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andrew rumsey
strangely warmed
By Andrew Rumsey
More strange warmings here
 
Mighty rivers of praise
May 2001

Before I start, perhaps I might bless you with a song:

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he


Now, woolly theology aside for a moment (call me a pedant, but exactly when did he say that?), this tune has a lot to answer for. Time's dubbing may have rendered it harmless and even faintly endearing, but those batty lyrics and jaunty beat were as the hips of Elvis in their impact upon the postwar church, heralding a departure from Proper Hymns towards Something a Little Livelier.

As a small child, I would watch enthralled as our organist – vanquished in a battle of wills with the vicar – would dispense with Lord of the Dance by charging through it as if his cassock were aflame. The Lord – who had hitherto been rehearsing a gentle foxtrot – became whisked into a frenzied tango, which reached its climax as the organist hurtled to the last chord and proceeded to fling the hymnbook over the back of the organ in disgust.

The poor incumbent would have had an easier time had he attempted to introduce Lady Chatterley's Lover onto the church bookstall. He might read out his shopping lists for sermons and the faithful would nod appreciatively and comment with enthusiasm on his choice of text. But strike a jarring note musically and each would look as though they'd swallowed a wasp.

Thirty years and a thousand choruses later, the uneasy truce between traditional and popular styles is helpfully being addressed by a flurry of new hymnbooks on the British market which gamely seek to integrate the best of both. While the go-ahead titles of some of these (The Bridge, The Source) are a little awkward (try as I might, I can't help feeling that to say "now if you could take The Source and turn toÉ" is more suitable for a television chef than a priest), a sense of balance is usually achieved and tipped only by the occasional howling error.

How one such collection can include a song which begins "Lost in the shuffle, I was lost as a goose" (shuffle? Goose??) and leave out "May the Mind of Christ my Saviour" is beyond comprehension.

Such things are important, for what we sing affects more than our mood. Crucially, it also shapes our belief – a truth which hymnwriters like Wesley and Watts harnessed so successfully that we are still, as it were, singing their praises. Lyrics seep down into us and stay there whether we like it or not: it is to my great anxiety that I could, for example, recite from memory the words to If I Were a Butterfly far more readily than I could most of the Psalms.

The principle at work here is that of lex orandi lex credendi (either of which, it strikes me, could pass for names of renewal songwriters) – literally, "the law to be spoken is the law to be believed". Viewed historically, our hymnody is a fascinating – if rather unnerving – index of our doctrine in any given period. Rummage amongst Victorian hymnals and you might find something like this:

Jesus is the captain of the seas
A titan o'er the foam
Who fires his broadside sure and true
And makes Guildford his home.

Jesus is the guardian of the isles
A fellow just like us
Who plays a straight bat o'er life's pitch
And won't stand any fuss.

Jesus is the champion of the strong
Who tends e'en lame and needy
Who helps the poor, but not too much
In case they just get greedy.


Speed ahead to the present day, though, and the menu is rather different. Let me quote from one of my own recent compositions entitled, ahem, Jesus, Melt These Tears of Stone:

Let a mighty river flow,
like ringing flames
through the streets of this nation.
Touch, O touch my life
with the soft sword
of your trembling mountain;
make me warm – like a diamond
and let the hearts of this generation
burn with the pure wind of your living face.

(Please feel free to use either of these in your own fellowship.)

Gung-ho imperialism and laboured intimacy are only two themes which show how hymns reflect cultural as much as doctrinal norms. Increasingly, it is the power of the market or the cult of the celebrity songwriter that determine what we sing, until the worshipper's diet becomes purely a matter of personal taste – a recipe for chaos if ever there was.

Fundamentally, the question of Christian worship is not so much a what question – what do we sing? what do I like? – as a who question: who is the God we worship? Church music must turn – as academic theology has increasingly done – to considering the Trinitarian God whose very nature defines our praise.

Worship begins not with us, but with Christ, thank goodness. It is neither our performance to earn God's approval, nor is it a round of applause for his achievements. Rather more profoundly, it is grounded in the worship offered by Christ to the Father which, through the Holy Spirit, all are invited to share in. As the superb (and, at 44 pages, commendably brief) British Council of Churches Report, The Forgotten Trinity, underlines, worship is all about communion with and within God.

A tall order, perhaps, but the only real antidote to hymnbook-flinging is to take the advice of that grandmother of all choruses and "turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face". For most of us do indeed appear strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.

Let's sing that one twice.
 
strangely warmed
Strangely Warmed by Andrew Rumsey is now available as a book.
also see
crow's nest
Stephen Tomkins' regular column of tales of religious lunacy from the far reaches of the Net
hubris 2
Mark Howe's regular rant about Internet culture
loose canons
Also by Stephen Tomkins... a regular round-up of the saints of yore who were one wafer short of a full communion
   
 
 
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