Thoughts on hymnody in worship

Over at Reformation URC there has been an interesting series of blog posts on music in worship. I’ve found a good deal of food for thought in what was written there. Meanwhile I’ve now been in my first pastorate for just over a month and have begun to settle into the rhythm of full-time ministry, including weekly preparation of at least one service.

The way I’ve found that I’ve approached this is as follows:

Sunday evening have a first look at the lectionary readings for next week and allow myself to react to them without thinking too much.

Monday morning choose my passages for next Sunday. Select my hymns based on a feeling for where the passages are taking me. Tuesday get out the commentaries, consult for the Greek or Hebrew and start to firm up the theme of the service. Wednesday carry on looking at the Scripture and think about how it connects to the life of the church where I’m preaching. Thursday write my sermon. Thursday and/or Saturday write my prayers.

What I’d like you to notice is that the second thing I do after I choose my readings from the selection the Lectionary offers is choose my hymns. I take a lot of trouble over this. I try to link them both to the Scripture and to my (at that point vague) feeling about where the service is going. I tend to select hymns I’m fairly confident the congregation will be comfortable singing. I work at making the total set of hymns make sense as a programme of music (not too samey, the sequence setting a pattern for the service, getting a fit of mood to that pattern as I discern it emerging).

This skeleton of the worship already exists as I begin the work of understanding what the Bible is saying first to me and then through me to those who will hear my preaching. This despite my strong (Barthian) commitment to the Word preached as central to the liturgical act. To some extent the hymnody must be (is) working to influence what I do in the sermon, since I’ve expended all that trouble looking through the hymn books, reading the words, humming the tunes, imagining the flow from one to another.

One might worry about that, in fact I suspect some of those who have written in the series I refer to above will be horrified by this admission. I, on the other hand, on reflection think this practice of mine can be supported by sound theological arguments, so here goes.

I am, theologically, most inclined to identify myself as a “post-liberal”. This label has an intuitive appeal to me because I used to be a liberal in a quite precise way. I came to Christianity via the philosophy of Hegel and Hegelianism is an important, although often overlooked, variety of classical liberal Christianity. Its insistence on the historical character of truth, its high valuation of the rational powers of humanity, in belief in the ultimate comprehensibility of all things make Hegelianism a good fit with some kinds of liberal theology.

Over time I, though retaining a lot of affection for the philosophical school (of post-Hegelian radical thought) in which I was formed have come to turn towards a more self-consciously orthodox approach. I am now committed to the idea that the tradition (understood broadly) is binding on us, that ideas clearly declared to be heretical (by the Church catholic) should be rejected. I am more sceptical about reason and more determined to assert God’s transcendence and our dependence. I no longer identify as liberal.

One aspect of contemporary post-liberalism that I particularly like is its stress on the continuity of the faith, on our standing in a line of inheritance that we should respect and assert rather than suspect and reject. Which brings me back to my approach to hymnody.

In selecting hymns, based on Scripture, I am surrounding myself with the witness of the tradition. the words of the great hymn writers bring alive the ways of understanding and believing of generations past. When these words enter our worship they join us to our past in a powerful and visceral way.

As I move forward in the preparation of worship my primary focus is on the words I find in the Bible and my secondary focus on the situation into which I preach but these are supported and enhanced by the hymnody, by the tradition from which we come.

I am, therefore, completely unapologetic about my methods for the preparation of services and for the part played by hymns in it. I think they express something profoundly important, to me, about what it means to be a Christian.

  1. In the grand scheme of things that I’m horrified by, the influence of hymnody in your preaching is not something that greatly worries me. I often quote hymns in my preaching. This is not to say that I do this unreflectively but I cannot imagine you would do this in an unreflective manner. It is my belief that good theology should always lead to exalted doxology and exalted doxology must always spring from good theology. For doxology that does not spring from good theology is nothing short of idolatry and good theology that does not lead to doxology is dead orthodoxy. I trust you are getting on well in ministry and finding God as faithful as His Word in all you are called to. God bless.

    • I’m certainly happy in my ministry at the moment, James. I agree with what you say about doxology and theology, although what constitutes “good theology” is something one would need to explore a bit to find the extent and the limits of that agreement. We would both say, I’m sure, that what makes theology good, above all else, is its ability to be helpful in working with the Spirit to help people know and follow Christ. Abstract “truthfulness”, while not a bad thing, is not the core of the purpose of theological thinking. That thinking must always be subordinate to the various tasks of discipleship, both that of the thinker and that of the whole Church.

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