirge again.

  2. My last real church St Paul’s sings valiantly whatever and had no objection to new hymns as long as they were good ones. I like ‘You shall go out with joy’ and it is one of the hymns for consideration for my funeral – I take it as axiomatic it will be sung more than once.

  3. I take the point about the reasons for choosing the hymns but I do wonder if points 1-5 make for a model that’s rather emotionally repetitive every week. (In my CoE days I shifted from the 6.30 evo-service to an 11am trad one because of the emotional rollercoaster.)

  4. In my congregations the one without the choir is the one that is always ready to sing a new hymn and usually they are well received, the ones that aren’t tend to be the ones with difficult tunes. They may be smaller in number but they sing with gusto and hardly a Sunday goes by without someone adding a harmony or two. What they hate is when the organist suddenly uses a new tune to an old hymn.
    In the other congregation where there is a choir, they hate a new hymn, the choir sing it with no joy and 40% of the congregation don’t sing it at all. However I can be persistent and by the third or fourth outing it is usually being sung well and quickly becomes ‘we’ve always sung that’. What I have discovered is providing the music for a supposedly musical congregation doesn’t make a blind bit of difference neither does the organist playing it through. I think it has little to do with choirs and organists or teaching methods and more to do with a willingness to give it a go.

  5. My basic rules:
    1. It’s new tunes that are awkward — you can introduce new words to Blaenwern or the Battle Hymn of the Republic and no-one will bat an eyelid.

    2. The first and last hymns should always be well-known ones that people like singing: the first one to fire them up for worship, and the last one to be the one they take with them. (I have a list of sixty or so non-seasonal ones.

    3. There’ll always be hymns you assume that everyone knows, but this particular congregation won’t. So if you aim for two new hymns in a service, you might well end up with three. So, yes, one new hymn per service (and not every service) is a good rule.

    4. Obviously, don’t leave it too long until you next sing a hymn.

    5. Some songs are easy to pick up: we didn’t follow rule 4 when introducing “O church arise”, but people could still sing the tune a year later, having only sung it once. Others are sufficiently complex that a congregation that doesn’t know it can’t be expected to work out which bit of tune goes with which bit of lyrics. In this case, consider whether the hymn is worth the hassle.

    6. If a modern song has a bridge, consider leaving it out altogether the first time. (In many cases, consider just never using the bridge, but that’s a different rant.) In older hymnbooks, the penultimate verse of St Patrick’s Breastplate is effectively a bridge.

    7. In a church without a choir, consider getting someone who can sing, giving them the mike, and asking them to be the cantor. Preferably, get someone who knows the sound system to sort out suitable levels. You now have all the backing you would have got from a choir.

    8. If the organist is good at improvising, ask them to improvise around a new tune either before the service or the week before.

    Also (and this depends on the organ and the congregation), sometimes a gradual crescendo through a rousing hymn will get the congregation singing louder than if you just pull out all the stops at the start.

    And what is it with C of E clergy never explaining “consubstantial, co-eternal”? There’s enough subtle meaning there to fill a Trinity Sunday sermon…

    • Good comments James, and I agree with most and indeed do them. But… (1) choir don’t like using different tunes because they have to use two books!

  6. I remember one Sunday when Sal McDougall came to church and taught us any number of completely new hymns, using the Iona system of indicating whether you are singing a note above or below the one you have just sung, it was amazingly successful. gave everyone confidence, and we could sing, and remember the tune, too.

  7. Well, I wasn’t one of the complainers … But, what do I look for in a hymn? New or otherwise.

    1. No obvious theological errors or absurdities (it’s a pity Jerusalem is such a cracking tune!)

    2. Not banal. A choir doing a complex multi-part chant provides a complexity and grace that transcends repetitive wording or trite sentiment (especially if it is done in foreign!) A congregation attempting to sing the same doesn’t. A bit of banality can be just about acceptable in a chorus if, and only if, the verses are appropriately written.

    3. Appropriate musicianry. If the tune is written for a single-chord guitarist and two out-of-tune tambourines, it probably isn’t going to transfer well to a church organ.

    4. Sufficiently robust. If I am going to attempt to join in, it is better for the eardrums of the congregation and the sensibilities of the musically inclined if there is a sufficient level of sound coming from the organ that the odds noises I am making are not totally obvious.

  8. Because most people don’t like church to involve any effort.

    What can get me really annoyed is when people say “we don’t like modern hymns” and it turns out that it was something written in 1960 as if The Beatles were still a popular beat combo.

  9. And, as an afterthought, wasn’t the “new to us but older” version of Psalm 42 so much better (including all of my criteria) than the trite Yankee rubbish we are normally inflicted with?

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