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.

Good church music in Edinburgh

Google brought the Edinburgh Guide to my attention this morning and there I found an article telling you where to find the best church music in EDinburgh.  St Giles is the place to be if you are Presby. And they very kindly remind us that once upon a time it was a cathedral of the ‘Anglican’ persuasion.

The best Pisky music, apparently, can be found in Old St Paul’s. Then St Mary’s Cathedral and St John’s Princes Street get a look in. I’m sure one choir, at least, won’t be very happy about that!

At least the RC Cathedral gets top billing.

So now’s your chance. Which city centre church do you think has the best music?

Christmas highs and lows

Over at Kelvin’s Blog you can see his highs from Christmas this year. What were mine?  Well thank you for asking.

Firstly, it must be the crowds (over 60 adults and a host of children) who turned up for our afternoon Crib Service on Christmas Eve. The majority had never been through the doors before (which necessitated a quick trip to the Off Licence to get more wine to add to the mulled wine pot).

That brings me to one of the lows – the fact that I hadn’t prepared something better for my slot after the play.  But still not regretting ditching the Christingles (thanks to Kelvin again) as we would never have guessed that many children.

Next high was the theme tune to Harry Potter being played softly as people gathered for the Nativity Play. It really did give the impression that something magical was about to take place.

Another high has been our Scottish Crib. This really has captured the imagination of all who have visited. Children run to crouch down in front of it with their friends, pointing out all the Scottish artefacts and giggling at the Caganer. Adults smile and get a quick pic with their mobile phone cameras.

My last high has to be the music. Our new choir stunned us with some beautiful new carols at the Lessons and Carol service. There was a momentary fear that we wouldn’t have a choir for Midnight Mass but in the end we did and that verse with descant of our final hymn, O Come all Ye Faithful, always brings a tear to my eye. Just glorious.

And let’s not forget our afternoon concert by Philomusica and Wendy Weatherby’s wonderful music from A Scots Quair.

And the last low? Only that so many people missed it this year because of the nasty viruses doing the rounds.

Thank you to all who helped prepare the church, who cleaned and decorated and replaced candle upon candle. Thank you to all who served at the Altar, who handed out books and welcomed visitors, who prepared food and wine and washed up after, who folded and stapled hundreds of service sheets, who worked and rehearsed and cajoled the children, who brought Scottish offerings for the baby Jesus, and to those who just turned up – a big THANK YOU.

Pancakes and Prosecco

It was Alternative Service time last night. This is our attempt at something a little less formal than Sunday morning worship using guitars and visual stuff and interaction and mass, always mass. Originally it was aimed at our younger members who were looking for something more suited to their tastes, or for those who are working on Sunday mornings. However attendance has always included several over-40s too.

Last night, it being Shrove-tide, we kicked off with pancakes courtesy of S & J. Food for the feast. We buried the alleluias. We discussed upcoming Lent. Our musician was held up on a late flight from London so we made do with We Love Mambo for Mardi Gras music.

After a quick dash in a taxi and a sprint in a fast car A and C arrived complete with guitar just in time for mass. More alleluias and then something more sombre after we celebrated using pancakes and prosecco. Well it was a celebration!

But it didnt end there. Someone asked for a request and before you know it we all sat singing banal choruses well into the evening. Now I am not renowned for my love of modern church music. Don’t get me wrong – some of it is good, some of it is excellent but some of it is so person-centred that it makes me squirm. But I am aware that some of my little flock do like it so we try to have a balance each Sunday (usually one written in the 20th century). Last night, those who love it certainly got their fill.

It will be all different next month of course. Lent beckons and we can dig out those fabulous sombre tunes. Although one of my favourites (and its modern) is 40 days and 40 nights in Judah’s desert by Jean Holloway. If you don’t know it come along on Ash Wednesday (10am or 7.30pm) and you’ll hear it.

theology of wiggly waggly worms

Family service today and we tried a new hymn – A wiggly waggly worm. It’s been a while since I saw so many people smiling in church but the grown ups loved it. I decided not to preach on the gospel of the day. Well, if I was struggling to make sense of it I don’t imagine the children would be any clearer. So we did the Ascension instead. Of course children cope with that much better than we adults.

Then it was a mad dash to North Berwick to a surprise party for a certain priest who was celebrating 50 years of priesting. It was great to see so many familiar faces and as ever there was a great spread. I think Fr A was delighted to see us all. So much so, that his teeth almost fell out!

Open week at church coming up, so if you are in the Portobello area why not pop in to see the artifacts. Gorgeous vestments, wonderful silver, interesting graveyard plans and a Fair Trade stall. What more could you ask?


We couldn’t get an organist for yesterday’s service at St C’s so Jim offered to bring his lap-top in and use it instead. Don’t ask me how he did it, but I think it involved downloading midi-files and then attaching the computer to a big black thing which might have been an amp. He and June even managed to get our mass setting on it which was pretty impressive.

There was only one small problem. Somewhere in the process we lost breathing spaces between verses. (And between some lines in the hymns!) With the result that we all romped through the mass at high speed and red faces and slumped exhausted in between times. I didn’t actually time the service but I reckon we got through it all in 45 minutes.

They’ll be wanting that every week now.

Taize evening

Last night the Rev’d Kelvin Holdsworth from Bridge of Allan came to lead a Taize evening at St Peter’s. Some of his choir came too and there were about 22 of us singing our wee hearts out and making a jolly fine noise too. We also sang one of my favourites which is not from Taize:

Take, oh, take me as I am
summon out what I shall be
set your seal upon my heart
and live in me.

So many happy memories attached to that wee chorus. Sr Gill and silk scarves and candles and Lladro. (You had to be there!) And a certain young and handsome deacon prostrating himself on the ground before ordination. And a friend who is a nun and uncertain about her future. Take heart, little ones, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

Squeezebox liturgy

As we didnt have an organist at St C’s today, a member of the congregation offered to bring his accordian. I have to confess that I was a little unsure, having heard him play sea shanties and drinking songs when we were on Iona last year. However, it was either that or nothing so I said yes.

What a joy it turned out to be! Who would have thought it? Heiko (who also happens to be German and probably hasnt heard most of our hymns and mass setting) romped through them bringing pathos to the slow ones and jollity to the fast ones. Everyone sang like linties and smiled too. It was just great. We’ve booked him again for the 6 August. I can’t wait!