Toorak Uniting Church

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100th anniversary of the English Hymnal

Acts 11: 18     Revelation 21: 3
Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood
6 May 2007

Three texts to reflect on this morning:

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; Revelation 21:3

… they praised God, saying, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." Acts 11:18

But wait, there is more:

This time from the preface of the English Hymnal, words of Ralph Vaughan Williams: "The music is intended to be essentially congregational in character…" English Hymnal, 1906

All these little snippets point to the answer that lies at the heart of a series of fundamental questions that the church needs to remind itself of quite frequently. Question: why all this? All these God stories all this architecture, all these prayers, all this music, why all this? Because the home of God is among mortals. Why? For the sake of all mortals. God heard the cry of slaves in Egypt and God sent leaders to take them to their freedom in a covenant relationship with God’s self. God spoke through the ages through men and women to draw them again and again away from life-styles that would enslave them again. In Jesus God lives a life among human kind so that not even death, the final conqueror of freedom, can separate us from the life that is given us in Christ. That is why!

Luke tells his stories in the Book of Acts about the struggles of the infant church. He tells of Peter going to the house of Cornelius and baptizing gentiles. It is such an important story that Luke tells it a second time when he tells of Peter giving an account of his unprecedented actions when he was called to report to the church back in Jerusalem. Until then the answer to the question, ‘who is all this for?’ was, ‘God’s people who live under the covenant of Moses and David and the prophets’. Now the answer had to be different. Peter and Paul had turned the old answer on its head and had come up with a new inclusive answer because the Spirit of God had presented them with a new situation. Gentiles were entering the covenant relationship with God sealed by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now the answer to the question was, ‘all people are included’. Who is it all for? everyone! …the home of God is among mortals – not some mortals, all mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.

What has this to do with a hymnal? Well, it seems to me that at pivotal points in the church’s history when there have been major reforms such as the Second Vatican Council and the Reformations, these focal questions get asked and answered all over again. It is answered most obviously in the reform of the church’s liturgy. If all this salvation stuff is for all people then the words that tell of and celebrate the salvation story must be in the people’s language. The Reformers and Vatican II had the liturgies of the church translated into the vernacular, the languages of the people. The reformers did not stop there. They said that the music of the church must also be returned to the people; therefore the music must be their music – their everyday music, their market place music, their tavern music. That is why the tradition of hymn music in the church is based on folk music. Luther had love songs of his day used for hymns tunes. Jesu mein freud was originally Flora mein freud. Modern hymn writers in Scotland are doing the same today – using folk music as hymn tunes. John Bell of the Iona Community is particularly adept at this.

One of the great exponents of folk music in England was Ralph Vaughan Williams. No wonder he got into the folk music of the church, its hymnody. No wonder he wrote in the preface of the English Hymnal, ‘The music is intended to be essentially congregational in character…’ This is for everyone – everyone who enters church to worship God will be given a hymn book to sing from – a precious gift indeed, and one we should not take for granted. We are all part of this wonderful ensemble, to join with angels and archangels in the songs of heaven. There are no auditions for this ensemble – we are all in, all included, for we all need to express our praise to God.

Sounds lovely and idyllic, I know, and of course it’s not. Nothing is in life and nothing is in the church either. I have got into more trouble over the hymns I have chosen than for any other error of judgment I have committed. The opposite seems to be true of a colleague. A member of his congregation confessed to me recently that his only redeeming quality was that he chose good hymns.

Another great contributor to English church music was Erik Routley (his paraphrase of Psalm 1 is number one in TiS) – Routley wrote:

We are apt to forget that music in church is not necessarily a unifying influence, a function of friendship, but rather a divisive influence, a generator of resentment. Experience confirms it. Whenever music in a Christian community goes beyond a certain quite elementary degree of sophistication, a division appears between the ‘highbrows’ and the ‘lowbrows’, between the professional and the amateur, between the organ console and the pew - with the pulpit becoming an uneasy and often unsuccessful mediator … It should be one of the marks of the church’s special genius that its music can be satisfying both to the musician of fastidious standards and to the non-musical worshipper. Erik Routley, Music Leadership in the Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1967), pp. 90-91

I think that is why Luke was telling his stories in Acts about the troubles of the infant church. He didn’t just tell of the conversion and baptism of Cornelius and his household, but he went on to tell of the ruckus that this caused for the church and how the church dealt with it. This is a story written for the church to give her heart when she is caught in her ever so many wrangles that cause so many heart aches. The church is forever finding itself in new situations and some of the leaders take actions that others disagree with. Music also presents the church with new situations and it brings its divisions. It is a little realised fact in the Uniting Church that there are two committees that deal with music in the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania each focussing on a different range of cultural taste. We have been unable to find that special genius or the political will to embrace the full range of suitable musical cultures in the church under one roof.

Erik Routley said that the church should have some special genius for resolving its musical differences. The same could be said of all our differences. Luke told stories to illustrate how the church exercised this special genius – it remembered the stories of Jesus and what he had said. In the case of including gentiles they remembered his dealings with gentiles, for example. How he talked with a Samaritan woman at the well. How the hero of one of his best remembered stories was a foreigner. How the servant of Roman officer was healed. They remembered what Jesus did and we have a record of their memory in the gospels.

I have looked and looked and I cannot find anywhere that says that Jesus only sang Bach nor anywhere that says that Jesus only sang Hillsong, but we do have stories of Paul who, by the guiding of the Holy Spirit, was attentive to the cultures in which he conducted his missions.
Now here is a special genius, that the gospel is able to baptise all cultures. The churches mission endeavours have been at the worst when it has equated Christianity with western culture and imposed that on other people. It is at its best when it takes seriously that the home of God is with all mortals in all their diversity of culture. The special genius of the English Hymnal is that it identified the folk music culture of its church and gave it into the hands and onto the tongues of congregation members. Hymn books and church songbooks and chorus books ever since have stood in that tradition.

© Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood, 2007

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