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The Bible’s worship songs

24 October 2014

Michael Perham on an Evangelical plea not to neglect them

Stirred by a Noble Theme: The book of Psalms in the life of the Church
Andrew G. Shead, editor
Apollos £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT912 )

THE book Stirred by a Noble Theme (the opening words of Psalm 45) explores the use of psalms in the life and worship of the church. At first, I had expected a focus on the use of psalms in the liturgy as Roman Catholic and Anglican practice has consistently used them, especially in the daily Office, but I quickly needed to revise my expectations, for this book comes out of a particular Evangelical world.

Its editor, Andrew Shead, and most of its contributors teach at Moore College, Sydney, and its deepest lament is that in the Protestant churches to which its contributors belong the psalms have all but disappeared from worship. That would, of course, also be true of a large number of Church of England churches, where the psalm is the most likely part of the lectionary provision to be jettisoned.

Chapter 7 begins with a wonderful quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's 1940 book on the Psalms.

In many churches, the Psalms are read or sung every Sunday, or even daily, in succession. These churches have preserved a priceless treasure; for only with daily use does one appropriate this divine prayer book. When read only occasionally, these prayers are too overwhelming in design and power, and tend to turn us back to more palatable fare.

My view is that the book would have profited by giving some attention to the traditions where the daily recitation of the psalter is still at the heart of worship. St Benedict and his Rule should have got a mention somewhere, and perhaps more made of Thomas Cranmer and his arrangement of the entire psalter to be read each month. But, that quibble about breadth aside, this is a fascinating book.

Its biblical scholarship is not restricted to the research of conservative Evangelical scholars, and it would for many open up a new world, especially in its treatment of the psalter as a unity. It identifies five "books" within the psalter, each distinctive and each a development of its predecessor. It asserts that there is nothing arbitrary about the order of the psalms, and develops a clear understanding of the book at "macro level", assigning to Psalms 1 and 2 a particular status as a gateway to the whole collection.

When the essays move from biblical scholarship and into the realm of theology, there is, perhaps inevitably, an understanding of the psalter as Christological in a way that some scholars would find difficult, although Seumas Macdonald explores profitably the patristic use of the psalms by St Basil, St Augustine, and St John Chrysostom in relation to Christology. There is a good exploration of the challenge of being faithful to the poetic form of the Psalms.

One might argue with some of the theology of this book, but it would be foolish to quarrel with its intention to encourage churches, and especially Evangelical churches, to rediscover a lost treasure. It is difficult to understand the mind of Jesus without learning to pray the Psalms.

The Rt Revd Michael Perham is the Bishop of Gloucester.

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