Saturday 10 December 2011



I don't like hymns - I much prefer a spoken Church service, using the traditional Anglican liturgy.

Obviously, I an wrong about this, in the sense that singing or chanting has always been a major part of Christian worship - in particular the psalms.

I acknowledge that far better Christians than myself have found music a valuable - even vital - element in worship.

And the Orthodox Church has the practise that only singing (not speaking) is permitted in services - although the 'singing' is often chanting a monotone (which I would regard as simply a means of vocally-projecting the words and of preventing vocal fatigue - monotone chant ought surely to be inflected just like ordinary speaking).

So, here I am being completely unreasonable...


But while chanting the liturgy and psalms are one thing, singing multiple hymns is quite another.

I really don't want to spend half an a hour of a Church service communally-droning half-a dozen or more multi-verse turgid hymns of vaguely praising sentiment - nor even short cheery hymns.

If I enjoy the music and my singing of it, then this is usually a non-Christian kind of enjoyment - an aesthetic enjoyment (or perhaps the enjoyment of group solidarity, like being in a football crowd).

Indeed, I used to enjoy hymns much more before I was a Christian than since I became a Christian - in fact the music was pretty much the only thing I used to enjoy about going to church; my enjoyment of hymns and the liturgy has been reciprocal, my spiritual life has grown with my hymnophobia!


I am backed-up in this hymnophobia by CS Lewis (who fought-against his hymnophobia, but found this difficult) and Charles Williams. Both, like me, preferred to attend the early, short, hymn-free communion or prayer services and evensong (which may be musical - but not usually hymn based) in the Church of England - rather than the main service of the day with its many hymns.

(Incidentally, these short Anglican services often also do not feature any 'sermon' or homily - which can be a valuable point in their favor in the case of politically correct priests.)

I wonder how many people are, like me, put off the whole idea of attending church by associating it with singing hymns and 'worship songs', and assuming that this is the proper focus of things?


Whether it is chanted or spoken sonorously, the formal Anglican liturgy (based on the Book of Common Prayer) and composed prayers are properly the focus in the services which I have personally found most valuable - the services are mostly stereotypical (the same every time) although elements change through the Church year.

These services contain the ancient wisdom and eternal perspective which we most need; whereas the improvised prayers, hymns and songs, and sermons are the place - too often - where worldliness has penetrated the Church, and taken over all-but completely.

When there is no ancient liturgy, when the words have been and continue to be changed and 're-translated' (i.e. brought into line with modern secular morality), when the forms and orders of activity are lost (I means elements like the creed, confession, Agnus Dei), when the prayers are topical and focused on utilitarian goals - then the Church is left wide-open to corruption, and has no fortifications for resistance.

And standing around and singing multiple hymns together is merely an off-putting distraction...



Proph said...

I too am not fond of singing, especially since our music ministers are not always the greatest -- but thankfully our parish uses song sparsely and tastefully, generally during the entrance and exit procession, during collections, and of course the Agnus Dei. I have been to parishes where nearly the entire mass is done not merely in chant but song and found it grating and distracting.

Kristor said...

For Heaven's sake, what hymnbook are you using? Is it still Hymns Ancient & Modern? If so, your music director must be picking the most modern of the modern alternatives.

Our Episcopal Hymnal (1982), which has a lot of overlap with Hymns Ancient & Modern, has tons of hymn tunes and texts that date from the very earliest centuries of the church. Texts by Venantius Fortunatus, Aquinas, Augustine, Justin Martyr, Ambrose, Anselm, and the like, many so ancient as to be anonymous. Then there are the "modern" texts by 19th century poets of the Oxford Movement, suffused with sublime spirituality and insight. Add in Donne, Herbert, Addison.

The tunes range from plainchant that dates from the 700s to Tallis, Byrd, and Gibbons, to the Wesley brothers, to horrible bathetic stuff written in the 70's. But most of the hymn book is really, really old. And I have found that much of its theology is profound. The poets who wrote those hymns somehow managed to learn an awful, awful lot about the symbology of ancient Israel, and how it is echoed throughout the Church and her liturgy. They know, e.g., that the vestment of the High Priest = the Veil = the Firmament = the created order = Christ's body = the Church; they know that the Glory is clothed in these different things.

I don't particularly like to sing the hymns, because with the congregation singing along it is not possible to achieve a level of performance that suffices to express their musical potential. But for that very reason my hymn-singing is mostly an inward exercise – often I only whisper along – and I do often find myself staggered, as I'm singing, at their depth, sublimity and penetration. The hymns are worthy of contemplation; for they are often the work of great doctors, saints, poets, mystics and theologians. They are usually much much better, as homiletics, than whatever is likely to be heard from the pulpit.

Anonymous said...

Today I was in Macy's in Bethesda, MD and in the spirit of Christmas there was a 95% black youth gospel choir that transported me straight to somewhere else. The quality was exceptional, the power was huge, and the purpose was to spread the good news. Which they did without even a hint of inhibition. The songs they did were overtly religious (with the occasional jingle bells thrown in) as they got busy converting souls, white and black. I wept quietly at a number of points because the spiritual experience I had was that intense. I felt I was carried home after I thought that home was lost. They sang things to total strangers that can't be said in public without song because it is such bald Gospel. Some of the songs had nothing to do with Christmas and were just to glorify God.

Religion and faith are not first an intellectual things, although they are those those things. They are first matters of the heart, and of emotion.

Wm Jas said...

I've experienced the same change, in reverse. I didn't much like hymns when I was a believer but enjoy them much more now.

Diver said...

Agreed about bad hymns, but agree with Kristor too. I'll put in a plug for the Lutheran Service Book put out by Concordia Publishing House. Many good old, old hymns and some fantastic ones from the 16th and 17th century. Paul Gerhardt, Phillippe Nicolai..