AS WE cautiously return to congregational singing in in our public worship, this is a timely book. In four elegantly written and engaging chapters, Gillian R. Warson helps us to re-evaluate our repertoire of classic hymnody. Although the focus of the discussion is on the function of hymns in worship, the author reminds us of the wider contexts, literary as well as social, in which our hymns feature.
Warson evidently appreciates the potency of adding tunes to verses, and of how verses themselves are amenable to memory. And this feel for language continues in the sensitive way in which she discusses the major issues and apparent obstacles to singing of some hymns. Here, difficult questions of gender inclusivity, militaristic vocabulary, anachronisms, and verses redolent with the theme of empire are fully faced and discussed in a nuanced way.
The meanings of words slip and slide, change and develop. But hymnody is a living literary tradition, and I warmed to the judgement expressed here that too often “popularity seems to trump suitability”. The final chapter, a re-reading of C. F. Alexander’s “All things bright and beautiful” in the light of the environmental crisis is a perceptive reflection.
I have one criticism, and this is of an irritation rather than a substantive point: the author’s repeated use of the word “relevant”, as though relevance were the final arbiter of taste and suitability. Relevant to what and to whom?
A useful addition would have been a short chapter setting out the criteria by which we choose hymns for worship. Most traditional hymnbooks, The New English Hymnal and Hymns Ancient and Modern, for instance, include suggestions for hymns on Sundays, feasts, and the seasons of the Christian Year, and a full listing is published by the Royal School of Church Music. But a critical evaluation of these suggestions would have been useful. Nevertheless, this is a gem of a little book and all who have the responsibility and privilege of leading worship — musicians and ministers alike — would benefit from reading it.
The Revd Christopher Irvine is Priest-in-Charge of Ewhurst and Bodiam, and Rural Dean of Rye, in Chichester diocese, and teaches at Sarum College and the Liturgical Institute, Mirfield.
Using Vintage Hymns in Worship: Hidden treasures rediscovered for today’s Church
Gillian R. Warson
Sacristy Press £12.99
Church Times Bookshop £11.70