Longing for fresh bread: Shirley Erena Murray, 1931—2020

Authors & translators:
Murray, Shirley Erena

Shirley Erena Murray, the prolific New Zealand hymn writer, died on 25 January 2020.

shirley-erena-murray-4(Photo by Ron Klusmeier)

Shirley Erena Murray (she always used her middle name) was described in one tribute as “a towering figure” in the world of new hymn-writing, who “truly grasped the significance of local, topical imagery and was able to craft it into many, many examples of a lively faith for today.”

Her hymns have appeared in more than 100 collections worldwide, eleven of them in Singing the Faith.

Brought up a Methodist, Shirley married a Presbyterian minister the Very Reverend John Stewart Murray, and supported his ministry and their family while pursuing her own creative responsive to theology and worship.

Despite the fact that many of the tunes to which her hymns were set have not travelled internationally as successfully as her words have, one obituary added that “her collected hymns represent melodic tributes to New Zealand's bicultural heritage and all the things that make us distinctive as Aotearora-New Zealand.”

Following her appointment as a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, an article in The Hymn (Autumn 2009) observed: "Despite her frustrations with the Church, this writer remains committed to working on its behalf, and her positive, ebullient nature dominates her work. Her hymns are ecumenical in their theology and inclusive in their expression. They embody themes of justice, peace, human rights, nurture, and the integrity of creation."

w2364-faith_makes_the_songIntroducing Shirley’s 2003 hymn collection Faith Makes the Song: new hymns written between 1997 and 2002, Hope Publishing founder George Shorney wrote that “in every respect Shirley Erena Murray is the model contemporary hymn writer. In everyday life it is natural for her to avoid pious clichés and antiquated verbiage, so she does not need to unlearn King James phrases or sexist language. The words and imagery she adopts are thoroughly-modern Shirley.”

He asked Shirley about her motivations and inspirations as a writer. She responded in typically forthright terms:

“Much of what fills our hymnbook is stale bread, once nutritional perhaps, but now furred with mould. I long for the fresh bread of relevant theological thought – crunchy, soul-satisfying stuff- the real food of faith.

“I write out of controlled desperation with the Church and its inability to deal seriously with new theological insight. I write with an awareness of what we are not saying to one another.”

See A jolt of reality – the hymns of Shirley Erena Murray

In 2014, hymn writer and musician Ron Klusmeier recorded conversations with Shirley and her husband John at their home in the Raumati beach area of New Zealand's north isalnd. You can read extracts of their conversations here.

A service of celebration for Shirley’s life took place on 31 January 2020 and was streamed live. For those who wish, the recording is still available for viewing. The actual service begins a little after 30 minutes.


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