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Singing The Faith: A First Look

Singing The Faith is the first new official British Methodist hymn book for nearly thirty years, superseding the (in my opinion) deadly dull Hymns and Psalms. My copy arrived in the post on Friday, and I’ve been skimming through it for some first impressions.

Hymns and Psalms just had to go, and many churches were voting with their wallets. It had the misfortune to come out just before the explosion in contemporary worship music (twelve months too early even for Kendrick‘s ‘The Servant King’,

I seem to recall). But you got the feeling that even if it hadn’t, that stuff would probably not have been included. It was published around the high water tide of liberal antipathy to evangelical and charismatic Christianity in Methodism. Furthermore, the musical arrangements were, as one friend put it kindly, ‘for musicians by musicians, to interest musicians’. I can’t judge the truth of that as a non-musician, but it may explain why they were largely deadly dull to me.

It had its bright spots – and I think particularly of the additional verse it includes in ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross‘ (retained here) that I’ve never seen elsewhere, the scholarship applied to restoring original texts and the Scripture Index in the music edition.

Methodist Conference and the panel that put together Singing The Faith faced the implications of several cultural revolutions that have deeply affected how Christians, Methodists included, approach faith and sung worship. Revolutions in communications (especially the Internet), transport (you can more easily get to a church whose style you prefer) and ecumenism (people are exposed to other traditions more easily and frequently) mean that fewer Methodists will be easily satisfied with ‘what we already know’. Some would argue (myself included) that technological changes and the fact that churches had already bought all sorts of supplementary books, such as Songs Of Fellowship, Mission Praise and The Source, meant that a new hymn book probably wasn’t the answer, and another approach was needed. The moment of publication is the beginning of fossilisation today. However, Methodism is almost umbilically attached to hymn books, and so a new book it was.

Given that fact, the new book, then, would need to embrace a diversity of musical and theological styles. Centralised or hierarchical control of doctrine may technically be still present in our system, but for many people it is long gone. There is therefore a huge question here of how Methodism maintains her doctrine in this central aspect of our piety, our singing. It may be that the forthcoming additional resource Singing The Faith Plus will act as some kind of clearing house to reflect on which of the newer material that is published from now on is consonant with Methodist doctrine, but we’ll see.

When it gets to the handling of theological diversity, there certainly is a spread in Singing The Faith. It embraces both the neo-Calvinist emphasis on the wrath of God at the Cross in Stuart Townend‘s ‘In Christ Alone’

and at the other end we have Marty Haugen‘s ‘Let Us Build A House (All Are Welcome)’

which some have criticised for allegedly extended the universal offer of salvation into universalism. So the issue of acceptable diversity is alive and well within the book!

It is also worth noting the considerable reduction in Charles Wesley hymns – very significant for Methodists, this. Hymns And Psalms was originally to be edited by an ecumenical committee, but when Methodist Conference insisted on at least two hundred Wesley hymns, the United Reformed Church pulled out. And for the URC to withdraw takes quite something! In the new book, at a quick count Wesley is down to seventy-nine contributions. Much as I love Wesleyan theology, I think this is the right move. Indeed, if many in our churches who have been most vocal about singing Wesley hymns had been as fervently aligned to his doctrine as to the music, Methodism might be more vibrant! Here is a prime example of the argument that allegiance to hymns, however central they are to Methodist spirituality, has not always maintained and fed our faith in the ways to which we might aspire.

Two more traditional-style contemporary Methodist hymn writers, Andrew Pratt and Marjorie Dobson, both participated in the STF committee, and both are represented in the final collection. Both have nine entries. With those numbers, I don’t think anyone can accuse the compilers of favouritism. I imagine the STF panel did what the HAP committee did, and required authors who were members of the group to vacate when their potential contributions were being discussed.

On, then, to think about those writers who have come more out of the explosion in contemporary worship styles. Matt Redman (also) features nine times, and the observation that interests me here is how it isn’t always his ‘hits’ that have been chosen. It looks to me like the committee has taken a real interest in what he writes about struggle and suffering. So as well as the popular ‘Blessèd Be Your Name’ we get ‘When We Were In The Darkest Night’ (‘God Of Our Yesterdays’)

and ‘We Have Nothing To Give’. No sign of ‘The Father’s Song’: one hopes that isn’t about avoiding male language for God, in the way that Fred Pratt Green‘s ‘For The Fruits Of His Creation’ has been altered to ‘For The Fruits Of All Creation’.

