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Hymns minus the ‘awkward’ bits

05 April 2024

A new approach to hymn-singing for children is being piloted, reports Pat Ashworth


The launch of Hymnpact! in 2022

The launch of Hymnpact! in 2022

THERE is an undoubted wellspring of affection and good will from congregations for those occasions when the church school comes to the church service. But, where the singing is concerned, it can be more a culture of performance than a shared worship experience, with no common repertoire of hymns that children love and that adults can sing with integrity.

The challenge, the Royal School of Church Music (RSCM) says, has been to to bridge the gap between the music that children might recognise in their school and what they might find if they went into a church — “and to somehow sit in the middle of that so that both sides of the equation recognise themselves within the material”, the RSCM’s deputy director (Mission and Education), Canon Sally McDougall, said.

She includes the dwindling number of schools with a piano, or someone who can play it, as among the barriers that might deprive primary schools of access to good-quality material. “We wanted to provide enough resources so that if the school and church got together, the children and congregation could sing the same material as one community of faith. That was really important to us,” she says.

“We were very keen to find a tool that would help them see if they could work more closely together. Something where you could just open a box and it was all there, whether you’ve got any musical resource in the school or not.”

What emerged in 2022 was Hymnpact!, a hymn-singing resource backed by Strategic Investment Board Innovation Funding, for its potential as a tool of mission and education. It is currently being piloted in the dioceses of Salisbury and St Albans, and the scheme is soon to be extended to Liverpool.

Most of the hymns and songs are newly composed; others, such as “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow” (to the tune Waly Waly) and “Bring this broken world together” (to the tune Picardy) are new arrangements of familiar tunes.

“One of the first things we did was get a children’s poet writing some songs for us, because we wanted to make sure they were right for children, obviously,” Canon McDougall said. “But they had also to be something that made sense to adults at their stage of faith, and which had the potential to become part of the regular corpus of material used in church as well as school.”


THE resource pack comes with everything needed: lyric videos with full instrumentation; professionally recorded backing tracks with instrumental- or song- performance versions; non-automated PowerPoint lyrics slides; teaching notes, and downloadable sheet music for a range of instruments, including: piano, voice, and guitar; choir and piano; choir and organ; instrumental parts; bass part; and full score.

“If it’s not easy, people won’t use it, because people are busy and you’re asking them to do things in a slightly different way,” Canon McDougall says. “Obviously, the resources are ideal for a school, but we’ve also made it easy for the churches to put it on a projector screen, or cut and paste it into an order of service.”

RSCMChildren sing at the launch of Hymnpact! in 2022

New songs are added at regular intervals. When the list reaches 50 or 60, the material will have addressed the whole liturgical year, as well as some of the other times and seasons that the Church marks: something that the RCSM regards as important to children in a faith school. Feedback has been “terrific”, she says: the children love the style of the music and enjoy singing the songs.

Take the season of Advent: the composers Susan, Philip, and Anthony Gray have produced a catchy tune, with a syncopated rhythm that can either work as a unison tune for schools with piano accompaniment, but to which choir and organ or an instrumental solo can be added.

The material includes teaching notes for the music, and also notes to enable children to develop in their faith through what they’re encountering in the songs. The notes for Advent, for example, explore the centrality of “call” to the Christian faith, with links to core stories and to the several stages of the RE curriculum.

“It was important that the quality of Hymnpact! had a theological depth,” Canon McDougall says. “We wanted to make it possible for a teacher to to have a conversation with the child about all sorts of issues that come up in the songs — around the state of the world, or things that are real life issues that we want children to think about it in terms of faith. The notes are designed for the classroom, but there’s absolutely no reason why they couldn’t be used with adult groups, too. They could be a great way of talking about theology.”


ONE hundred schools are currently in the trial, paying a subscription of £50 a year. The rate will inevitably rise a little as the material builds up, but the RSCM is committed to ensuring that the material remains affordable for schools and for churches, it says: “Things are even more challenging than they were pre-Covid. We know where the churches’ pinch-points are, financially, and we are really keen to try and make sure it stays accessible.”

Catherine Vardy teaches at Bishops Cannings C of E Primary School, Devizes, in Wiltshire, where both school and church have taken up Hymnpact! with enthusiasm. “We’re working to develop links between church and school — trying to ensure that the children see the church as a building for them,” she says.

“Two members of the church choir have been running a workshop after school over a period of four to six weeks, building up the singing of the Hymnpact! songs. They’re absolutely brilliant with the children.” A joint practice has shown how much progress has been made. At Easter, the children will be singing the songs/hymns both at their their own Easter services in school, and with the choir and congregation in church on Easter Day.

“We’ve always had strong links. We’re trying to promote the church coming to school, and the school engaging and building up their presence in the church,” Ms Vardy says. The school is using Hymnpact! material for regular after-school “Songs of Praise” services in church, to which parents and carers are invited.

“It has demonstrated to the children that church doesn’t have to be all ‘Sit down and be quiet,’” she says. “It’s a joy to have the church filled with song, and the response has been lovely. We’re saying to the children, ‘Look, this is your church: this is what you can do and what you can experience and enjoy.’”


OLIVIA SPARKHALL is a composer, vocal coach, conductor, and music educator. As a Hymnpact! outreach worker in the diocese of Salisbury, she works in schools, including Motcombe C of E Primary School. The children sang the hymn “We are the light” for the Archbishop of Canterbury at Salisbury Cathedral, and are “an absolute delight to work with”, she says.

She spent the first year of the pilot project in the schools, and is spending this one in the churches, where she is teaching the congregation, using the same techniques, but applied to adults. All agree that they are becoming better musicians as a consequence, she says, and all were looking forward to coming together on Mothering Sunday.

RSCMThe launch of Hymnpact! in 2022

The backing tracks have been the key to success, she suggests, together with compositions that work on all levels. “They’ve really thought about the meaning behind the words, and it’s not repetitive,” she says. “They’ve taken some older, safer tunes that adults certainly would know if they go to church, and updated the words, but they’ve done it appropriately, and it’s not trite.

“Some of the themes are about the issues that we’re experiencing in the world now, and the language is appropriate for the 21st century. That’s great, because you don’t have any of those awkward moments. Congregations have really embraced what’s on offer. As we work through all this, we can see what works, make tweaks, and feed back to the RSCM, but I see no reason why it couldn’t be rolled out across the whole country.”

Canon McDougall endorses that, and concludes: “We hope it makes a difference beyond itself. It’s not just about nice songs for people. We want it to be something that people can use to develop their faith at any stage.”


The Church Times Festival of Faith and Music takes place in York from 26 to 28 April. More details at: faithandmusic.hymnsam.co.uk

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