16 June 2021

Methodist identity - singing

We have thought in the last months about being an arminian people, the warmed heart, personal holiness, social holiness, ecumenical and in this final month I would like us to reflect on hymn and song singing.

I have been fascinated to travel the country virtually and preach just about every week of this Presidential year. There have been very few occasions to preach in church buildings due to the pandemic, the few occasions have been very special, but each Sunday has been on Zoom from a whole variety of churches and circuits. It has been a privilege and a joy. One of the interesting observations has been how churches have used hymns and worship songs week by week and how we have sung along with them or remained silent and listened to a whole variety of musicians and singers, both professional and local. The lack of congregational singing has been for me a huge negative of the pandemic. I love to sing with others, even though I may not be very good at it. For me it is one of the doors into the divine presence.

The presidential theme this year has been Wesley’s final words, ‘The best of all is, God is with us’. I have been so grateful to the Revd Andrew Pratt for his many splendid hymns but in particular this year for his hymn of the same title number 610 in Singing the Faith. I have sung it in worship, at least once a week and sometimes many more times and during the year its words have taken on a richer meaning as the year has progressed. No, I haven’t tired of it, indeed just the opposite, the words of the hymn, sung to the set tune ‘Chapel Brae, which was new to me, a year ago, have been one source which has sustained and enriched my faith during this concerning year. This has made me think ‘why are hymns and songs so powerful? Here are just a few thoughts:

  • They are individual. Using the words for personal use in private devotions are a powerful way to absorb the life line of the Christian Faith.
  • To sing them with others gathering for worship provides a unity for the congregation and a unity of faith and belonging which is powerful. There is deep joy in singing together.
  • The differing moods of music and words enable hymns and songs to reach the depths of human experience, just like the Psalms as they express lament, sadness, joy and thanksgiving.
  • In singing hymns and songs, we learn biblical truths which because of the rhyme, rhythm and pattern are helpful tools which enable memory.

During this year I have had the privilege of meeting many Christians, in churches and circuits where they have responded and adapted to being church in new ways. It has been a joy to hear all the exciting stories. But what will we do with hymn and song singing? I do hope and pray we will revisit them in a new way, post the pandemic and see them as real part of our worship, liturgy and spiritual life.

In 1761 John Wesley penned these iconic guidelines for corporate singing for church congregations. In those days it was cutting edge to sing in church and the directions of his may look rather archaic, but if we look at them in the spirit, they were intended they have much to offer. Here they are:

1: Learn these tunes before you learn any others, afterwards learn as many as you please.

2: Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can.

3: Sing All—see that you join the congregation frequently as you can. Let, not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing

4: Sing Lustily—and with good courage. Beware, of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.

5: Sing modestly—do not bawl so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation that you may not destroy the harmony, but strive to unite your voices together so as to make one melodious sound.

6: Sing in time—whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it. Do not run before and do not stay behind it

7: Sing spiritually—have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing Him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so, shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.

At the time of preparing this article we have not heard when we will be able to sing again as congregations, I do hope and pray when you read this, we may have heard some positive news!

Richard J Teal, President of the Conference 2020-21.

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