Monday, May 21, 2012

'Singing the Faith', a Review of the New Methodist Hymnal

Singing the Faith, the new authorised hymnal of the Methodist Church in Britain, was issued last year. Methodism, more than any other denomination, is defined by its hymnal; while Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Anglicans have produced hymnals, it is the Methodist denominations that have produced hymnals that defined the denominations.

John Wesley's A Collection of Hymns for The Use of the People Called Methodists, issued in 1780, set the standard for Methodist hymnals. In the preface he described it as "a little body of experimental and practical divinity", that is to say a little systematic theology. The hymn-book defined what it meant to be a Methodist in terms of both theology and piety.

Wesley's book held the field, though with a supplement added in 1831 and revised in 1875, until the issue of The Methodist Hymn-Book in 1904, which was a completely new book. While Wesley's book had a structure pattered after Christian experience, beginning with the call to return to God, passing through the difference between formal and inward religion, and finally ending with hymns for believers, the 1904 book had a structure that began with the glory of God before moving on to the Gospel call, the Christian life, the Church, and time, death and eternity. Yet the 1904 book and its revision in 1933 retained a systematic form.

In 1983 a new hymnal was issued by the Methodist Church in Britain. Called Hymns and Psalms, it was intended to be an ecumenical book, with not only Methodists but representatives of the Baptist Union, the Churches of Christ, the Church of England, the Congregational Federation and the United Reformed Church involved in the project. Its ecumenism was not just a matter of the denominations involved in its preparation; no longer did the Methodist hymnal express a single, coherent theology, but rather differing theologies were present in its pages. Its divisions were different again, the three principal divisions being God, the People of God, and God's world.

Which brings us to Singing the Faith. The title is perhaps rather unfortunately close to that of the Unitarian book, Sing Your Faith, but the book looks quite different. Rather than the solid blue respectability of Hymns and Psalms we have a rather jolly red cover with exuberant gold lettering on it, so we must give the book full marks for appearance. In fact the presentation is excellent; rather than the double columns of Hymns and Psalms we have a single column in clear, readable font even in the small pew edition. In fact it reminds me of nothing more or less than the original Christian Hymns from the Evangelical Movement of Wales.

While Singing The Faith does not have the ecumenical input of its immediate predecessor, it is if anything far more diverse in its contents, and there is the main problem with this book; unlike older denominational hymnals, it does not present a coherent theology at all, it is perfectly postmodern in that, containing differing views on many theological matters, not least the atonement. Singing The Faith illustrates the difficulty of the task facing the older mixed denominations today, that of producing a hymnal that will cater to a wide variety of theological perspectives. As such there are many good hymns in the book, but also many that are anything but good. Attempting to serve everyone, the book will not be seen as satisfactory by any one congregation. It is very, very revealing of the state of Methodism today

[Image credit: The Methodist Church in Britain]

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