March 21 2021

Together We Sing of Hymns

Here is a poem about Church music, where the author is lamenting his inability to feel godliness in church.

The iron bells, the brazen bells
within the steeple ring;
insensate bells know not of God
or any holy thing —
sufficient for their godliness
that they simply ring.

The organist through hollow pipes
blows out the sound of praise;
while mighty notes rise up to God
his mind is on the stave –
sufficient for his godliness
that he sits and plays.

Little children, pretty children
in the choir sing;
the children’s thoughts are not of God
or any holy thing –
sufficient for their godliness
that they stand and sing.

And I to church, and I to prayer
a wealth of years bring;
a store of knowledge of my God
and many  holy thing –
yet nothing know of godliness,
so silent am in everything.

During the last year covid has taken a toll on our lives in so many ways that they are literally too numerous to mention. Some have been in ways which are profound and tragic, and some have deprived us of simpler joys which we have always counted on to sweeten our lives, – the close company of family and friends, for example.

One of the ways in which our lives as members of congregations and as worshippers have been disrupted have of course been the closure of churches and chapels, being unable to meet together, and when we have got together, being unable to sing.

I sincerely hope that when it is time for a hymn in one of our zoom services that you are quietly duet-ing along with David Kent in one of his lovely selections. (And more about David in a moment.)

Thinking about the restrictions on our singing together set off a train of ideas for me, all stemming from the central role music and singing has to play in our act of worship.

I started with our organists in my own experience, Robin Lister, Mark Balding, Will Northmore, Betty Meadows, Elfed and Aled Williams, and the many in between, going right back to choirmaster William Gardiner. Then I thought of the musical highlights during the year, from our Great Meeting Singers led by David Kent, to the quartets and choirs we have hosted in concert, to the soloists Freda, Morag, Jennifer, and David who has put on recitals and cabarets, who has recorded our hymns for us, and composed the Chalice Meditations.

The list goes on and on. I’m sure I’ve missed people out (my apologies) but what an all-embracing influence music and singing has in our services.

It was understood from the very beginning, from the time of the Old Testament and the book of Revelation, that the angelic response to the divinity of the Most High was to sing, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” echoed of course by the singing of the heavenly host at the nativity of Jesus.

If we care to research it, we find that one of the oldest hymns in Christendom, written in the 4th century, is known as the “Te Deum:”  “We praise thee O God,” prefaced of course by all the Psalms of King David and others which form the basis of our traditional hymns.

Services in the Eastern Orthodox Church involve singing from the bible, a tradition which goes back to chanting from the scriptures in the synagogues, so that we understand that extensive parts of the bible were originally written to be sung.

Singing in worship has been an integral part of the religious experience since the earliest times, and it has been a practice which has been maintained throughout all the strands of spirituality we have inherited.

Significantly, scripture originated from oral traditions, where the storyteller would recite to assembled individuals. Religious lore and narratives were conveyed in this way before eventually being written down. The oral traditions were maintained in verse forms and recited as an aide de memoire , poetry and song being more easy to recall than prose.

Hymns have in addition always been one of the most important vehicles for religious instruction, and often a message can be put across more effectively and memorably in a hymn than in any number of sermons or homilies (which are oddly forgettable !). As the great hymn-writer Phillip Doddridge once said: “I do not mind who writes the theology, so long as I can write the hymns.”

Someone went further and suggested that a visitor from a non-Christian land would learn more about Christianity by reading through a hymn book, than they could hope to learn by any study of theology.

It has also been asserted that if the Church and all its literature, including the bible, were to be destroyed, the discovery of one comprehensive hymnal would make  possible the reconstruction of the faith in all its essentials.

Our experiences of God, of the holy in life, be they visual, auditory, intellectual or emotional, are unique to ourselves. No-one else can ever see them, hear them, think them, or feel them, as we do. With whatever words, in whatever way we choose to make that expression, our recognition of the sacred in hymn and song is one of the most time-honoured and gracious ways to respond.

Hasten the day when we may once again sing together. Amen.

Shall we end with a short prayer from A Powell Davies:

Infinite Spirit, Grant us courage for the journeys that lie before us. We know not where our path may lead, or what trials we must meet; but with your light to guide us and your strength to arm us, we hope we shall not falter, or, in the darkness, lose our way. Breathe into us a faith invincible. Make us stronger than anything that can happen to us: that, without fear at the beginning and without shame at the end, we may give ourselves to the adventure. You have given us the far-off vision of a better world to be. Help us to take the steps that lead towards it. And may we bring it nearer for those who come after us, labouring where we have laboured, sharing our hope, and singing our song.   Amen.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period