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Hymn books

Ministry Monday: A Plea for Hymn Books

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Posted by Liam Beadle, 19 Sep 2016

Screens have replaced hymn books in very many of our churches. But in gaining flexibility and storage space, what have we lost?

‘I loved that hymn we sang last week,’ said a friend. ‘I wish I could remember what it was.’ The words had reminded him of something he had found helpful in a sermon, but the words had appeared on a screen – and then disappeared. His only hope was to ring the organist and ask what the hymns were, but few of us are likely to do that. How much better would it have been if he could have kept the service paper, or looked the words up in his hymn book at home!

It has become fashionable to dispense with hymn books, but they have a number of advantages over screens. Here are three:

1. Words which appear on screens appear ephemeral. They literally appear and then disappear! Words in hymn books have an obvious longevity about them: they are words for the Christian life.

2. Good hymns take the singer on a journey, and so properly to understand verse five, sometimes you need to be able to see verse two. It helps if it hasn’t disappeared!

3. Many Christians like to read (or even sing!) hymns in their quiet time, and they will find a well chosen hymn book, used in church and at home, a great help.

In our tradition, hymn books have helpfully communicated a certain ethos. Historically, C.B. Snepp’s Songs of Grace and Glory was the choice of the truly Reformed Anglican. It was used, for example, at St Mary-le-Port, Bristol. Church Society itself published the Anglican Hymn Book in 1965 to succeed The Church Hymnal for the Christian Year and the Hymnal Companion to the Book of Common Prayer. More recently, evangelical Anglicans produced Hymns for Today’s Church and its successor Sing Glory, while other Reformed evangelicals rejoiced in the Evangelical Movement of Wales’s Christian Hymns.

These books were not mere ‘resources’ in alphabetical order. They were books of evangelical theology and devotion in verse.

The choice of hymns in a service is rightly the province of the minister, because what we sing is bound to form and re-form us. But when the hymns appear on a screen, the ordinary Christian is only exposed to what the minister has chosen, and cannot allow his or her eye to wander to neighbouring verses. To ask a provocative question, is a form of evangelical popery? When Cranmer produced the Book of Common Prayer, he placed in the hands of the layman the prayers of the Church. Perhaps it is time to put the hymns of the Church back in their hands, too.

The Revd. Liam Beadle is vicar of Honley.

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