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.

Happy Hildegard day

‘A feather on the breath of God.’

Whenever I think of Hildegard of Bingen (whose feast day we celebrate today) I think of that phrase. A feather on the breath of God.  I don’t know where it comes from, other than it is the name of an album of her music. But it must come from somewhere else. Anyone know? What is a feather on the breath of God?