Having said that, the compilers are less confident that middle of the road Methodist congregations are ready for much by the late Delirious? Martin Smith and Stuart Garrard get in a couple each, but that’s it. This might be about some of the slightly unusual ways the band expressed itself lyrically, or it is about the more performance-oriented style, or possibly some other reason.

There is also evidence of taking into account the effect of contemporary worship trends on older hymns. It has become popular, particularly under so-called ‘Celtic’ influences, to sing the afore-mentioned ‘When I Survey The Wondrous Cross’ to the tune ‘O Waly Waly’ as well as ‘Rockingham’. This is recognised in Singing The Faith.

But beyond the contemporary worship movement, one area where I am particularly pleased to see innovation is in children’s worship songs. Mark and Helen Johnson of Out Of The Ark Music have been producing worship songs for primary schools for many years. Indeed, that is how I was introduced to them – by a primary head teacher. It’s a delight to see songs such as ‘Everywhere Around Me’

included, along with songs about the Incarnation and the Crucifixion (which actually doesn’t feature that often in their lyrics). Sadly, the wonderful ‘Harvest Samba’

Vodpod videos no longer available.

isn’t in. Did it lose out because it has a middle eight, and that would confuse some older congregations? I wonder.

However, overall, as you will gather, for someone who stays on the fringes of the Methodist establishment, and who is usually quite uncomfortable about it, I greatly welcome Singing The Faith. I still think a new book wasn’t the right approach in a fast-moving creative and digital world, but given that the decision was made, I think what has been produced is far better than many of us might have hoped.

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About Dave Faulkner

I'm a British Methodist minister, married with two children. I blog from a moderate evangelical-missional-charismatic perspective, with an interest in the 'missional' approach. My interests include Web 2.0, digital photography, contemporary music and watching football (Tottenham Hotspur) and cricket.

Posted on September 23, 2011, in Music, theology, worship and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. How delightful to watch “Harvest Samba”! And ‘In Christ Alone’ – what a powerful hymn.
    I know the highlight of school Scripture class for the children is always music. How wise they are.

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    • I think ‘Harvest Samba’ was the first ‘Out Of The Ark’ song I encountered. It works well for children as a simple thanksgiving at harvest. It also works well in a church where people bring up the harvest gifts during a hymn.

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  2. I ordered a copy of STF only a couple of hours before you published this, Dave. My main interest was to see if that line in “In Christ Alone” had been changed. I have been told it is contrary to the Methodist doctrine of the atonement, and since I have also been told that a Methodist hymn book contains the theology of the Methodist church, I was interested to see what they did with it.

    Does Methodist theology change? Have there been any great shifts in thinking over the years that needed to be expressed in our hymn book? Or do you think it’s just that there are now so many new hymns and songs around that we needed a more up to date book to reflect culture and worship trends?

    I’m glad there is a new book. I’m not sure our churches will rush to adopt it though, given our finances.

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    • No, the words of ‘In Christ Alone’ were not altered. There was a debate at Conference about it last year. However, Stuart Townend does not permit alterations to his lyrics, so it was either in or out, no amendments.

      Does Methodist theology change? Should it change? I don’t think Wesley would have had any problem with the words of ‘In Christ Alone’, but clearly many do. There is a sense in which all theology is provisional, since it is all our attempted commentary on the revelation of Scripture. But that means any amending needs to be tested in the light of Holy Writ, and some attempted changes do nothing of the sort.

      I think there has been a shift in emphasis within our theology, and that’s not uncommon in many traditions. However, I suspect the flood of new songs and hymns was a greater driving force in the production of the new book. Much as that gives some kind of Methodist imprimatur to some of the contemporary songs (they can’t be dismissed as unofficial any more), I still think we’re getting beyond the day of the hymn book, and especially of the denominational hymn book, as my friend George says below.

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  3. As far as I’m concerned, the day of denominational hymnbooks should be long over by now. I hope never to see another from the URC, my lot. A significant expense when non-denominational books are available, with the publisher taking the financial risk. I accept there are some churches for whom a projector system is financially out of reach, but there are plenty of books around – assuming you have enough sense to ditch H&P. Yes, I know it well. In my LEP, it’s our main book. Sadly. And yes, you can get enough of Charles Wesley!

