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First Day Back

A nice surprise was awaiting me when I arrived this morning at St Augustine’s to take my first service after the sabbatical. They had taken the trouble to buy a ‘welcome back’ card. Many members of the congregation had signed it. I’m not sure, but if I’ve identified the handwriting correctly, then I think it was the initiative of the Anglican priest, Jane. The old cliché says that little things mean a lot, and in this case the cliché was true. It was a simple gesture of love and thoughtfulness, and that from the congregation that gets the least of my time. 

Tonight was the café church service at Broomfield with a lot of DVD clips. Well, I say café church: really it was simply an informal service. I had wondered about the wisdom of constructing an act of worship entirely without hymns, but as it happened, no musician was present, and few present with strong voices to pitch a note, so the format worked better than it might have done. 

To some more liturgical traditions, a service without music might not always seem surprising, but it goes against a core element of Methodist spirituality. As the preface to a previous official hymn book famously put it, ‘Methodism was born in song.’ The rôle of Charles Wesley alongside John in the eighteenth century revival makes that clear. You could say that if you spotted a traditional Baptist, Anglican and Methodist on their way to worship, each would be carrying a book. The Baptist would be carrying a Bible, the Anglican a prayer book and the Methodist a hymn book. It tells you something about the expression of spirituality. Some put it like this: Methodists sing their theology.

Perhaps that’s why a ‘worship war’ over musical styles can be much more painful in Methodist churches. I certainly found that in my first circuit. Having spent my first two years battling a serious problem with unsuitable children’s workers, we had no sooner put that issue to bed than some traditionalist members tried to split the church over music. Ironically, the more charismatic members who enjoyed the contemporary worship songs had no problem singing the great hymns alongside the modern material, because their spiritual experiences helped them identify with what Wesley and others wrote about in their hymns. 

Most of the technology worked tonight – well, the DVDs did, but the XP laptop didn’t want to play a slide show of photos I’d taken on the sabbatical. It only seems happy to pass them onto the video projector if they’re in a PowerPoint show. They weren’t.

Beyond that, I then got embroiled in a church property problem that it wouldn’t be diplomatic or sensible to recount here, and I got home much later than usual.

So that’s about as up to date as I think I can reasonably bring you. It’s not been the smoothest of re-introductions tonight, and I’m back with a bump.

Hymns

Fat Prophet points to a preliminary list of hymns and songs for the new Methodist hymn book, due to be approved by the Conference next year. You can click to read PDF files of the initial 702 titles, either in thematic or alphabetical order.

Some important features:

1. It’s a ‘baseline collection’, presumably because the moment a new hymn or song book is published, it’s already a fossil. With the rate of composition today, combined with digital distribution, we also need some kind of rolling update to be maintained. I don’t read the Methodist Recorder any more, so this point may have been covered there, but it seems we need that kind of an update, at least if some of our traditional people are to have confidence in newer material.

2. It’s true to its promise of being theologically diverse. From the near-Calvinism of Stuart Townend and Keith and Kristyn Getty to Sydney Carter (a Quaker), Brian Wren (liberal URC) and at least two hymns addressing God as ‘mother’. As such it may do well for middle of the road congregations, but I imagine the evangelicals, charismatics and liberals will all retain their own varying preferred supplements. There was never a chance of anything commanding the respect of all Methodism, though. It is a mark of our diversity/division/fracture (take your pick).

3. It’s good that a hard-working group has opened up this preliminary list for consultation. They will have put blood, sweat and tears into this; now they open themselves up for all sorts of comments, some of which may not be particularly Christian in tone. Thanks to them for being open and vulnerable.

4. One area is difficult to evaluate, though, and that is the large number of unpublished texts suggested for inclusion. I don’t know the work of Marjorie Dobson or Gareth Hill in hymnody (although I know about Tubestation), and very little of Andrew Pratt. Others will know them better. It’s hard to know how to deal with this, unless the group were to have special copyright clearance to quote the words or link to them on other websites. The awkwardness is that these hymns will therefore be subject to less scrutiny than published ones.

Just some initial late night thoughts: what do you think? Some of you will have closer knowledge of the project than someone like me, who lives on the fringes of Methodism. I’d love to hear your opinions.