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Modern Language

Authors Kevin Mayhew Michael Forster

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 the 'original'.

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.

Accessibility
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 to do.

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 heaven for?'

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!

Archaic language
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.

Demeaning language
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.

Heresy
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.

Militarism/Triumphalism
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 explanatory words.

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 for longer.

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 to God!

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'.

Michael Forster
Kevin Mayhew


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