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More ‘you’ and a lot less Wesley

03 January 2012

J. R. Watson considers what got into the new Methodist hymn book


Singing the Faith: Music edition
Hymns Ancient & Modern, on behalf of the Trustees for Methodist Church
Purposes £25 (978-1-84825-067-3)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

HYMNS can define a Church. This is particularly true when that Church has been as dependent on hymn-singing as the Methodist Church has always been. Singing the Faith is not just one more modern hymn book: it is an indicator of where the Church stands today.

There are 748 hymns, followed by 42 liturgical settings, including some welcome Taizé chants, followed by canticles and psalms for responsive reading (with no tunes, a recognition that, for Methodists, the singing of psalms is over). The large number of hymns, which form the principal part of the book, gives plenty of room for new and traditional hymnody.

There are many good things about the selection of contemporary hymns. While some belong to the “use and throwaway” culture of the screen, and should not have found themselves permanent features of a great hymn book, the majority are fresh and serious approaches to the problems of belief in today’s world.

There are substantial contribu­tions from the Iona Community, and from established writers such as Alan Gaunt and Timothy Dudley-Smith, and a few (too few) from Michael Saward and Christopher Idle. I would have liked to have seen “Eternal God, before whose face we stand”, Dudley-Smith’s magnificent hymn for Remembrance Sunday; hymns by Janet Wootton and Emma Turl; and some from modern Methodist writers such as Freda Head and Martin Eggleton.

Anyone can pick holes in the selection; on the whole, however, the contemporary hymn-writers are well represented, and it is good to see contributions from other countries: the Americans are there, with seven hymns by Ruth Duck, and others by Carl Daw, Thomas Troeger, and Herman Stuempfle. From Canada, there is Sylvia Dunstan (“Crashing waters”, which is in the index, though Dunstan isn’t). From the east, there is one tune and one text by I-to Loh. New Zealand provides 11 texts by Shirley Erena Murray, two by Bill Wallace, and one by Richard Gillard.

So far so good. What is less satisfactory is the treatment of the Methodist heritage, and traditional hymnody in general. Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, and James Montgomery have all seen their contributions considerably reduced from the number in the 1983 Methodist book, Hymns and Psalms. Cowper now has three hymns instead of six; Newton has four instead of eight. Worse is the treatment of the Wesley brothers. John’s hymns from the Cambridge Platonist Henry More have gone; so have most of his translations from the German. They were Methodism’s link with Reformation theology: in them one could feel the excitement of Wesley’s discovery, through the Moravians, of German spirituality and its great poetry. Only three survive here. Similarly, the number of hymns by Charles Wesley, the greatest of all hymn-writers in English and a bedrock of Methodist culture and doctrine, has been reduced from 156 to 79 here.

Even worse is the tampering with the texts. Poor Mrs Alexander has been truncated and mauled in “Once in royal David’s city” (the literal-minded were cross with “mild, obedient”, but it was part of the magic of Christmas); in Charles Wesley’s “conversion hymn”, the harlots and publicans and thieves have gone, so that now Methodists will grow up not realising that Wesley was deeply concerned about the sex trade, unfair taxation, and crime. Many of his hymns are given the “you” treatment, which sounds odd, and is sometimes botched, a confirmation of John Wesley’s plea not to alter his or his brother’s hymns, “for they really are not able.”

Fortunately, the alterations are not consistently applied. That old Methodist war-horse “And can it be” is one of those that the committee dared not touch (“My chains fell off, away they flew, I rose, went forth, and followed you”: it would have been no worse than some other interventions).

On a happier note, the music seems very good, though there are some odd pairings: Coe Fen is not with “How shall I sing that majesty”, and Rustington is not with “God is love: let heaven adore him”. It is to be hoped, however, that the music, and the best of the contemporary texts, will help to make the book successful with a new generation of Methodists, who will never know how much they have lost.

Dr J. R. Watson is Emeritus Professor of English, University of Durham, and author of The English Hymn. He is General Editor of a project to replace Julian’s Dictionary of Hymnology (1892, 1907).

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