Last week the church celebrated two hymn writers in its calendar. On Tuesday, it was the 17th Century English Bishop, Thomas Ken. This week’s e-Church video features one of Ken’s hymns, ‘Awake, my soul, and with the sun’ for this reason. On Wednesday it was the 4th Century deacon St Ephrem the Syrian. Ephrem’s best known hymn in England is ‘Strengthen for service, Lord, the hands’, which by popular acclaim will now be making a comeback at St Nicholas.
As I said at the Eucharist on Wednesday, music is important in the life of faith. Hymns are important. Music writes the words of our faith on our hearts in a way that nothing else can accomplish. Many of us may remember the words of hymns we learned as children and find them surfacing in our prayers to this day.
For the most part, this is a wonderful gift. Music helps us to pray with our hearts as well as our minds. Hymns and songs provide us with a language of prayer, a vocabulary that we can call on to help us persevere. Sometimes these deeply learned lines will come to our aid in moments of extreme need. For example, the hymn ‘Thy hand, O God, has guided’ contains the words ‘in God’s deep purpose some better thing is stored’. If there are better or more comforting words for someone dealing with crushed hopes and thwarted dreams, I haven’t found them.
Like all good gifts, however, we need to use it wisely. These days, the Church places a very high value on personal taste, on giving people what they want. As a result, I have only ever refused a request for a specific piece of music at a funeral once in my entire ordained life. The piece was ‘Highway to Hell’ by AC/DC. That’s an extreme example, but I wonder if we aren’t all at risk of making a similar mistake. When a tune gets under our skin, might we overlook the unhelpful messages and images that come along with it? The balance between the beauty and power of music on the one hand, and the need for edifying and intelligible words on the other, has been a constant tension throughout Christian history. Perhaps it’s a balance we all need to try to strike for ourselves.
I have been a church musician of sorts for my entire life and I have found that talking about hymns and choosing hymns for worship are among the most controversial things one can do. Our choices, like our worship, should be informed by what strengthens and deepens our faith, equips us for mission, and builds up the Kingdom of God.
May God bless you all,