The History and Future of Hymns

(Neil, again.) I’ve posted about Charles Wesley’s hymns here. This December will mark the tercentenary of Charles Wesley’s birth, and Stephen Plant of Wesley House, Cambridge, asks in this week’s “Credo” column in the Times whether the era of congregational singing of hymns and songs is actually ending as a fruitful part of Christian life in Britain. That seems hard to imagine. But even if it is not, the Rev. Dr. Plant reminds us, “Charles Wesley’s tercentenary ought to occasion some soul searching within the churches about the continuing role of a medium of which he was an undisputed master.”

Stephen Plant writes:

Even if his name is unfamiliar, Charles Wesley’s hymns may not be.

Anyone who has heard Christmas carols sung in the high street is likely to recognise Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. Many who have attended a church wedding have mumbled along with Love Divine, All Loves Excelling. Estimates vary (as it is hard to distinguish Charles’s poems from his hymns) but he wrote between 7,000 and 10,000 hymns — one every couple of days throughout his adult life. If your grandparents lived in England a hundred years ago, they probably treasured more of these hymns than you do.

For Charles, hymn writing was not simply an apt mode of self-expression. In the 18th century the hymn was an effective means to engage popular culture. Hymns were often indistinguishable from folk songs; many set sacred words to secular tunes. Up to the beginning of the 18th century, singing in church typically involved chanting psalms. Hymns enabled writers to express their religious convictions in ways that could be readily owned by the poor. When a cantor gave out words line by line, even the illiterate could join in. The ways hymn writers interpreted biblical stories through personal religious experience made the hymn — hard as this may be to grasp now — a highly subversive cultural innovation.

For Charles and John — himself a gifted translator and writer of hymns, who bankrolled the early Methodist movement with several successful hymn books — popularity was only one factor that made hymns useful. Their hymn books were carefully arranged under doctrinal headings so that they should serve as “a little body of experimental and practical divinity”. For them, hymns were not merely crowd pullers; they were the primary means by which church members learnt Christian doctrine and grew in faith. Which is why, popular though Charles’s hymns undoubtedly were, the best of them trade richly on the language, stories and doctrines of the Authorised Version of the Bible, much of which is lost on most of today’s Christians.

By the 19th century, hymns were widespread in all English churches. As the medium mutated, it became increasingly settled and sentimental. By the second half of the 20th century, British Christians were waking up to the possibility that hymns had become alien to those they were trying to attract to services. Whatever the merits of the hymn had been, plugging the Church into popular culture was no longer one of them and hymns were more likely to estrange than engage visitors.

Many attempts have followed to reinvigorate traditions of singing in worship. Electric bands are replacing pipe organs; worship songs and choruses are replacing 18th and 19th-century hymns; and computerised projection screens are beginning to replace hymn books. A number of very fine songs and hymns have been added by contemporary writers to the diet of English-speaking churches. Yet the question grows daily more pressing: is the era of the congregational singing of hymns — and songs — ending as a fruitful part of Christian life and worship in Britain?

If the answer to that question is “yes”, it challenges most acutely those churches that rely more heavily on hymns as a vehicle for theological teaching than on liturgy. And even if the answer is “no”, Charles Wesley’s tercentenary ought to occasion some soul searching within the churches about the continuing role of a medium of which he was an undisputed master.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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