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.

In which Ruth ponders Black Prayers

I’ve been rummaging through old church magazines again and found this interesting article about music in Lent, from March 1925.

There was an ancient custom in some churches that was very widely observed in England up to the middle of last century of giving up all music during the week-days of Lent, and having ‘black prayers’, so called because the white singing robes were laid aside and the choir appeared in black cassocks, as they still do on Good Fridays, monotoning chants, psalms, and responses, while hymns, except on Sundays were unheard. Since music is among the joys of life and has its place with feasting and all fair things, this custom seems more impressive that the singing of hymns about fasting, which on the lips of the majority are wholly insincere. It seems to encourage rather a dangerous habit of mind to sing of the Church’s call to fasting, while in practice we substitute some trifling self-denial of your own choosing, because in these days we have come to the conclusion that after all man does not live by bread alone!

…The modern English hymns for Lent are only two, but they are very good ones. ‘Forty days and forty nights’ was written by Rev George Smyttan and slightly altered by Rev F Pott; and ‘Lord, in this Thy mercy’s day’ is by Rev Isaac Williams, one of the saintly leaders of the Oxford movement.

Imagine that! Only two hymns for Lent. Did they have them every week, do you think? One assumes that they did sing other non-Lenten hymns at this time. I love hymns for Lent and Passiontide. There is something about the pace and the sorrow which makes them terribly powerful. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that of all my favourite hymns most are for Lent or Communion. Yet I seem such a happy soul!

I like the idea of ‘black prayers’, mind you. Not that we have a daily mass with choir, you understand. But there is something about changing the pace, aurally and visibly, which appeals to the stage-manager in me. Our choir don’t wear cassocks and cottas so that won’t work… the Servers without cottas, perhaps? Hmmm. Then that would show all the safety pins and things which hold these ancient garments together, all usually hidden under the crisp white folds of the cotta. Perhaps not then.

And your favourite Lent hymn? Do share.

sad songs


In which Ruth becomes an Interim Pastor

A few weeks ago the Bishop phoned me. This is a bit like the police stopping you. You immediately think ‘Oh no, what have I done?’ You don’t immediately think that? Only me then. Hmm. After the niceties the Bishop asked if I’d consider being Interim Pastor to two local churches: Grangemouth and Bo’ness. Their priest was about to retire after being there for 13 years and the linked charges are now seeking a new Rector.

What is the role of the Interim Pastor? Obviously as I have a church of my own I can’t go and take their services but my role is to find someone who can. This is one of my least favourite jobs for my own church, let alone another two! That was the bit I really had to pray about before I said yes. One of the reasons it is a difficult task is because we live in West Lothian and I think churches in Edinburgh reckon we are practically on the other side of Scotland. Actually it takes about 20 minutes on a Sunday to drive her and G & B are even closer to Edinburgh. It used to take that for me to cross Edinburgh, if not longer, with the tram works. I’m aiming to be with G & B once a month but of course that will mean I have to get cover for my own little flock on those days.

The next part of the job is to ‘journey’ with the congregation and help them do their parish profile and priest spec. The Bishop has been out already to let them know how that works. Then there is the pastoral work – the baptisms, weddings and funerals. Two weeks in and I had my first funeral. Thankfully there is Denis the new Lay Reader who will be able to help with some of this, however he is doing a part-time degree at Glasgow Uni and also still works  so that has to be taken into account.

There are Vestry meetings, and AGMs, and local clergy groups and Area Councils. Think of your own diary and treble it!  Ok, so I am not going to be going to them all but I do need to read the minutes and check in with those who do go. It has certainly filled up my diary. And I reckon as a diet it will work pretty well. Who has time to eat?!

From a personal point of view it is interesting to worship in different spaces. Each church affects the liturgy and how it plays out. Where do you stand for the Liturgy of the Word? Where did a 6′ man stand and does that work for a 5’3″ woman? There are no servers in either church so getting used to finding all the gubbins and fitting behind tight spaces is becoming an issue. And no, I shall not use the pulpit in Bo’ness again. Not unless I want 30 people to amuse themselves watching me trying to fit in that small gap. I’ve also learned that both churches have much better heating than we do, so no jumpers necessary unless you want to melt into a greasy blob by the end of it.  Microphones are microphones? Oh no! Microphones who have 3 settings (Off/Mute/On) are quite different from ones with 2 settings (Mute/On) so there has been a bit of ‘Can you hear me?’ or ‘Am I on?’ which never adds to liturgy I fear.

The hymn book is different too and I am quite convinced that this plays a huge part in how the congregation worships. Both G & B are Mission Praise congregations so that is a learning curve for me. (And not one I would have chosen!!) Both congregations are lovely and are keen to be flexible in how the liturgy plays out. “Do what you want,” they’ve said. And with different priests there each week I suspect that is what they’ll get. For we all get set in our own little ways. I’m sure by the time they do find a new priest they will be glad to settle down with some familiarity each week.

