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franciscan - September 1996

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1996

How I wept to hear your hymns and songs

by Julie Nelson

Nicola Slee used the graphic phrase ‘straddling the spheres’ to describe the emotional, intellectual and spiritual gymnastics involved in seeking to hold together faith in Jesus Christ and commitment to the well-being of women in today’s world. The tensions have become focussed for me in the area of language, especially the language of hymns.

The experience, for example, of studying contemporary theology one day and singing hymns in church another became disconcerting. Augustine’s words ‘how I wept to hear your hymns and songs’, referring to the power of hymns to affect and effect religious feeling, began to take on a rather different meaning for me. The hymns I found myself singing seemed increasingly irrelevant to, and even in conflict with, my concerns and the ways I was beginning to wish to speak to God and of God’s relationship with the world.

There is now growing acceptance of hymns containing inclusive language for humans (encouraged by the Archbishops’ Report on church music: In Tune with Heaven) and some of the most recent hymnals see valiant efforts to amend older hymns in this respect. The United Reformed Church’s Rejoice and Sing has done the best work so far in this area, proving that unobtrusive, textual changes can be made without destroying poetry or meaning. Current editions of Hymns Ancient and Modern New Standard (1983) and The New English Hymnal (1986) now look dated by comparison.

However, hymns are not only about human beings but also about God. And while inclusive language for humans is gaining wider acceptance, any suggestion that we might experiment with inclusive language for God meets with immediate and powerful opposition. Yet can the two issues be kept separate?

The language we use to speak of God affects the ways we view ourselves and our relationships or seek to construct the communities in which we live, move and worship. Language for God remains exclusively male in both traditional and modern evangelical hymns, and is linked with imagery which emphasises God as almighty, transcendent and self-sufficient; it underplays the vulnerable, immanent and relational God experienced and expressed in much contemporary theology.

While asserting the metaphorical nature of all language for God, feminists and others are exploring alternative imagery which affirms the feminine as well as the masculine and seeks to transform our viewpoints. Hymnody is ideal for such exploration because of its reliance on poetry and metaphor, enabling it to nudge the boundaries and to try out new names. Brian Wren (2), for example, suggests to us:

Bring many names, beautiful and good;
celebrate in parable and story,
holiness in glory,
living, loving God . . .
Strong Mother God, working night and day,
planning all the wonders of creation . . .
Warm Father God, hugging every child,
feeling all the strains of human living . . .
Old, aching God, grey with endless care . . .
Young, growing God, eager still to know . . .

Janet Wootton (3) draws on biblical imagery (the Psalms and Isaiah) in the following:

Dear Mother God,
your wings are warm around us
We are enfolded in your love and care . . .
High overhead
your wingbeats call us onward.
Filled with your power
we ride the empty air . . .

If these images are startling or shocking, it is because of their unfamiliarity: the metaphors suggesting new ways of thinking, of attempting to speak of the unspeakable, the ineffable. But here emerges another source of tension. Hymns have always functioned within the Christian church to express and articulate the experience of the whole community, binding the community together, urging it on its task of worship, proclamation and service. Hymns only ‘take’ when they express what the congregation wants and is able to say about itself and about God. The new metaphors and language being explored by Wren, Wootton and others will not be taken up unless they resonate with the faith experience of the users. There is a danger that such new hymns will be sung only by those who have already distanced themselves from the main-stream or have become disaffected by official Christianity and moved to the margins, to WomenChurch and other alternative groups

I find myself again straddling the spheres, but the spheres are moving further apart. I want to sing the new hymns, to try them out, to see if they ‘work’ for Christians: do they help us to know and love God, to know ourselves? Do they encourage our pilgrimage, strengthen our ministry? But the congregations I work with want only the old, familiar hymns or modern, evangelical compositions which still seem to say the same things. I respect these congregations, their experience and the associations which make them favour certain hymns over others. Concern for openness, dialogue and the valuing of diversity are brought power-fully home to me. If I want them to listen to me – or to new hymns – I must listen to them.

So I find myself speaking and singing with two voices. I continue in my dialogue both with the tradition and with new insights. I listen as the tradition is challenged by feminism; and feminism tested against the tradition and experience of the living church. I pray for both to be transformed and drawn closer to the unknown reality we call God. Sometimes I feel torn apart, but I am able to survive because of times of revelation when connections appear, bridges can be constructed, reconciliation becomes a possibility.

In continuing to explore words for and about God, may we create a space in which the Word can be heard anew. f

The Revd Julie Nelson is an NSM deacon at Tavistock Parish Church, being ordained priest on St Michael’s Day next. She has a Master’s degree in Applied Theology.


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