By Christopher Morley
So we’re feeling all Christmassy in the office, the home fires are burning and we’ve listened to The Pogues and Kirsty McCall so often that our ears have threatened to leave us. Thank heavens then, that Christopher Morley managed to escape to chat to Dr Andrew Pratt, he of the Hymn Society of Great Britain & Ireland, about hymns, writing them and ‘soul-caking’.
What do you know of the history of hymns as we would know them today?
I guess that people have always been singing. There is some evidence to suggest that we sing before we talk – think of the sing-song language of a parent and child. A few years ago Steven Mithen suggested that Neanderthals sang – it goes back a long way. As for hymns they help you to remember – think nursery rhymes and folk songs, or singing along with whoever on your iPod; it’s the music, the rhyme and the rhythm that make it work. In the Bible that shows up best in the Psalms though our modern use of them doesn’t, for the most part, do justice to the Hebrew or the music.
Why do you think hymns & carols are such an important part of Christmas-time?
Come Christmas, well, nearly a hundred years ago someone described carols as ‘simple, hilarious, popular, and modern’. To his ears it was a bit nearer pop than church. The reason? They began as folk songs – songs of the people and they were not just for Christmas. We’re nearer to Morris Dancing and ‘soul-caking’, more in the pub than the chapel, mixing history, tradition and now.
And the carols we sing now in churches have, to some extent, been ‘domesticated’. They are less likely to shock or touch the earthy hilarity and fun of their predecessors. And they often present a Victorian picture-postcard view of Jesus’ birth than anything nearing reality – a squalid birth to an unmarried mother, uprooted by politics, heading into exile to avoid a local genocide which, according to the story, others suffered instead.
Can there be such a thing as a non-religious hymn?
It all depends on what you mean by non-religious. Many faiths have hymns that are religious but not Christian. My background is Christian so that’s where I speak from.
Hymns and carols which take Jesus’ humanity utterly seriously will likely ride light to angels and halos, shepherds and wise men in stables. They may not sound very Christian or churchy. But then ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’ was greeted by many as blasphemous whilst actually, in a ‘simple, hilarious, popular, and modern’ way, touching on the message of crazy hope in the midst of utter despair.
All religions would appear to have some form of musical element to worship – have you experienced any other/similar cultural traditions in different faiths?
Plenty, but I have no real familiarity with any – you’d have to ask someone else for that. But for the moment let’s list Hindu and Sikh, Jewish, neo-pagan, and, perhaps surprisingly, Islam if we are to take some of the later songs of Yusuf Islam (aka Cat Stevens) into account.
Do you have a particular favourite hymn/ spiritual song?
Many. The ultimate favourite is by someone called Frederick Faber. He was a Church of England vicar in the 1800s. He became a Roman Catholic. He wrote ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’. Faber couldn’t conceive of a God condemning anyone and had, I think, little time for people who condemned one another. A later verse has the line ‘We magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own’. It wasn’t that he disregarded good and bad, moral and immoral. He just knew that people turn themselves into ‘gods’ condemning those that don’t keep human laws, who don’t toe the line as they see it.
To Faber God was more discerning, understanding, compassionate – accepting all people as they are, where they are – and I’d want to say – and I think he would – black or white, straight or gay, male or female, of whatever name or creed. What we do, perhaps counts more than what we believe, but what we believe can sometimes make us do horrendous things in the name of belief.
Faber was far sighted. He believed that God offered, ‘grace enough for thousands of new worlds as great as this’. Very 21st century!
When did you begin to write hymns?
In 1979 when I went to study theology and to train for Methodist ministry. I was a teacher and a scientist. At one point I had intended to become an academic marine biologist. My direction changed, but learning about theology and the church presented me with challenges that didn’t altogether make sense. Tutors used language and jargon that I didn’t understand. I’d already written some awful ‘verse’ – certainly not poetry – and I began to find that translating theology and thoughts into ‘hymns’ (also pretty awful!) helped me to grapple with things and better understand them.
It’s gone on like that! I’m still struggling over a thousand hymns later.
Talk us through your approach to writing a hymn.
I have to have an idea or a line. Sometimes someone will say something casually, in conversation or a meeting. I’ll pick up on the natural rhythm of what’s said, a twist in the language, and it will set me going. I sometimes write while sitting in boring (don’t tell my boss!) meetings or in response to something on the TV. I wrote a response to 9/11 in the form of a hymn and had it picked up in the US inside 24 hours of the event. A year later, along with nine others, it was published in the ‘Philadelphia Inquirer’ in commemoration.
At other times writing is more a matter of craft. I was asked to write hymns for readings used Sunday by Sunday in churches. That meant writing between 2 and 5 hymns a week for three years; it’s amounted to around 150 hymns a year. For this I start with the Bible and try to get to the meanings and feelings beneath the words. So for a carol we ‘See the eyes of Mary shine’ and notice ‘Joseph’s roughened hands’. I like to use down-to-earth contemporary language that can make sense when read as well as being ‘just a good sing’. I like to make people think. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it can turn out to be a banal cliché.
What’s it like to have your work performed & appraised by others?
I mentioned the 9/11 hymn. I never thought that would last beyond two or three weeks. It is humbling and moving when someone else picks up on your work and uses it. I am not a musician, I just do the words, so when someone like the American classical composer Carson Cooman asked to write some words for him to set to music it was a big affirmation.
In another sense you become detached from the words. They have a life of their own. Taken by surprise, I sometimes wonder where they’ve come from.
Did you feel a genuine calling to write hymns?
I began writing by accident but it developed into a calling when I found other people said that what I was writing was helpful to them. I want to write words which try to make sense of the world, the cosmos, as I understand things as scientist and a human being. I put these alongside my faith. The writing sometimes puts seemingly contradictory world views side by side, sometimes something has to give and we move on, discarding worn out belief, gathering new scientific or religious understanding. Sydney Carter, who wrote ‘Lord of the dance’, once said his creed was ‘nothing fixed or final’. That’s about it I suppose, a continuing exciting adventure in trying to make sense of ‘life, the universe and everything’, as someone once said!
Finally, tell us about your work with the Hymn Society
The Hymn Society tries to promote the use and study of hymns. It works in Great Britain and Ireland, but has sister societies in other parts of the world. Hymn writing and study is very much an international affair. I have links in Australia, the USA and Finland amongst other places.
I edit the Bulletin, which is the Society’s quarterly magazine. This comes out four times a year and has a very mixed readership from those who are mainline academics, through writers and composers, to those who just like singing hymns and are interested. I get the excitement of seeing new bits of research first. I work with two other editors so things are not just published on my say so. The Society includes people of many different denominations and a very wide range of religious outlook, so there is always the need to provide a mix of material for the range of members and readers. That and mixing with, sharing with, folk in this country and around the world in a passion that has taken over my life (ask my wife!) is great!