Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Songs of Praise and the language of hymns

 I am not a particular fan of Songs of Praise, I do listen sometimes if  I hear a favourite hymn being sung. This Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of Songs of Praise and I heard an  interview on Radio 4 with a hymn loving atheist, it wasn't Dawkins although I believe he does also love rousing hymns. The short clip I heard made me think about the effect of hymns on my own life and it occurred to me that a lot of my earliest thoughts and ideas about religion were shaped by hymns - not the modern day versions, rather those wonderful old hymns which are not so often sung nowadays because they are full of biblical references , usually sourced from the Old Testament, and religious doctrine clothed in obscure language.
When I was five, my dad began his theological training at St Michael's in Wales. My mum worked full time to support him at this point and my dad was responsible for getting me to school in the morning. The college held mass before breakfast and my dad used to take me to the service every morning, after which I would have breakfast - usually boiled eggs with fingers - and would be the centre of attention before being dropped off at school before lectures and tutorials began.
I guess that this arrangement was purely for convenience given my parents' busy working lives, it is true to say though that it did have an effect upon my awareness of both religious faith and language. I loved the cadences of  liturgical language long before I fully grasped their import. I remember pondering some of the words and phrases and feeling their emotional weight and wondering what they meant. I can't remember if we sang hymns at the morning prayer service, I do remember hearing hymns in church. One of my favourites was Alleluia, Sing to Jesus, a song which fascinated me with its references to us not being "orphans" and the wonderful images of God with earth as his "footstool" and heaven as his "throne" - language which brought a vivid picture to mind - as well as the songs which "swept across the crystal sea." Other concepts in this hymn completed baffled me, I had no idea what Zion was or why or how Jesus could be "both priest and victim", or what an "intercessor" was. Hymns like that do sow seeds though and I wonder if generations of churchgoers have grasped their theology from hymns as much as from sermons?
Modern hymns are sometimes criticised as being watery versions with less theology and more of a focus on emotion - the "Jesus is my boyfriend" line of thought. I am not sure this is fair, many traditional hymns are also love songs - take  "How Sweet the Name of Jesus sounds" which is a declaration of passion,
           "Jesus, my brother, Shepherd, Friend, My Prophet, Priest, and King;
           My Lord, my Life, myWay, my End."
Each generation has to find new ways and new language with which to worship, and I love all sorts of hymns, some of them modern and others ancient, as well as sometimes hearing reflections on faith in the lyrics of secular songs (see above.)
Someone who comments on this blog told me recently about his love for the hymn "Let all Mortal Flesh keep silence" - another hymn that I love both for the wonderful music and rich language. They really don't make them like that anymore.


  1. "Jesus is My Boyfriend" is one of the Church of England's loveliest hymns. It is certainly my favourite. He also wants me for a sunbeam.

  2. 'Let all mortal flesh keep silence' sends shivers down my spine - especially in the Christian Forshaw version. There are so many great old hymns, I wouldn't want to be without them. Quite a few new ones I wouldn't want to be without, either. 'We cannot measure how you heal' and 'Be still for the presence' are really special.

    Hymns have so much power - and so much potential for comedy when they get it wrong! I still think of the 'plumbers' hymn' with the immortal line about he 'who fixed this floating ball'; and the fibre-optic angels 'who downward bend their burning eye'.

    As for the comments a former boss once made about the then popular chorus, 'wind, wind, set me free....'

    Time usually deals with the duds!

    Iffy Vicar

  3. Susan -- I came across your post while Googling a line from Charles Wesley's 'Love Divine' (I think your photo is tagged with it).

    I was led by hearing it set to Blaenwern to recall an incident from my college days 55 years ago, about which I wrote on my daily blog today --

    Just a word of thanks for getting me musing about hymns and how they have shaped my life.

    I find your blog very interesting and will surely check back often. Best regards and thanks again, Dan Damon