In light of Andrew Nash’s very considerable knowledge of hymns and his faithfully recording our choice of praise week by week, I asked him to reflect on this most significant work of our sung worship for our pastoral letter this month
C Peter White
Following the escape from Egypt, Moses and the children of Israel “sang to the Lord” (Exodus 15 v1). From then on, singing became an integral part of Jewish religious life, finding particular blessing in David’s psalms, which provided the basis for virtually all Jewish and Christian music until after the Reformation. If you want the scriptural basis for singing, then Psalm 92 v1-4 is a good starting point: It is good to praise the Lord and make music to your name O Most High, to proclaim your love in the morning and your faithfulness at night. Then read and dwell on Psalms 95 v1, 96 v1, 98 v4-6, and 100 v1-3.
In the early church, Paul exhorted Christians to sing, and in Ephesians 5 v18-20 he says: …be filled with the Spirit. Speak to yourselves (AV) [one another (NIV)] in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. And in Colossians 3 v15-16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your heart to God. It is interesting that in the former he speaks of the indwelling Holy Spirit and in the latter the indwelling Word, each inspiring our singing, with the thought that it should be a combination of outpouring from the heart – Spirit - together with the application of our mind – Word. Francis Pott (1832-1909) encapsulated this in his hymn “Angel voices ever singing” (Praise 169): Here to you, great God, we offer praise in harmony; and for your acceptance proffer, all unworthily, hearts and minds and hands and voices, in our choicest psalmody.
Most of our hymns are post Reformation and in the early days they were largely written by the dissenters, notably Isaac Watts, John and Charles Wesley, Philip Doddridge and others, and compilations of their work formed the first hymn books during the 18th century. It was another hundred years before the Church of England permitted hymn singing in services and since then hymn books as we know them today became the norm in all the major denominations. Even so, they draw on the best of hymns written throughout the Christian era and contain hymns going back to Clement of Alexandria (170-220) “Lead holy shepherd, lead us” (RCH 569), right up to those of the present day.
In Sandyford, in the 1850’s the singing was unaccompanied, with a precentor leading psalms and paraphrases, probably using the Scottish Psalter of 1650. A little later there was a “band” or group of singers, with a leader but there was often criticism of the quality of the music, with fairly regular changes of leaders and singers. In 1865, the Kirk Session discussed the introduction of a hymn book and in 1866 the organists of Park Church and Sandyford collaborated in the production of a tune book. Following the installation of the organ in 1866, the singing was accompanied and led by a choir. This pattern continued until the relatively recent introduction of the Praise Group and use of the digital piano and other instruments for today’s worship songs, with the organ being used for more traditional hymns. The one constant feature is that the Sandyford building’s acoustic is wonderfully suited to singing and whatever the criticisms in the past, the present congregation cannot be faulted for the quality of its singing.
But what do we sing? A recent analysis revealed that in 2006 we sang 341 different items of praise, 247 of these from the Praise hymnbook. Forty-one other items came from the Scottish Psalter and Paraphrases (1929) or from other sources. In addition, the Praise Group used 53 items not in Praise. Counting the number of hymns and songs repeated during the year, the grand total is 554 singings. However, it is interesting to note that within the 113 repetitions, most have been used only twice or three times, 14 have been used 4 times (6 of these by the Praise Group), one 5 times (You are a holy God), and one 6 times (In Christ alone). We rather take for granted those who minister in terms of the choice of praise but we are blest in having a broad and growing repertoire, used appropriately to fit the spirit and content of each service, and we should thank God for this.
The fact that we have only used 247 items in Praise from its total of 976 must call into question the value of expensive hymn compilations in an age when new hymns and songs of quality appear frequently. Moreover, with the availability of textual imaging and projection, it is so much easier to use material which is not in Praise as well as experiencing the benefit to our singing of projecting all the sung items. The already high standard of our congregational singing has been enhanced by the screens causing people to stand up straight with their heads up – the correct position for good singing! If you haven’t experienced the sheer thrill of Sandyford in song, you probably sit towards the back. If you want to contribute and really enjoy the big sound, then you will need to sit nearer the front.
The combination of older and newer hymns and songs in our worship is healthy, as it indicates that we appreciate and rejoice in the rich heritage that the traditional hymns and tunes provide while at the same time demonstrating that we aren’t living in the past. Indeed, we are observing the Psalmist’s injunction to “Sing a new song” (Ps 98 v1). We would be impoverished if we set aside the old hymns and psalms in favour of the new. Every generation produces new ones but relatively few survive the test of time. Charles Wesley wrote 7000 hymns but even the Methodist Hymn Book (1933) only contained 250 of these and nowadays fewer than 100 Wesley hymns will be sung with any regularity. In our day there has been an explosion of new hymns and worship songs but most of them will not survive beyond the present generation. Only the best of Timothy Dudley-Smith, Christopher Idle, Graham Kendrick and Stuart Townend, to name four of today’s writers, will still be sung in 50 years' time.
The same has to be said about accompaniment, when so much of today’s worship in many churches across the denominations is led from keyboards and by praise bands, which lend themselves to the style of modern worship songs. It also offers the opportunity for many more people to participate in the leading of worship. Nevertheless, for the more traditional hymns, it is difficult to imagine anything better than a good organ. Sandyford has been blessed with a fine instrument, but after 141 years and no major work since it was rebuilt into the chancel 85 years ago, it is at the end of its present life. To restore it to its full capacity and tonal excellence would cost a six figure sum and the very soon Kirk Session and Congregational Board will have to give prayerful consideration to how we proceed.
Whatever we do in the future, we don’t want to lose anything of the present enthusiasm and vitality of our singing and the blessing that this can be to so many. Let us move forward, seeking greater things under God’s gracious leading. David’s words at the opening of Psalm 96 seem particularly appropriate in this context: Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise His name; proclaim His salvation day after day. Declare His glory among the nations, his marvellous deeds among all peoples. May God bless us as we seek so to do.
Andrew NashView All Letters