Christians everywhere are discussing hymnbooks. In fact, they’re not just discussing hymnbooks. They’re having blazing rows about hymnbooks. Christians are leaving churches because of disagreements about hymnbooks. Churches are splitting in half because they can’t agree about hymnbooks. Pastors are being sacked because of their views on hymnbooks.
Most of the arguments are about how modern a hymnbook should be. Some Christians argue that since we live in a rapidly changing society, we need to be constantly updating our hymnbooks. They say we must break away from old-fashioned hymns that use out-of-date language. Our songs should be thoroughly contemporary in style. In line with this, a new hymnbook called Praise! was published in 2000 AD. It was originally intended as a replacement for Grace Hymns. More than half the items in Praise! had been written in the previous fifty years. They included lots of new versions of psalms, and they also included ‘worship songs’, designed to be sung to pop-style tunes, many of them written by charismatic songwriters, like Graham Kendrick or Noel Richards. And the older hymns that did get into the book were quite drastically edited to get rid of anything that might sound old-fashioned. All through the book, ‘thou’ and ‘thine’ were rewritten as ‘you’ and ‘yours’. For example, Wesley’s:
‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth and followed thee’
‘Long my imprisoned spirit lay
fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
then dawned my glorious gospel day;
I woke! The dungeon flamed with light!
My chains fell off; my heart made new,
I rose, went forth and followed you!’
There was fierce controversy over Praise! Many reformed people thought it reflected a terrible ‘downgrade’. But lots of reformed churches adopted it enthusiastically. Some of the churches with which we have very close fellowship now use the ‘Praise!’ book. I’ve sung from it in many meetings.
Another hymnbook came out this year. It’s a revised edition of Christian Hymns, a hymnbook published by the Evangelical Movement of Wales. The original Christian Hymns was published in 1978. But nearly thirty years on, some folk think it’s very old-fashioned. So it’s been updated quite drastically. It includes around 280 hymns and songs which weren’t included in the original Christian Hymns (let’s call it CH1 from here on), most of them by twentieth century writers. It includes some of the same ‘worship songs’ that you’d find in Praise! And again, there’s been an attempt to update some older hymns. The editors have been much more restrained than in Praise! They decided that they would only change the wording if it could be done without changing the meaning of a line at all. So in many hymns, they’ve kept the old ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ without change.
Again, there’s been fierce controversy. The new hymnbook (CH2) was used at the Evangelical Movement of Wales conference in Aberystwyth this year. But some pastors decided that they would stay away in protest. And I hear that since CH1 will no longer be published, a group of men are getting together to bring out yet another hymn book that will be even more traditional than CH1 was. It’s their policy that there’ll be no ‘yous’ and ‘yours’ in the book. They think that anyone who writes a hymn today, should carry on using the old language of the Authorised Version.
Well, most of you know or can guess where I stand on all this. If you don’t, well, there’s an article on our website called ‘What shall we sing?’.
That article started life as an address I gave to a group of pastors, and was provoked by Praise! It should give you some idea of how I approach these matters. And I’ve been asked to review CH2 for the Banner of Truth magazine. So you’ll be able to get my reaction to that book some time next year. But in brief, my starting point would be that I don’t believe in trying to be modern for the sake of being modern. Unless they’re totally incomprehensible, I don’t think we need to update hymns from the 18th or 19th centuries. Singing the ‘old-fashioned’ words, reminds us that we are one with our brothers and sisters from previous centuries. We love the same truths that they loved, we share the same experiences, and we can worship God in very much the same words. And surely it’s not that difficult to understand what ‘thou’ and ‘thine’ mean? Have any of you ever had problems understanding what Wesley meant when he sang ‘I rose, went forth, and followed thee?’
But equally, I don’t believe in being deliberately old-fashioned for the sake of being old-fashioned. I want people to write new hymns and I want them to write in contemporary language. For Wesley to use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ was natural. But for a hymnwriter to do the same today would be very strange. I’ve tried to write my psalm versions in clear, contemporary English. And I enjoyed singing Mark Cullen’s new hymns during our teenagers’ holiday in Haverigg.
