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Church hymn-singing has evolved over centuries

Members of the Mass Choir sing a hymn during the opening worship of the United Methodist 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.

By Kathleen LaCamera*
Dec. 19, 2007 | LONDON (UMNS)

When Charles Wesley began penning his more than 7,000 hymns back in the 18th century, hymn-singing was not part of the worship life of Anglican congregations. In fact, until 1821, hymn-singing was illegal in the Church of England.

Wesley, remembered Dec. 18 on what would have been his 300th birthday, was creating something for the Anglican Church for which it had no use, according to church music scholar S T Kimbrough.

"Hymn-singing was considered something that dissenters did," he said.

In the early days of the Methodist movement, it was in small group meetings, called bands and classes, where Wesley’s hymns were sung.

"Hymns were commentaries on faith," Kimbrough explained. "People learned Scripture through hymns. People carried hymnals around with them."

But in a multimedia, multicultural age, where does hymn-singing fit in? Is it a quaint-relic of another age or does it still have value in the 21st century?

According to Donald Saliers, William Cannon Professor of Theology and Worship, Emeritus, at Emory University, hymn-singing continues to help Christians learn and rehearse the essential truths of their faith.

"Hymns are poetry that lives to deepen Christian faith," Saliers told United Methodist News Service. "Hymns encode memory and make it accessible to generations."

That may explain why those who no longer go to church or even claim a faith still want to sing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" and other traditional carols at Christmas time.

"There is something about the way in which hymns and carols accumulate memory and experience," observed Saliers.

A living legacy

"Hymns were commentaries on faith," says Wesley scholar S T Kimbrough. A UMNS file photo by Ronny Perry.

During a study of hymn-singing practices some years ago, Saliers asked a group of older people what made their favorite hymn so special. One woman told him that when that she heard her favorite hymn, it brought back the smell of church suppers. Another said that when listening to "How Great Thou Art" she could hear "my grandmother’s voice."

"These women were offering their own spiritual history mediated through their senses," he explained.

Both Saliers and Kimbrough believe that keeping alive the legacy of Charles Wesley and other great hymn writers can necessitate finding new tunes that help bring old classic texts to life.

"As you move culture to culture, 19th-century Victorian tunes don’t necessarily speak to anyone," said Kimbrough.

Both also point to contemporary hymn writers such as Fred Pratt, Brian Wren, Bernadette Farrell, Shirley Erena Murray, Ruth Duck and others who, influenced by the Wesleyan hymn-writing tradition, have continued to create new hymns to feed and nurture the 21st-century spiritual imagination.

"Eye-opening and ear-opening" developments regarding hymns also are occurring in the global church, observed Kimbrough.

*LaCamera is a UMNS correspondent based in England.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


A medley of Charles Wesley hymns

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