- Singing the Faith: 25
- Fred Pratt Green
- “Bethany” by Henry Thomas Smart
- 87.87.D. (Trochaic)
This hymn is most usually used as an opening hymn for worship. It was commissioned by the church musician, and a former President of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, Russell Schulz-Widmar for the dedication of a new communion table, font and reading desks in a Methodist church in Texas.
Peter Main has written to StF+ to say that a stipulation of the commission was that the words should fit Cyril Taylor’s tune Abbot's Leigh (StF 410) “which it does beautifully”, says Peter. In the British Methodist Church, at least, Abbot’s Leigh has become more associated with the hymn Lord, your Church on earth is seeking (StF 410), which is perhaps one reason why the Singing the Faith editors have chosen to use Henry Smart’s tune Bethany instead (as did the editors of StF’s predecessor, Hymns & Psalms).
Because the metre (87.87.D) is fairly widely employed, other tunes might also be explored. The editors of Hymns & Psalms offered “Blaenwern” as one alternative (StF 503) - though, arguably, the association of tune and words here (Love divine, all love's excelling) is even stronger.
Maureen Harris notes, in The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology, that this hymn ”reminds us of the presence of God within the physical surroundings of the church. Few other hymns focus on the familiar furniture of the church, ‘table, font and pulpit’, but they are used here partly as symbols of stability that identify a place of worship.”
More broadly, the hymn writer Brian Wren* suggests that Pratt Green “counters nervous, unscriptural requests for God to ‘be with us’ with a ringing affirmation of Wesley’s ‘Present we know thou art’”. That line is from Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Jesus, we look to thee” – not included in Singing the Faith but available in Hymns & Psalms #760:
Present we know thou art,
But O Lord, let every bounding heart
The mighty comfort feel.
“In Wesley’s hymn,” Wren writes, “we worship, not to escape from life, but in hope of hearing Christ’s ‘quickening voice’” and of experiencing Christ’s living presence. So, too, for Pratt Green, who hopes that “here, in newness and renewal, God the Spirit comes to each”. (v.2)
In other words, the physical furniture of church buildings is not there simply for utilitarian or decorative purposes but as a conduit, by human use, for divine communication. In the words of the Dutch writer Huub Oosterhuis:
What is this place where we are meeting?
Only a house, the earth it floor;
Walls and a roof sheltering people,
Windows for light, an open door.
Yet it becomes a body that lives
when we are gathered here,
And know our God is near.
*Brian Wren’s observations, together with the extract from Oosterhuis’s hymn, are drawn from Wren’s book, Hymns for Today (WJK Press, 2009).