In the end, I would never dream of choosing a hymn either because it’s modern or because it’s old-fashioned. I simply want us to sing the best, regardless of how old or new it might be. And if I were compiling a new hymnbook to include. let’s say, a thousand hymns, I would never ask, ‘how old is this hymn?’. I would simply ask, ‘do I think this is one of the thousand best and most useful hymns that’s available?’
I’d have to say that I’ve not found many hymns written in the past fifty years that would pass that test. Among all the new items from CH2 there might be one or two that would get in my thousand. But the fact is that there are literally thousands of hymns written by the great hymnwriters of the past (Charles Wesley, James Montgomery, Isaac Watts) which are almost unknown today, but which seem to me better than any of the new songs I’ve found in CH2. Take this for example. It’s by James Montgomery (1771-1854) and it was on the hymnsheet for the ‘God’s Glory, Our Joy’ conference last month:
The heathen perish; day by day,
Thousands on thousands pass away
O Christians, to their rescue fly;
Preach Jesus to them ere they die.
Wealth, labour, talents, freely give,
Yea, life itself, that they may live;
What hath your Saviour done for you!
And what for him will ye not do?
Thou Spirit of the Lord, go forth,
Call in the south, wake up the north;
In every clime, from sun to sun,
Gather God’s children into one.
That seems to me such a powerful call to reach out to the lost. I can’t think of another hymn that deals with the subject so powerfully. But I don’t know of any hymnbook in print today that includes it. When there are such great hymns waiting to be rediscovered, do we really need to be borrowing pop-style songs from the charismatic movement?
I should add that I’ve got other reasons for wanting us to steer clear of the worship songs that have come out of the charismatic movement. Apart from anything else, I don’t want to help to finance a movement that has done such damage, by paying copyright dues to its superstar songwriters. And too often those worship songs have been the first step towards adopting the whole charismatic worship package. We’re better off without them.
Lots of churches are tearing themselves to pieces arguing over whether they need a new hymnbook. I find that so sad. So often, Christians seem to think that a new hymnbook will revitalise a church’s spiritual life and worship. It just isn’t true. If believers say they can’t find blessing singing from an ‘old’ hymnbook, that won’t change when they buy a new one! The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough good hymns in our old hymnbooks; it’s that we don’t have the heart to sing them as we should. Paul wrote: ‘Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making music in your hearts to the Lord, always giving thanks to God for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ..’ If we find no blessing and joy in singing, the remedy is not to change the hymnbook. It’s to be filled with the Spirit. Then we will ‘make music in our hearts’ and not just with our voices.
I’m glad that as a congregation we’ve been spared the debates that have caused such trouble elsewhere. Thankfully, we’ve never had people agitating for a change. We’ve used Grace Hymns here in Stockport from the beginning of our work. The folk out at Charlesworth use CH1. I’m more than happy with both those books. They’ve both enriched my life, and I believe they’ve enriched our worship. Yes, we’ve occasionally printed an extra hymn on a sheet, and we’ll continue to do that. But these hymnbooks have been a wonderful resource for the praise of God.
Let me say finally, that how much we get out of our hymnbooks when we gather in our meetings will depend a great deal on how well we make use of them at other times. I use Grace Hymns in my quiet times, and am constantly discovering new riches in its pages – hymns I never knew before, hymns I had never really thought about before. I meditate on the hymns, try to puzzle out words and phrases I don’t understand, look up Bible passages that the writer alludes to. And as the years go by, I find the hymns become food for my soul. And when I sing them with you all in the services, I can sing them with real understanding and joy.
As a family, we use Grace Hymns in our daily ‘family times’ and sing the same hymns over and over again: Awake my soul and with the sun… My God how wonderful thou art… Sovereign Ruler of the sky… The day thou gavest.. They become more precious each time we sing them. We want our boys to grow up knowing and loving the great hymns.
Have you got your own copy of Grace Hymns? (Or Christian Hymns, for Charlesworth folk). Get it out before you go to bed tonight. Read a favourite hymn. Turn its words into prayer. Sing it through. And thank God for our hymnbooks.