What Have We Learned While We Couldn't Sing?

Added about a month ago by Gillian R. Warson

GUEST BLOG: As part of our September #ThemeOfTheMonth Gillian Warson, author of Using Vintage Hymns in Worship, asks what we can take away from this period of going without hymn singing in churches. Does engaging with a hymn always have to involve singing it?

My friend Janet, also an enthusiastic hymn singer, was delighted to find that she would be able to join in with the annual RSCM Music Sunday when visiting a village church whilst on holiday this June. But, sitting in the pews that morning, she asked herself how the event was going to be possible. Singing was still not permitted except in very small groups and Janet had really missed this activity over the preceding months.

As it turned out, the local vicar, unperturbed, had managed to get around this difficulty in a creative way. Favourite hymns had been chosen by the congregation and the tunes were played over by the organist as many times as dictated by their regular hymn book. Further questions came to Janet’s mind: What is the point of this? How are we supposed to join in? The answer was simple really, the congregation just followed the words using the hymn book.

Obvious, one might think, but this was not what Janet’s own church had been doing. Although a small group had been singing the hymns, no hymn books had been provided and the words had not even been displayed on a screen. That Sunday it dawned on Janet that, alongside singing, she had missed the printed words themselves, even though she knew many of her favourite hymns by heart.

When Janet told me this story it set me thinking more deeply about what happens when we sing hymns. As we lift our voices together with others to proclaim our faith and to worship our God, those printed words have the capacity to reveal something new every time we sing them. As the organist played the hymn, Janet was able to “participate” in a hymn she knew and loved by reading the words.

We have all missed singing our hymns together in the traditional way, but it occurs to me that there may have been some – perhaps unexpected – advantages in enjoying a text freed from the demands of vocal performance. How often have we found ourselves overly concerned with the quality of our own voice and how it may (or may not) be blending with those around us?  How often have we been frustrated that the tune is too slow, or too fast, too high or too low. Perhaps we have become so used to singing a familiar hymn—almost on autopilot—that, unawares, we have fallen back on a lazy default understanding of the words. Now, confronted with this bare text divorced from the routine activity of singing, it may strike us afresh as if we were meeting those words for the very first time. We may experience the thrill of rediscovering the beauties of the language, for example, or, yet more important, reading the words with fresh eyes may shock us into re-evaluating or even questioning what we have been singing with blithe abandon over the years. How often have we sung a hymn which refers only to “brothers” and “sons” without it once dawning on us that we have—accidentally or not—cut out half of the human race!? When we sing a rousing hymn which suggests a call to war, how often have we – in the quietness of our hearts – taken the time to reflect on our own responses to both earthly and spiritual battles?

Many of us have missed singing in church and can now breathe a sigh of relief that it is starting gradually to return. However, perhaps our prayer should be that this hiatus has prodded us into thinking more critically about the hymns we know and love. 

 


 

​Gillian Warson trained as a professional viola player and then worked as a church musician. She completed a Ph.D. on the development of hymn books in hymn singing cultures and has directed courses for the RSCM and other musical organizations. Her book Using Vintage Hymns in Worship: Hidden Treasures Rediscovered for Today’s Church is being featured as part of our September #ThemeOfTheMonth: Music as Worship – get your copy here


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