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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.

Sermon: The Pharisee And The Publican

Just for once, I’m back preaching from the Lectionary this weekend. At present I don’t have a sermon series at my smaller church. Last Sunday I sat in on a Local Preacher taking the service there, because he is candidating for the ministry. He took last Sunday’s Lectionary of Luke 18:1-8, so I am following that up with this week’s passage that comes straight after that. It doesn’t make for a series, but hopefully it creates a little bit of continuity.

Luke 18:9-14

There is a nonsense abroad in Christian circles that says, ‘We all believe the same.’ Because of our unity in Christ, all the Christian denominations believe the same.

We don’t.

The local churches in my home town were mature enough to recognise this. They held public meetings to discuss the differences. One evening, the subject was baptism. An Anglican vicar , a Baptist elder and a Catholic priest each agreed to speak. The Anglican sat behind a table and gave his talk. So did the Baptist.

But when the Catholic priest had his turn, he took his chair from behind the table and set it down right in front of the first row of the audience.

“Good,” he said. “I like to see the whites of the eyes before I attack!”

I am not about to do that this morning, but our reading is a story about drawing near. How can we draw near to God? Should we draw near to God? Does God draw near to us, and if so, how? All these questions are present in the story we traditionally call ‘The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican’.

It’s a deceptive parable. It’s almost too easy. We’ve known it for years, and it’s clear to us who the ‘goodie’ is and who the ‘baddie’ is. Jesus draws his characters as clearly as a cartoon. It’s like workmen have dug a huge hole in the road and put so many warning signs around it, we can’t fail to choose the right path around it and avoid falling in.

Or can we?

Take the Pharisee himself. We are so programmed to hear the word ‘pharisee’ and hear warning sirens in the New Testament that we are in the presence of someone who opposed Jesus. And clearly the Pharisee in this story is not one of the good guys, either.

But look at what he does. He goes to public worship. He prays. He seeks to live a virtuous life. What’s not to like? Aren’t these things we aspire to do, and to do well? After hearing last week about the need to persist in prayer, you can’t accuse this man of failing in that regard.

And he certainly wants to draw near to God. Wouldn’t he have sung ‘Bold I approach the eternal throne’ with the same vigour as a convinced Methodist? Wouldn’t he have affirmed every bit as much as the Protestant Reformers his own access to God? He could stride into the presence of God in his Temple.

Except … we know from the introduction to the parable that here is a man ‘who trusted in [himself] that [he was] righteous and regarded others with contempt’ (verse 9). When he attends this public act of worship at the Temple, he chooses to ‘[stand] by himself’ (verse 11). This is more than just sitting quietly in a pew on your own. This is someone who didn’t want to associate with the other worshippers. He despised the Jewish emphasis on the importance of community.

What’s he doing? He’s protecting his purity before God. He knows and keeps the Jewish Law – hence the reference to fasting twice a week and tithing his income (verse 12). But if he comes into contact with one of the worshippers who doesn’t do this as faithfully as he does, then he becomes unclean. So he’d better take precautions.

You  might think this is like the spiritual equivalent of when we take sensible medical precautions to prevent ourselves from catching diseases, like cleaning our hands with alcohol gel before going onto a hospital ward or not having close contact with someone having chemotherapy, so they don’t get an infection that prevents their treatment. Those kinds of measures are sensible. The Pharisee wants to prevent what he sees as spiritual infection because he has a superiority complex. He thinks he is spiritually pure, unlike those sharing space with him (and no more) in the Temple.

Does that sound like some of our attitudes? Of course, we hope not. But there may be certain kinds of people – or even specific individuals – whom we avoid for fear of ‘contamination’. I’m not referring to the kind of problem where someone is a bad influence on us, and we know we don’t have the moral strength to stop them dragging us down. The Pharisee is different. He thinks he’s superior. He doesn’t think he’s lacking in moral fibre.

And there are times when we come across like that. When the public pronouncements of the Church are only about the people, lifestyles and behaviours we condemn, then we sound like the Pharisee. When we portray ourselves as people who have got it all together, implying that others haven’t, then we join the Pharisee of this story.

What is the problem here? Luke puts it succinctly when he talks about people ‘who trusted in themselves that they were righteous’ (verse 9). Because that’s the problem. That’s a contradiction of the Gospel. That stands against everything Jesus came to achieve. The whole point of what we believe is that none of us can trust in our own righteousness to stand before God. Every one of us is a sinner. Every one of us needs grace and mercy from the love of God. Forgetting that is the most dangerous thing in the world.

