Many will remember the joy that greeted the introduction of Common
Worship in the year 2000. At last, Anglican worshippers were able fully
to participate in worship using familiar, everyday language in prayers and
responses whose meaning was clear.
Many might have wondered why it was taking so long for traditional
hymnody to become similarly inclusive and accessible. Although we have had
an explosion in new hymns and worship songs, that still leaves a wealth of wellloved
hymns in danger of falling into disuse simply because their language and
imagery are barriers. And indeed, as we have discovered in this process, even
some modern songs slip into archaism all too easily. When is the Church going
to enable congregations to be fully included, not only in the prayers we say but
in the ones we sing, too?
Well, now we can! This is the collection that addresses that need – almost
certainly the most radical revision in modern times to a major hymnal. Having
said that, we must also say that radical revision of hymns is not, in fact,
anything new in itself; many well-loved traditional hymns are in reality very
different from their ‘original’ versions. Consider, for example, ‘Hark, the
herald-angels sing’, which began life as ‘Hark, how all the welkin rings’, and a
simple look at the list of authors to which that carol is attributed indicates
a long development process before it became what most people now regard as
Valuing our tradition
This, though, is not about a rejection of tradition. Our treasury, as Jesus said,
should contain things old and new; and just as, for example, the Book of
Common Prayer and the King James Bible continue to be loved and valued
alongside Common Worship, so no doubt will the more familiar versions of
hymns also remain in the treasury.
What we have done here is to offer alternatives to traditional wordings to
make them accessible to more people. Hymns, of course, unlike paintings and
symphonies, for example, are not primarily works of art but means to enable
participation in worship, and it is that objective that takes precedence in this
book. Many of these hymns, we suspect, would have faded completely from use
over the next few decades or less and that would have been a huge loss, not only
to hymnody but to spirituality. We hope that our changes might enable at least
some of the ‘old’ to remain in our treasury alongside the completely new, of
which there are also a good number here.
From the days of the first vernacular translations of the Bible, there has been
recognition that the gospel of Christ should, as far as possible, be equally
accessible to all. So it should not be necessary to have a classical education and
be steeped in poetic traditions in order to grasp the essential meaning of a hymn
as the music pushes us onward from one thought to the next, denying us the
time we might take to reflect on a Bible reading or poem. Many people,
however well-educated, do not have a ‘feel’ for poetic language, and if the
Church is to be true to its founder, then those whose communication skills are
different should not be excluded from singing and understanding hymns.
Having said that, however, neither do we want unnecessarily to impoverish
our worship with triviality of thought or expression, and it would be sad to lose
the grandeur of language with which hymnody has undoubtedly enriched our
worship for centuries. Many hymns richly repay, and indeed stimulate, deeper
reflection on our faith, which is surely something we should all be encouraged
It is also true, of course, that our faith is a celebration of Mystery – a
celebration that by definition we can enter into without fully understanding. To
try to make Mystery fully accessible is worse than futile, as the attempt to do so
(and the illusion that we have succeeded) can only diminish our concept of
the Divine. Awe and wonder also are essential elements of worship – in the
words of Robert Browning, ‘[Our] reach should exceed [our] grasp, or what’s a
Holding these disparate values together has been one of the creative challenges
of our task as editors, reminding us of another great faith-concept: paradox!
There is more to this than simply changing ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ to ‘you’, which itself
often results in unnatural-sounding phrases. Many other words still used in
hymnody are unfamiliar today. People steeped by life-long experience in
Christian worship may well know what ‘vouchsafe’ means, but the person
venturing into church for the first time, and already feeling like a stranger in a
strange land, might find it a serious barrier.
Many words, of course, simply don’t mean what they did when the texts were
first written. Perhaps the most well-known example for older people would be
‘at thy cradle rude and bare’ from ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’. More seriously,
the use of ‘fear’ to mean ‘respect’ is simply asking to be misunderstood, as are
references to the Holy Ghost. And just what are modern people to understand
by, ‘Here I raise my Ebenezer’?
Inevitably, in hymnody, many of these words occur as part of the rhyme
scheme and so demand more extensive change to the text than simply their own
replacement. Because of our commitment to the clarity and inclusivity of the
language we have generally not shrunk from doing this but hope we have done
it carefully, skilfully and, most of all, respectfully.
The evolution of language – a process now highlighted and greatly accelerated
by phenomena such as texting and the internet – affects more than just clarity.
Some words in common use only half a century ago are now considered deeply
offensive. So, while it was clearly acceptable in a different cultural and
theological milieu, there are serious questions about asking people to describe
themselves as ‘wretch’, ‘vile’, ‘worthless’, and so on, in a modern context.
