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29 January 2016

by Sister Rosemary


‘Dear diary. . .’

THE Archbishop of Canterbury has stated that the priorities for his time in office are the encouragement of prayer and the religious life. He also made it clear to the General Synod last year that we were to pray for, plan for, and confidently expect an increase of 50 per cent in the numbers of clergy.

All these concerns have been brought together in a prayer diary offered to religious communities for “The renewal and increase of vocations in the Church of England”. Of course, we are more than willing to offer this prayer; but I, for one, am troubled by the terms in which some of the suggestions are expressed.

I can unreservedly pray “that all may be encouraged to respond to God’s calling on their lives”, and “for the Church to respond positively to a new awareness of calling throughout the body of Christ, and to respond appropriately”. Where I have qualms is in praying “for the renewal and increase of vocations in the dioceses of . . .” or “. . . in those who are under 30”, which sound to me perilously close to offering God advice about whom to call. I wonder how it strikes other people?


Treasure trove

WHEN I was a child, my devout churchgoing father and musical mother both adamantly refused to listen to the King’s College Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve, on the grounds that “They sing a lot of things you don’t know.” My enquiry why this was bad was met with a blank lack of comprehension.

That particular service, although it is often considered as traditional as turkey and Christmas pudding, has, in fact, always been a showcase for the new and unfamiliar. It uses the well-known to snare its target audience, and then ambushes them with something medieval or specially commissioned. My parents, though, saw the hook, and refused to be fooled.

When I was old enough to decide for myself, I listened avidly, and discovered many unsuspected treasures.


A hymn and a prayer

THE Bishop of Manchester, in his article about how best to welcome occasional worshippers to Christmas services (Features, 18/25 December), advises: “Don’t update the words of well-known carols to fit your theology. Stick with versions that people will remember from way back, and that resonate with a faith that may once have been firmer.”

These words led me to reflect again on a favourite topic of mine: the significance of hymns — and, in particular, the words of hymns — in the minds of worshippers.

I was brought up in the Baptist tradition, in which hymns were of great importance. This was, perhaps, surprising in itself, since one of the practices which that tradition deplored and eschewed was “saying prayers out of books”. Extempore prayer was almost exclusively the practice.

In the 17th century, hymn-singing became popular in dissenting congregations, and Baptists, too, wished to join in this enjoyable activity. There was a difficulty, however: was “singing words out of a book” any different, in principle, from praying in the same manner?

In all honesty, I had to admit that the two activities seemed to me to be comparable — and, logically, hymns ought to have been forbidden, too. But the popularity of hymns proved irresistible, and the “Great hymn-singing controversy” was resolved in their favour. I must admit that I was glad.

In the Baptist church of my childhood, hymns were sung with great vigour and enthusiasm, and were clearly a valued part of the worship. This may have been because many people in that particular congregation were Welsh, or because the hymns were, apart from the Lord’s Prayer, the only point at which the congregation was allowed to utter, in a service otherwise voiced entirely by the minister.


It’s all in the text

WITH this background, I found the Church of England a shock. Here, hymn-singing seemed to me half-hearted, and hymns were even used as “background music”. The collection was taken during a hymn; how, I wondered, could we concentrate on the words while fumbling in purse or pocket? And, sometimes, I was even aware of the whispered instruction: “Father’s ready; we’ll end the hymn here.”

The ever-popular “Songs of Praise” type service often asks those who choose the hymns to explain why. I always hope for some reference to the hymn’s theological content, but, time after time, we hear: “We used to sing it at Sunday school,” or “I love the tune.”

Mrs Alexander’s enduringly popular hymns were written to teach children key doctrines, and she clearly expected them to pay attention to the words. The Wesleys composed their treasury of hymns to teach doctrine to their largely poorly-educated converts, and the theology of hymns is still studied and valued in Methodist circles.

How I long to encourage Anglicans to think about the words of hymns. (And even to consider seriously why the words of some familiar carols are theologically unacceptable.)


The Revd Sister Rosemary CHN is a nun at the Convent of the Holy Name in Derby.

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