Does It Matter How You Read a Hymn?

john-bell-performance.jpgBy Molly Edmonds 

On March 19-21, Candler School of Theology presented “The Singing Church: Current Trends and Emerging Practices in Congregational Song.” One of the themes that emerged over the course of three days of worship and workshops was the idea that the texts of hymns must be more carefully considered in order to be effective and meaningful to our spiritual development.

And according to John Bell, a hymn writer and worship resource leader from Scotland’s Iona Community, we haven’t been well equipped to undertake that kind of reflection.

mighty-fortress.jpg“In North America, you have a particular affection for interlined text in music, or staff music,” said Bell, who presented an evening of song during the conference. “In Europe, it’s more common to have the verses separate from the music. It puts as much value on the text as the tune.”

“I’ve sung hymns in North American congregations and then had no idea what I’ve just sung, because with staff music, you can’t reflect on the words,” he said. “People sing syllables rather than sentences.”

Though Bell provided a handout with hymns and psalms that were sung during his event, he began his presentation by teaching several texts and tunes directly to the crowd.

“I do that to remind people they don’t need music in front of them to sing,” he said. “There are choirs in this world who would find it an inconvenience to read music while they’re singing. They feel if it’s not inside them, then it means nothing to God. We sing with greater integrity the less we have to read.”

Bell attributes our dependence on hymnals and handouts to our lack of faith in our memories. Some cultural critics blame faulty memories on the Internet, as people don’t bother to memorize facts that they can find easily with Google. Bell doesn’t think this particular issue is the Internet’s fault, but he is contemptuous of one technological trend that’s been adopted by some churches.

“I can’t stand projectors,” Bell said. “They ruin congregational song. I don’t believe you should offer God only half of what you can see. If there’s a projected screen that says, ‘I offer to God all my…’ and you sing that before knowing whether it says ‘I offer to God all my candies’ or ‘all my dogs and cats,’ then it makes both the music and the text disposable. And it makes music instantly forgettable, because it flashes up and then it’s gone.”

“How can your faith be shaped by worship if you don’t know what you’ve sung? How can you relate spiritually to music if you don’t have the words, if they’re all inside the memory box of the projector?” Bell asked, noting that he meets people who keep church bulletins that contain the hymn numbers or the anthem texts that have resonated with them—a practice often eliminated by the use of projectors.

john-bell-audience.jpgBell cites “Come Down, O Love Divine” as one of his own personal favorite hymns. While he advocates closer reading of the words that churches sing, he emphasizes that these texts much be as functional as they are beautiful.

“A hymn isn’t just the text of a gifted poet; it’s something to which people can say ‘amen,’” he said. “If the people can’t say ‘amen,’ then it’s not appropriate for congregational song.”


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John Bell recently enjoyed reading So Much for All That by Lionel Shriver, 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, and The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson.

Molly Edmonds just finished the 720-page biography Lincoln by David Herbert Donald, followed by The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson.