I know. Not the most accessible of titles for a blog post. But that’s very much my point…
Back when I was doing the diocesan training for being an authorised lay preacher (a role which exists in my diocese and which involves taking quite a lot of the licensed lay minister training, but for this more restricted role), I had to do a module called ‘Learning to learn and think theologically’. That’s quite a mouthful. It merged basic study skills, which I didn’t need but some did, with an introduction to theological learning, which I needed and some didn’t. This second aspect was very well taught and I found it fascinating.
I was particularly struck by the way it was brought home to me just how much of our theology is picked up from hymns. If you’ve been going to church, give or take a few years, since you were a child, a lot will have seeped in, just from repetition of the words and, if you’re lucky, from a strong tune as well. However, hymns – like anything else in and around a church – can also exhibit some fairly dodgy theology. They are a product of the theological and social preferences of their time, as the more gory, often-Victorian examples make particularly clear; singing ‘stricken rock with streaming side’ (from Lord enthroned in heavenly splendour, 1874) feels quite uncomfortable today, while There is a fountain filled with blood (1772) or O now I see the cleansing wave/The fountain deep and wide (1871) with its ‘speaking blood’ come across as plain weird. It doesn’t actually matter that There is a fountain filled with blood is based on Zechariah 13:1, ‘A fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity’; it just sounds very bizarre indeed in 2016. The story of William Cowper writing it, after resisting the temptation to kill himself with laudanum, is very interesting but – strangely! – doesn’t make it appeal to me any more.
I’m not offering a blanket condemnation of traditional hymns here. Complex theological ideas can be expressed very clearly in a hymn, and much that we sing in church draws directly on passages and images from the Bible. If you want to read an uncompromising critique of some modern hymns, I recommend Nick Page’s And Now Let’s Move Into a Time of Nonsense: Why Worship Songs are Failing the Church, discussed here by Bob Kauflin. But, going back to the gory hymns: if you haven’t been going to church since you were a child…? If you haven’t read Zechariah lately? God help you…
So there we were in church this morning, for All Saints Day. Among a more-than-usually dodgy bunch of hymns, we had Come ye faithful raise the anthem, first published as Come, ye saints, and raise the anthem in The Gospel Magazine of September 1805. Written by Job Hupton (1762-1849) it includes this, the fifth verse:
Bring your harps, and bring your incense,
sweep the string and pour the lay;
let the earth proclaim his wonders,
King of that celestial day;
he the Lamb once slain is worthy,
who was dead, and lives for ay.
Leaving aside that nobody says ‘ay’ in this way today, what’s with that ‘sweep the string and pour the lay’? The husband and I exchanged baffled looks. At coffee after the service a fellow ‘regular’ commented to me that she’d thought the hymns were pretty weird today. ‘Oh yes,’ I agreed, ‘and what was that pouring the lay thing?’ She agreed that this was precisely the line that had most bothered her.
I decided ‘sweeping the string’ must be archaic for playing a stringed instrument, while the ‘lay’ must be a poem (thinking Macaulay, Lays of Ancient Rome, here), so what’s the ‘pouring’ all about? When I got home, I searched for the phrase online and found it in some late eighteenth century and nineteenth century poems, where it seems to mean something like ‘pouring out’ a poem. I also tried to find a discussion of the offending hymn but just found this one, which didn’t address the key phrase.
So: is it reasonable to assume, as Hymns Old and New apparently does, either that people in church will all be familiar with ‘pouring a lay’, or that they will be happy to google it? I don’t think so. And if I feel alienated, what’s the reaction likely to be from someone who is curious about Christianity and thought they’d give church a try?