Monday, May 01, 2017

Our Own Hymn Book


I appreciate the thoughtful words of others. I enjoy books like The Valley of Vision and perusing through old hymn books. I find that others help to form my heart and give me words to express things better. Pursuing this, I found myself looking at Charles Spurgeon's Own Own Hymn Book online recently. Free PDF via Google Books here. 

The 19th Century 'prince of preachers' had a remarkable ministry in London, which gathered vast crowds and led to the planting of many churches.

In the introduction he explains 
"The providence of God brings very many new hearers within the walls of our place of worship, and many a time we have marked their futile researches and pitied the looks of despar with which they have given up all hope of finding the hymns, and so of joining intelligently in our words of praise. We felt that such ought not to be the state of our service of song and resolved if possible to reform it."
The driving factor to produce a hymn book - which Spurgeon explains was a last resort after much research - was to serve the very many guests who came into their gatherings who couldn't find song words and so couldn't participate. Today hymn books gather dust as very many churches prefer to project lyrics - which raise all kinds of different challenges. But, looking back, I love that they put in great research and effort to be sensitive to newcomers as well as to serve the church.

To what lengths would we go? How might our practices - which seem straight-forward enough for 'regulars' be confusing, and put looks of despair on the faces of those who come through our doors to explore faith? We all have jargon on our practice as well as our language. We all have things that are inconvenient that we put up with because of our prior commitment to the church -- but asking others to put up with that may prevent them from "joining intelligently" in what we're doing. What would a mystery-shopper notice? What would love for the newcomer notice - and invest time and money to change?

A hymn book is unlikely to be the answer!

Look further into Spurgeon's case: The result of their efforts is a deliberately widely sourced collection of 1059 hymns covering a wide range of subjects. A substantial publication. They'll have been paired with easy to sing tunes and I doubt whether every song got an airing. Worth noting that 15% are Psalms - largely Isaac Watts' versions.

A few observations...

1. I think I know 30 of the 1059 hymns. Others might score much higher! Nonethless, it  doesn't feel like much. I suspect I might not do much better with the 1998 Spring Harvest volume (my first songbook). Each generation has it's songs, and few last. A significant proportion of the ones I know are to tunes that have been written more recently. However, the pairing of melody to lyrics is looser historically. Hymns in the book have metre references which would allow multiple possible melodies.

2. The Hymn Book was published in 1866. Included in the book is Before the Throne of God Above - also called The Advocate or Jesus pleads for me. I note this one because it's widely known today - with a new tune by Steve & Vikki Cook. But also because in 1866 it's lyricist Charitie Lees Bancroft (attributed to her maiden name Cherrie Smith) was just 25 years old, and the song itself just 3 years old. Not counting a few that Spurgeon penned for the publication it's one of the newer songs in the collection. Today it's a classic, there it was brand new.

3. Notably absent are some of today's classic hymns. Be thou my vision wasn't translated until the early 20th Century so isn't there, and there are a good number of hymns still sung today that are less than 150 years old. There are a number of Wesley's hymns included, but there's no place for And Can It Be? Also absent is John Newton's Amazing Grace.

There are some great lyrics worth picking up again and as with CS Lewis' charge to read old books, we might do well to sing some of the older songs of the church. My guess is that the translations of Be thou my vision and O Sacred Head, now wounded are about as old as most of us get - unless we're singing Psalms.

We probably should also recognise that songs do come and go. Some of my favourite songs today are rearranged versions of old lyrics - but there are songs that were formative and cherished in my early Christian life that I've now not sung for years. When I survey... And Can It Be... Love Divine... Come Ye Sinners were one new-fangled songs (in 1707, 1738, 1747, 1759 respectively.) We used In Christ Alone at our wedding 15 years ago when it was relatively unknown, which is hard to imagine now.

Everyone finds it hard if they don't know any of the songs but church music is also designed to be easy to pick up. Spurgeon's concern was that newcomers were struggling to find the words among various volumes of hymnbooks. One suspects that even if they then didn't know the tune he'd be glad that they were now able to read along. Seeker insensitivity addressed and answered in his sitiation.

What do we need to do?

A further detail to note: Spurgeon hoped that their endeavours might not just serve themselves but might also be of some benefit to the wider church. Churches with resources at their disposal have such an opportunity - not to impose on others, but to support them. That still happens today though there might be more ways we can learn from and equip one another. Other people have probably already asked the questions we need to be asking.

Image: William - Creative Commons.