However, you can pick up some tips for things which are used in other churches to good effect. Like fundraising. Who thought that a pop-up charity shop could bring in over £1600? And I love getting to meet another bunch of lovely Piskies. Huge joy.  This week my intercessions had to include the closure of the huge employer Ileos at Grangemouth. There must be hardly a soul who lives in Grangemouth who would not be affected in some way by this. Thankfully by the next day the Unions had given in and the jobs are saved. It is hard to know the rights and wrongs of this whole situation, but what we can know is that the future of the town is a little bit better.

So if there aren’t so many blogs in future, or check-ins with Facebook and Twitter, you’ll know why.


Men prefer lingerie to church

According to a recent survey, men feel more comfortable in a ladies’ underwear shop than they do in church.  Gosh, how things have changed. I remember working as a ‘Saturday girl’ in Goldbergs and occasionally doing a stint in Lingerie and most men then were like startled rabbits caught in headlights.  And who can forget that episode of Father Ted when they had to employ army tactics to get safely out of said department?  Fr Alex tells a wonderful story of turning a corner in Gamarelli’s in Rome and finding himself in the nun’s underwear department and nearly fainting with the shock of so much pale pink and oyster white sensible undies.

So, I wonder, is the answer to sell lingerie in church then?  Set up a stall at the entrance offering rosary beads and prayer cards along with French knickers and plunging balcony bras? Is this the answer?

The other problem men appear to have is with singing hymns. 67% don’t feel comfortable singing in church. Wee lambs. What’s that all about? Hymns not butch enough? Too woosy to be singing about love and stuff?  Perhaps I shouldn’t have banned all those militaristic hymns like Fight the Good Fight…

Actually, we at St Mark’s don’t do too badly for men now. It wasn’t always the case, of course, but now there are a goodly number of youngsters who’ll happily (well perhaps not) humph furniture and leap up ladders to change light bulbs. And it looks to me like they are all singing like linties. But of course the ones who won’t don’t come, right?

Perhaps Karaoke is the answer?  We could use all those No Organist? No Problem! cds that we have.  What a fun evening that would be.

They never mentioned any of this in Mission classes.


Last week Fr Kelvin asked Who Chooses The Hymns? It is a question I am often asked too. And the answer in my case is: I do. To be truthful, I do with a little advice from Andrew the organist. And let me tell you it is not the fun task you might imagine.

Each Sunday has a theme dictated by the lectionary readings or the time of year.  So we try to find hymns which fit that theme. (What do you mean, you hadn’t noticed?!) Then there is the length of the hymn to be considered.  You don’t want 12 verses for the Gradual but you need enough verses to set the table at the Offertory.  At St Mark’s we have some people who prefer traditional old-style hymns and we also have some who would prefer us just to sing more modern hymns and choruses. Finding a balance is probably the hardest job for me because I’m not terribly familiar with all the modern hymns in our book (Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New, in case you’re interested) and I suspect that Andrew our organist isn’t either.  And we all know how much people LOVE learning new hymns.

I choose the hymns about 3 months ahead and pass them over to Andrew who draws to my attention duplicates and suggestions. Things like ‘that one isn’t easy to sing while kneeling’ is really helpful. A will also suggest replacements but I have noticed that they are never the new ones!!

One of the biggest complaints I get about hymns are the lack of modern hymns. The second biggest complaint is that some of the hymns have been made more inclusive and some language is changed. I actually am happy about this but know some folk get caught out with the oldies they know off by heart. I think we always need to remember that newcomers coming to church may be really put off by archaic, male-centric language and that we should be modelling inclusiveness in all we do.

On the 15th of November Susan will be choosing the hymns. She won the bid at the recent Auction of Talents.  I was asking her recently how it was going and she said her problem was that all her favourites were Communion hymns. I can relate to that. I’m not sure there is a post-Communion hymn which I don’t like, in fact.

So, today’s question is:

What are your 5 favourite hymns?

Here are mine – well today anyway:

  1. I Heard The Voice of Jesus Say
  2. Come Holy Ghost our souls Inspire
  3. As The Deer Pants For the Water (and As Pants the Hart)
  4. Tell Out My Soul
  5. My Song is Love Unknown

Favourite hymns

The Today programme has been doing a poll for listeners to vote for their favourite and least favourite hymns. The results are:

Most Favourite
1. Dear Lord and Father of mankind
2. Guide me O thou great Redeemer
3. Be thou my vision

Least Favourite
1. Shine Jesus shine
2. All things bright and beautiful
3. Lord of the dance

I guess it probably reflects the listeners to the Today programme more than anything. I mean, how many young people listen to Radio 4 at 7am on a Sunday morning. But my least favourites are certainly well reflected.

So what are your favourites?
And what makes you cringe?