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Review: Come, Let Us Sing

Posted by Christopher Idle, 6 Nov 2020

Christopher Idle reviews Robert Smith's, "Come, Let Us Sing: A Call to Musical Reformation"

In this attractive but disturbing manifesto, a Sydney Anglican exposes two scandals which damage evangelical Christians when and wherever they meet.

One is their virtual abandonment of the Psalms, in spite of the unparalleled resources now available. Michael Baughen’s early initiatives are noted, but not the complete metrical Psalters from Carl Daw, Martin Leckebusch, David Preston or Emma Turl. Brian Wren and John Bell are quoted for their hymn-related wisdom but not their hymns, so also Brian Edwards for his book on revival, but not his masterminding a hymnal (Praise!) which opens with 150-plus Psalm versions. Most of those named are content, like Watts and Wesley, to leave the music to others.

The second blot on our gatherings is the wholesale surrender to the current culture of singer/songwriters, too many of whom can neither write nor sing. Pastors whose teaching programmes would scorn any hint of sub-standard doctrine seem content to entertain their flock on a diet of musical junk food. This is put more politely in quotations from Nick Page and David Montgomery, who says, “The standard of contemporary worship songs is embarrassingly low.”

But the author is not simply an evangelical Eeyore. After tracing “The path to the present” (skimming through three centuries), he conducts his main biblical explorations: why God’s people gather, why they sing, helping them change, and “The road ahead.” Here is a convincing call which some of us have been muttering in our smaller corners for years.

Robert Smith is rich in quotations. An index would have helped; we often meet Luther, Bonhoeffer, Don Carson and Jeremy Begbie, even Lloyd-Jones and C. S. Lewis. But nothing from Timothy Dudley-Smith; whose insights from sixty years of writing could have strongly supported the book’s main contentions. Popularity polls feature briefly; while few could question the success of “In Christ alone,” such votes are often cast by viewers rather than singers, and the Copyright Licensing statistics don’t reach those congregations still blessed with hymn-books—which contra Smith give far more choice than the narrow selection of favourites appearing, mangled and misspelt, on our Sunday screens.

No verdict here on cathedral Evensong, nor Taize or Sydney Carter which for many are now mainstream. Hymn Society publications deserve measured commendation. But in spite of all shortcomings, rejoice that “where there is mercy, there you will find music. Where there is salvation, there you will find song. Where God is present, there you will hear God’s praise.”

Christopher Idle is a hymn writer and retired minister.

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