Save our hymnbooks!
When I began my ministry in 1960, congregations without exception used hymnbooks in their public worship. Today quite a number of churches have abandoned them for hymns projected either on a wall or a screen. In other churches hymnbooks are supplemented by books of choruses, some locally compiled, others published by commercial firms.
Some may feel that the disappearance of hymnbooks from public worship would be no bad thing. They consider them passé – inappropriate for contemporary worship.
I recall a conversation I had some years ago with the head of the largest book distributor in Australia. He was not interested in distributing Christian Hymns, he said, because the projector now made hymnbooks obsolete.
However, before our hymnbooks disappear altogether – and in some quarters their demise is well under way – it would be wise to pause and reflect on what this would involve.
First and foremost, the Trinitarian structure of public worship would fade into the background. Good hymnbooks are arranged with the holy Trinity in the foreground. So, for example, Christian Hymns has a large section entitled ‘The Triune God’, and further sections with hymns extolling in turn the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
These sections express both the unity of God – he is triune – and the co-equality of the three Persons and their specific roles in redemption. Whether they realise it or not, congregations using such a hymnbook are engaged in theologically moulded worship.
Preachers too are helped in choosing hymns that relate to the sermon. It is a nightmare to select appropriate hymns when the table of contents has been abolished in favour of alphabetical order!
We cannot afford to lose our hymnbooks because they help us retain the Trinitarian nature of our worship. There is enough unconscious error around as it is. I often (especially at communion services) hear prayers that confuse the Father with the Son – as if the Father suffered on the cross and not the Son (this is plain Patripassianism if you want the technical term).
A second reason why we should retain our hymnbooks is that we would lose the hymnody of past generations. Such a loss would be sad indeed. Ambrose of Milan (c.339-97) would surely disappear to our loss, but are not these lines simply wonderful?
Infinite God, to thee we raise
Our hearts in solemn songs of praise;
By all thy works on earth adored,
We worship thee, the common Lord;
The everlasting Father own,
And bow our souls before thy throne.
From a later period comes the moving aspirational hymn by Bianco da Siena (c.1350-1434).
Come down, O Love divine,
Seek thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with thine own ardour glowing;
O Comforter, draw near,
Within my heart appear,
And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.
Should we lose Luther’s stirring hymns in these days when our precious Christian faith is under increasing attack? Surely not! And what of the hymns written during times of revival, with their marvellous blend of sound doctrine and vital experience? What heat and light there is in William Williams’ (1717-91) marvellous hymn:
Jesus, Jesus, all-sufficient,
Beyond telling is thy worth:
In thy name lie greater treasures
Than the richest found on earth,
Is my portion with my God.
The prayer time
A third reason why we cannot afford to lose our hymnbooks is because of their place in private devotion. Many Christians, myself included, find great help in their quiet times from hymns. When I have been tired and dry, what help I have received from John Newton, that once godless seafarer!
How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.
It makes the wounded spirit whole,
And calms the troubled breast;
‘Tis manna to the hungry soul,
And to the weary rest.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me make it plain that I am not against new hymns of quality. But I must ask whether we will we be singing many of our contemporary hymns and choruses in fifty years time.
Meanwhile let us keep our hymnbooks in regular use. We shall lose out spiritually if we jettison them as relics of the past.