Yet sometimes we do. Look at how people outside the Church perceive us, and you will realise that we do come across as people who think we are morally superior. That’s one reason why some people feel they can’t join us. We’re too good to be true, and we’re too quick to condemn.

Now you know and I know that we don’t intend to communicate that message. But it’s what people hear from us. Many people don’t want to come near to us, or come near to God, because we’ve given the impression that faith is all about being good enough for God – we are, and they aren’t.

Perhaps a test of our hearts on this one is how we react when someone falls from grace. Do we look down our noses at them? Do we gloat? Or do we ask God to be merciful to them, and say, ‘There but for the grace of God go I’?

The Pharisee in this parable, then, might be a little more uncomfortably close to us than we might like to believe sometimes.

What, then, of the Publican (or the tax collector, as our translation calls him)? Here is the very person whom the Pharisee would have treated as unclean. He didn’t keep the Jewish Law. He associated with the wicked occupying Roman forces. If anyone deserved the label ‘sinner’ it was him. Described as a thief and a rogue by the Pharisee, he too doesn’t stand with the rest of the community at the altar. He stands ‘far off’ (verse 13), because he doesn’t believe he deserves to be there. Deep down he knows exactly who he is. The Pharisee is right. He most certainly is ‘a sinner’ (verse 13).

He makes me think of various people. I think of an English teacher my sister and I had at secondary school. It was a Church of England school, and rather high up the candle. One day, this teacher was talking with my sister about why he went to a high Anglican church, full of ceremony and incense. He told my sister that he envied her ‘low church’ faith, with its easy sense of intimacy with God, but in his case he just needed to go to worship to express the fact that he was a sinner.

Or I think of several church members I have met in Methodism who reject all sense that they may draw near to God. Indeed, some use the language of ‘reverence’ to remain at a distance from him. They hardly dare draw near.

But those people don’t display the anguish of the publican.[1] He beats his chest (verse 13), a common sign even to this day in the Middle East of either intense anger or deep anguish. It is particularly a sign of extreme pain when a man, rather than a woman, does it. And by beating his chest, he is pointing to the darkness in his heart. This is a man full of remorse.

So what does he cry out? ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (verse 13). That’s what our translation says, and many English versions render it similarly.

But there is a more literal translation, and it makes more sense in the context of the story. The man says, ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner’. And since the man is attending either the morning or the evening sacrifice at the Temple, this fits perfectly. The priests are sacrificing an animal as a sin offering for the people. The publican, who feels he cannot stand with those considered righteous, cries out, not just generally for mercy, but that the sacrifice being made at the altar might be for him. ‘God, make an atonement for me, a sinner.’

At that moment, the priests are making atonement for the people. But it won’t be very long before God himself makes atonement for this sinner and all other sinners. Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, will go to the Cross and bear the sins of the world. In Christ, God will make atonement for the publican. The publican’s prayer will be answered.

No wonder he is the one who goes home ‘justified’ before God, according to Jesus (verse 14). He is made to be in the right with God, because God himself will atone for his sins in Jesus Christ. God will remove the sentence of guilt from him. God will take away the power of guilt from over his life. Through Christ, he will be in the right with God.

You may recall that some years ago, Cliff Richard recorded a song called ‘From a Distance’. Originally written by a songwriter called Julie Gold, the chorus says, ‘God is watching us from a distance’. Yet that is not the case here. God is drawing close to sinners. He atones for our sins at the Cross. He offers us new life at the Empty Tomb.

So if like the publican we cry out for atonement, because we are so aware we are sinners, the good news is that we no longer need stand at a distance like he did. God is not at a distance from us. He is close. He took on human flesh for us. He died for us. He rose for us.

We might be nervous about the way in which the Pharisee attempted to draw near to God, and decide we want none of that arrogant presumption. Quite right, too.

But just because we have seen bad examples of drawing near to God, does not mean we should stay at a distance from him. Even though our sins do put us far from him, God is merciful and does not intend to let that state of affairs remain. We cry out for atonement, and God himself provides it.

And therefore I pray, as we are in the early stages of our relationship as minister and congregation, we will not fall into the trap of staying far off from God. What we need to do is reject the self-righteousness of the Pharisee and embrace the humility of the publican. As we humbly cast ourselves upon the mercy of God, we find he provides all we need in the Atonement of Christ through his death. As Matt Redman has said, ‘The Cross has said it all.’

Friends, let our journey together these next few years be based on that foundation.

[1] What follows is based on Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, pp 153-5.