How I Pick Hymns for the Eucharist

Reflection 17-3-13

Once I was making an appointment, and they said ‘Well can I come at say 11.30 on X Day?’ “Sorry”, I replied “I’ve got hymn choosing at 10.00” “What!!?? It takes all that time? What do you do for heaven’s sake?”

That conversation, along with the encouragement of a member of the congregation, made me think that a reflection on how the hymns are chosen would be a good thing.

The first thing to notice is that we sing from a hymn collection called ‘Common Praise’. This book is chosen and designed for the Church of England. When I think about singing in Church, there are two big streams that come to mind. One is the more modern kind of ‘Hill Song’ style of music which has the benefit that it engages one’s emotions and heart. It is simple and easily singable and represents a link between the culture of devotion in secular ‘love’ and the ‘love of God’.

Making this link is important if Christ is to be incarnated into any given culture. I must say, it is not my culture. This is partly because I am not seventeen any more, and partly because I am a bit reserved in public.

This idea of ‘reserve’ is important. When people are young, we often see them kissing in the street and comment about the ‘public displays of affection’. We shrink from them a bit. But the kind of singing  which grasps our hearts is like a ‘public display of affection’ in church. I shrink a bit from that too. But that does not mean that emotions are not strong, or running high. Sometimes it is as a reaction against the strength of my emotions and devotion that I want to distance myself from showing it in Church. I say ‘If I let these emotions out I will not be able be ‘together’ much at all, such is their strength. I think though, that we could probably do with a bit more public emotion . The other style of music that belongs to this stream is the Taizé style of music. It has been written by Jaques Berthier a well known French composer, and the words that one sings are from the bible, or simple statements of faith like ‘Jesus your light is shining within us, let not my doubt and my darkness speak to me’. This kind of singing also speaks to our hearts, but then the style of music itself is not so emotional as some of the more modern kinds.

So then comes the hymns in our collection. They have at the foremost a strong intellectual content in the actual words that we sing. Charles Wesley is for me the great exemplar of putting very solid theology into his hymns. He taught his theology through them. ‘No condemnation now I dread…alive in Him my living head…bold I approach the eternal throne. etc.’  These hymns were set to modern tunes (for his day) and so were also very singable. I think he invented the question ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?”

The music we now use has been composed mostly by classical composers and is designed for organs and keyboards mostly rather than ‘bands’. These then emphasise a theological approach to God.

I think that there ought to be room for both ‘heart and head’ in Church music, and room for making bridges between cultures too so that not only do we introduce people to good tunes and theology through the hymns, we reach out to them with some music that they know both in special services, and in our main Sunday Eucharist.

So now to the process of choosing hymns. Choosing hymns is like building a spider’s web. There are a number of strands of influence which all act together to then focus on a particular hymn or set of hymns.

The first question I ask is ‘What is the gospel for the Sunday? The Gospel is the controlling reading for each week, and sets the ‘theme’ for each Eucharist. So I look at the Gospel reading and ask ‘What is God trying to tell us in this reading? Is there a hymn that will reinforce this message?’ Once that has been done, there are there other hymns to pick. One to begin, one for the offertory (gifts of money, bread and wine) and one to ‘sum up’ the day and prepare us to go out. These events are ‘movements’ within the drama of the Eucharist. It does not fit the ‘plot’ of a Eucharist to sing ‘Now let us from this table rise’ at the beginning, because we arte not rising from the table!

The first hymn can either introduce the theme of the day, if there is a good selection, or it can be a hymn that prepares us to worship God as an activity. Over the last couple of weeks we have sung ‘Praise to the Lord the Almighty’, and on Lent 1 we sang ‘Lead us heavenly Father lead us’ to convey the idea of a Lenten Pilgrimage.

Having chosen the Gospel hymn, we now think about the offertory hymn. This one can either focus on the Eucharist itself or on the act of giving ourselves to God. We sang last Sunday ‘In Christ there is no East or West’ to illustrate how everyone is called to God’s banquet in the Eucharist. Sometimes we sing ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’ to bring us to a place of utmost seriousness at the Eucharist (This hymn could also do at the beginning).

Finally, we have to think about going out. The ‘response’ to our Eucharist is to turn our minds to community affairs (the announcements) and our mission in the world. The hymn helps us to do this. On palm Sunday, for example we will sing ‘We have a Gospel to proclaim, good news to all o’er all the earth’ This hymn directs our thoughts in the right path to end a Eucharist (but it could also do as the Gospel hymn sometimes, or perhaps at the beginning, depending on the theme of the day).

So in terms of the words that we sing, there are two influences, the theme for the day, and the particular part in the drama of the Eucharist that the hymn plays.

The tune of the hymn also plays a very big part in what hymn is chosen. Have you ever tried to sing ‘While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night’ to the tune of ‘On Ilkley Moor bah’t ‘at’ It scans, but is not appropriate for Church. The music affects our emotions. So I would say we need something energising to begin, something ‘serious’ to draw our attention to the Gospel, something devotional for the Offertory and something energising once more to go out by.

So there you have it. Hymn picking takes a long time because it is a delicate balancing act among a number of factors. I would love it if we sang better. If anyone has an idea about how to help this, I’d be all ears!

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell is now a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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