For all our flaws, we are human beings made by God in God’s image. Yes, the
image is disfigured – horribly so in some cases – and, yes we have done, and still
do, some pretty horrible things – but there is now abundant and compelling
evidence that constantly emphasising our dark side (and often asking people to
describe themselves as much worse than they are) is not the way to help any of
us to change.
Many terms for illness, disability and disadvantage have become either
pejorative or patronising, and it’s important that people who would feel the
impact of that should not be excluded from acts of worship by the words we ask
them to sing. So words like ‘lame’, ‘dumb’ etc. have also been changed, with
very few exceptions.
This is a difficult one since one person’s heresy is another’s free thinking, but we
felt it right, without imposing our own personal beliefs more than is inevitable,
to reconsider the wordings of some hymns. A good example is the well-loved
‘Away in a manger’ with its completely unfounded statement that the infant
Jesus did not cry. Apart from the heresy of Docetism which denies the true
humanity of Jesus, this also, by implication, links his infant silence to his
perfection – setting a standard of supposed ‘goodness’ convenient to adults but
unattainable and unreasonable for children.
We recognise, of course, that Scripture is full of references to spiritual warfare,
but surely none of us can be unaware that, not only but certainly in
Christianity, such language has proved itself dangerously open to misuse in the
justification of horrific conflicts and the endorsement of brutal imperial
domination. Closely related to militarism is triumphalism. Of course there is
triumph in Christianity, but it is the triumph of the cross – a radically different
concept from putting enemies under our feet (an image sadly used in hymnody)
which has no place in Christian thinking. For the God of Jesus Christ, victory
over enemies consists in reconciling them as friends!
Losses and gains
We have been immensely grateful for the willing co-operation of many authors
and copyright holders who have agreed to our requests for changes, and we fully
respect the right exercised by some to decline permission. Sadly, this has resulted
in the loss of a very few popular texts from this collection, including those
modern classics ‘How great thou art’ and ‘In Christ alone’. However, we have
also been delighted to include a large number of completely new texts, some by
exciting new writers, along with many children’s and all-age worship songs
making their first appearances in a general hymnal.
Keys and musical settings
‘We can’t sing up there’, is a comment made after far too many church services.
And it’s true; research shows that for various reasons the human singing voice
has dropped over the last century. And we only have to listen to congregations
to know that many people have real difficulty with hymn singing. Carols
especially – think of ‘Christians, awake!’, ‘Hark, the herald-angels sing’, ‘Once
in royal David’s city’ and ‘Silent night’ – don’t just have very high notes but the
tunes hang around up there, which is even worse.
Usually, the problem is easy to solve: tunes can be pitched in much more
friendly keys and, as a rule, when this is done the congregation sings with
enthusiasm and comfort. In those tunes which have a long stretch (like ‘Danny
Boy’) we decided that it would be better to growl a little at the bottom rather
than risk damage to the vocal cords at the top.
The art of the possible
Of course, one cannot be absolute about anything – including that statement.
In balancing the many, and often conflicting, ideals of this hymnal, there
inevitably have been times when we simply had to do the imperfect best we
could. In musical terms, this applied to the choice of keys as we were faced with
deservedly well-loved tunes whose wide vocal range meant that they were either
going to be too high or too low and we had to find the best compromise.
In the texts, possibly more frequently, similar issues arose. An example is
G. K. Chesterton’s masterpiece of political critique, ‘O God of earth and altar’,
an arrestingly powerful and (sadly) highly relevant poem to read but sometimes
difficult to grasp the meaning while singing, as the tune pushes us on and denies
us time to reflect. In this and similar cases, we have tried to balance clarity of
expression with a need for a little thoughtful reflection on the part of the reader
and hope that worship leaders will feel able to introduce the hymn with a few
On the basis of our criteria, some hymns were quickly excluded – ‘Fight the
good fight’, for example, relies on militaristic imagery throughout. Others are
clearly of great merit but had perhaps a verse that did not meet our criteria. This
presented a dilemma which is felt by some worship leaders who would love to
use a particular hymn but find themselves prevented by what is actually quite a
small but significant part of the text. In those cases, rather than exclude the
whole hymn, it seemed not inappropriate to make changes to the text. In doing
this, we again bore in mind that we are not ‘defacing the original’ but rather
offering an alternative to allow most of the text to remain in wider use
Inevitably, of course, there comes a song whose very archaism is an essential
part of its charm, and an example of such is that much-adored carol, ‘Ding
dong, merrily on high!’ with its ‘swungen’, ‘sungen’ and joyful if nonsensical ‘ioio-
io’! Sometimes it’s good to go beyond words and simply make a joyful noise
Saint Irenaeus said, ‘The glory of God is humanity fully alive, and to be alive
consists in beholding God.’ Part of being fully alive is surely about being fully
included, valued and involved in worship. That being so, it is particularly
appropriate to dedicate this new hymnal, in Irenaeus’ terms:
To ‘the glory of God’.