One of the legacies of my Anglican background is a love of hymns. I am grateful for the rich tradition of hymn-writing and singing, which has shaped worship and enlivened liturgy. Hymns have had a huge impact on my own spirituality and prayer life, as composers throughout time have presented theological truth in poetic form.
There is a great biblical basis for hymn singing. St Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 5:18-19 to “Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord.”
I therefore am saddened that so many parishes seem to have a limited repertoire of hymns: the faithful are deprived of so much of their depth and beauty. Hymn-singing appears to have a diminished presence in many places, and can even be viewed as an unnecessary delay in the race to get to the end of Mass. I am still perplexed that many Catholics just don’t attempt to sing. Some will stand with arms folded, not even pretending.
My own parish has a good and long-established congregational musical tradition. We have a committed organist and choir, and the people generally sing well. However, often I will choose hymns during a midweek Mass which I think are wellknown – and I find myself the only person singing.
Introducing people to the expansive world of hymns is something that I am always keen to do. A few years ago, we had a Lent group which looked at hymns, their tradition and theology. This seemed to be well received and, I hope, opened up insights for those who attended.
The private prayerful recitation of hymns can have great spiritual benefits. For many years I went to the same priest for Confession and I was always impressed that he gave hymns to pray privately as a penance. I found this such a useful exercise that I began to adopt this approach myself after I was ordained. We can be helped on our journey of faith by learning some well-known hymns by heart and placing them in our spiritual kitbag.
Sometimes when digging deep into the vast treasury of hymnody there has to be caution as we can be at risk of being entangled by developments in speech and language. There is a lovely old hymn, “Lord, thou know’st my simpleness”, written by Charles Wesley, which today is rendered unusable because of the line “Let the bowels of thy love / Echo to a sinner’s groan.”
Even modern hymns can be problematic. In the school where I say Mass, we had to change the words to the hymn by Martin J Nystrom, “As the deer pants for the water”, because it seemed that singing the word “pants” was too much for the teenage congregation to cope with. Thank goodness that, in this very political age, they have not been introduced to Horatius Bonar’s hymn:
Soon shall the trump of God
Give out the welcome sound,
That shakes death’s silent chamber walls,
And breaks the turf-sealed ground.
Hymn tunes are also important. Ralph Vaughan Williams, who composed hymns as well as so much else, gave great impetus to the use of popular and folk melodies for hymn singing, which was one of the reasons why his hymns and hymnbooks became so popular. In the words of William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, why should the Devil have all the best tunes?