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    • Wesley is a great writer, but read his words long enough and you find out how much he repeats his pet themes. As for the denominational issue, I was shot down once at a meeting of circuit ministers and circuit stewards for saying that the days of denominational loyalty are disappearing fast, and Christians have other criteria when moving to a new town in looking for a church. Furthermore, not all of those reasons can be dismissed as consumerist. I was frostily told that this only happened because ministers hadn’t properly taught their people the wonders of Methodism. In other news, Benedict XVI is ordaining women …

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  4. In my experience, the sad fact is that there is often a ‘hard core’ element of people within any congregation who will resist change. They miss the point that musical worship is supposed to continue to help facilitate our engagement with God. so that we are focusing on Him during a service. It is not meant to be a ‘Juke Box Jury’ session of hit or miss!! Both hymnal and contemporary styles/words of music & songs are not without their faults, but as long as they are biblical, theologically correct and the music is not so difficult it can’t be played or sung competently by the lead worshipper/s, then it shouldn’t be a problem learning new songs or hymns. What is often misunderstood about musical worship is that you do not always need to sing the words out loud if you don’t know the tune, but just let the words and music penetrate your heart & soul. You’re still giving of yourself to God!

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    • Interesting points, Mary. I find that both advocates of traditional and of contemporary worship music have their particular idolatries. One idolises a certain supposed form of musical perfection, the other has aspirations closer to that of a gig. Neither is worship that puts engaging with the God of grace first.

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  5. The words of Lord you have come to the lakeside have been altered in all verses and chorus, plus the tune.
    Shirley Murray’s For the music of creation, the tune is changed from What a friend to Rusington

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  6. As a retired Baptist Minister who began in Methodism I am very impressed with “Singing the faith”. It has a wide selection and includes many of the current worship songs. There is a good balance of hymns also, by Charles Wesley and others. I am also pleased that there is no denominational reference in the title making it easy for Christians of all denominations to use it if they want to.
    It certainly reflects a change of theological position in Methodism compared with the 60s and 70s. The selection show signs of the better elements and contributions of the Charismatic movement which has been used by God to bless every part of the Church. I like Dave Faulkner’s balanced review.

    David Baker
    Northamptonshire

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  7. Dear David

    I read your comments and have to say whilst I agree with some of it (particulalry your comments regarding HAP), I fundamentally disagree with your conclusion. I find the butchering of the old hymns in the name of political correctness deeply distressing, and given the wealth of music that already exists in MP and SOF the actual “new” stuff in this book is minimal.

    As a methodist local preacher, I find the collection a waste of money, a waste of time, a waste of effort and a waste of opportunity. Indeed I have heard very few people (outside of the ministry) say they actually like it. My church and circuit has not invested in it as yet, but the minute the do then I will resign as a local preacher as i refuse point blank to use this awful book

    Given our church is imploding I think the money and time spent on this book would have been better spent focused on evangelism and offering people salvation, neither of which I beleive this hymn book will contribute towards.

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    • Gary,

      Welcome here and thank you for your trenchant opinions. Please remember I did say that I too thought a new hymn book wasn’t the right approach, due to revolutions in communications technology. I’m only evaluating STF within the framework that it did happen, because Methodism can’t seem to give up the sacred cow of the physical hymn book. Within that limited frame, my attitude is overall that it’s a lot better than it might have been, and it has the potential to introduce certain hymns and songs to congregations who wouldn’t have touched them before, because they were in Songs Of Fellowship. Giving them a Methodist imprimatur helps.

      That said, I have mixed opinions about the amending of words in hymns. I am broadly in favour of inclusive language. Like it or not, words such as ‘men’ are now taken as having a gender-exclusive meaning. It has its problems and can affect our doctrine of God. The example I quote, changing ‘For the fruits of his creation’ to ‘For the fruits of all creation’ weakens the link between creation and the Creator. (If they wanted to avoid masculine language for God where it was unnecessary they could have said, ‘For the fruits of God’s creation’.

      I agree, too, that we should prioritise evangelism and mission. I am not sure, though, that the answer to that involves big bucks. I think it involves the mobilisation of church members in their everyday lives. At least in some places integrating new disciples into the church might mean involving them in a less out of date church, thanks to STF.

      I would appeal to you not to rush into resigning as a Local Preacher. Did God call you or not? Is the adoption of a hymn book you are free not to like a sign that God has withdrawn his call to you? Is this a deal-breaker of absolute doctrinal basics? I think those are the sorts of questions you should be asking yourself before contemplating resignation.

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  1. Pingback: Untitled Hymn « Cindy Holman's Blog

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