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Join the excellent modern chorus

24 March 2010

These contemporary hymns surprise J. R. Watson by their outstanding quality


Come Celebrate: Contemporary hymns from leading writers
Michael Saward, editor
Canterbury Press £21.99
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

THIS IS a book of 291 hymns by 20 contemporary writers. It contains hymns that are not normally found in current hymn books, ones that have been overshadowed by better-known hymns by these authors. Many of them are set to tunes that are familiar, but in some cases the authors are also musicians who have written both words and music (a CD is provided inside the back cover).

I approached this book, with its rather hearty title, somewhat un­easily. In the Darwinian world of hymnody, contemporary hymns take the place, and the space, of the old; and, as a lover of traditional hymns, I have often been dismayed in worship as the hymns of (say) Charles Wesley or John Ellerton have been displaced by a text that is glossy and vacuous, one that has seemed less than adequate as a response to the world in which I live.

I should not have worried. Michael Saward is an old hand at this kind of thing. He has a strong record as a promoter of good modern hymnody, and he is the author of outstanding hymns him­self.

Good contemporary hymns (I said good contemporary hymns; bad ones just put people off) are needed to prevent the worshipping Church from becoming a fossil. As the Archbishop of Canterbury puts it in a pithy preface, a hymn is “to take us into a new place”. That new place should involve a deepening or refreshing of our spiritual lives, and also a response to the world around us. New hymns earn their keep by connecting worship with our neces­sary current concerns, such as the increasing secularisation of our culture, unfairness and poverty, the plight of refugees, the place of women in society here and else­where, the danger to the environ­ment.

It would be unfair in a short review to single out particular authors as outstanding, although I think that some are; and though a few of these hymns reiterate praise in language that adds little to what we have already, the majority are serious and thought-provoking devotional exercises that help us to come to terms with ourselves and our world in the sight of God.

There is little here that is trite, badly written, or absurd in its claims. In this book, the so-called “hymn explosion” has come of age.

J. R. Watson is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Durham, and author of The English Hymn (Clarendon Press, 1997).

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