logo Practical Dreamers

Colin Gibson:

The role of hymns
in worship tomorrow


A Keynote Address given at Newman College,  University of Melbourne,  on Friday 24 September 1999,  as part of  "Take up the Song",  the First Australian National Ecumenical Hymn Conference.
Thank you,  organisers of this magnificent Conference,  for the opportunity to offer some reflections on the role of hymns in worship in the years ahead.   It has been a great privilege to gather here in Melbourne to meet and share ideas with contemporary practitioners of the hymn:  writers,  composers,  worship leaders,  publishers,  theorists and singers,  coming together from the whole continent of Australia and the international scene beyond.   What is immediately obvious is that the hymn is in good health,  and flourishing as vigorously in this country as it does elsewhere in the singing communities of the Christian Church.

Indeed,  such is its popularity and its natural powers of multiplication,  that I am inclined to compare it to the spread of that apparently innocuous and pretty plant the gorse bush,  carried by early settlers from England and Scotland to adorn their gardens and make their hedges on the other side of the world.   As a New Zealander,  taking academic leave in the English town of Oxford,  I recall my amazement on entering the quadrangle of New College,  to see one lone gorse bush in a pot,  lightening an otherwise gloomy day with its yellow flowers.   There,  in the country from which so many of our best-known hymns have come,  the gorse bush could take its place as an admired garden plant,  a specimen contained and limited by the climate and its many competitors and predators.   Out in the colonies,  released into a more favourable environment it quickly escaped all restraints and became an imperial invader,  overwhelming most native plants and occupying whole hillsides,  to the point where it is regarded as a noxious weed,  attacked with grubbers,  axes,  fire and chemicals to limit its expansion and occupation of the land.   So the hymn,  from small beginnings,  has taken God's advice to Adam and Eve and gone forth and multiplied to the point where it exists in the thousands and perhaps millions of specimens wherever Christianity has taken root in the world.

But before I can begin to think about the role of the hymn in tomorrow's church,  I must ask the obvious question:

What is the role of hymns in worship today?

I take it that despite range of our backgrounds in worship we could probably agree on why it is that most Christian communities practise hymn-singing.   Would your such list of reasons include some or all of the following?
  • Hymn-singing provides a natural vehicle for the primary activity of most worshipping communities:  the expression of praise and adoration through the offering of song to God.   Our hymns are both our gift and our statement of gratitude to the One we worship.
  • The practice of hymn-singing continues and extends the traditions of worship that link the earliest cradle of Jesus's spiritual life,  synagogue worship,  to the life and practice of modern Christian communities.   We sing because our foremothers and forefathers in God also sang in this way.
  • Hymn-singing contributes to a necessary variety of behaviour in the act of worship.   Singing can be and often is a welcome change from liturgical gestures and bodily actions  -  standing,  sitting,  kneeling,  processing and so on,  or from speaking and listening  -  to the prayers,  the bible readings,  the notices  (the public administrative business of the congregation),  the sermon,  the blessings,  the creedal affirmations and so on.
  • Hymn-singing helps to develop the spirit of unity and solidarity in the singing community,  through shared and corporate activity by the community.   And it's not just any old kind of corporate activity.   It is a relatively simple popular activity in which everyone can participate;  one that does not require the performer to have any special abilities or knowledge,  or to act in a leadership mode.   It is also an activity which requires agreed standards of discipline and self-control:  like starting together and keeping in time as a group.
  • Hymn-singing strongly teaches and reinforces the faith and practice of the singing Christian community.   What we sing we remember and internalise far beyond what we see or read or hear.
  • Hymn-singing allows us to address contemporary issues,  both religious and non-religious  -  supplementing the work of the sermon.   Although some kinds of religious song,  notably the chorus or praise song,  are so rooted in the language and thought forms of the bible as to be virtually an extension of that primary but ancient text,  the hymn  (certainly the modern hymn)  allows for the creation of original  (independent)  texts,  images and thought.
  • And since a hymn is usually an original text set to an original composition the very act of hymn-singing helps to endorse and express the creativity and openness to change of members of the community,  in turn symbolising the creativity and unlimited life of God in us all.   And of course,  while the placing of hymns in the liturgy and even the number of hymns used may be set,  there is always an element of free choice in the selection of the hymns to be sung on any particular day or occasion.
  • Hymn-singing helps us to consolidate and memorise the faith of the community.
  • It expresses the universality of Christianity,  symbolised by the fact that in most churches musical artefacts  (hymns)  from any culture and any historic period may be drawn on to contribute to the discourse of contemporary worship.
  • As an activity hymn-singing declares the equality of Christians with each other  -  for  (unlike the solo chanting of the priest,  or the trained group singing of a choir)  everybody gets to sing on an equal footing.
  • Hymn-singing provides an outlet for both the rational and emotional capacities of our spiritual nature.   The hymns we sing are made to work on our minds or our feelings,  and frequently both together.
  • Although,  at worst,  hymn-singing may be managed in such a way as to hypnotise some praise communities into desirable attitudes and states of feeling,  at best hymn-singing may act as a mantra,  drawing us beyond thought and emotion into a deeper contemplation and experience of God.
  • Hymn-singing is there partly to affirm in a religious context  (and often sub-consciously)  the values and centres of interest of our own culture.
  • Finally,  we sing hymns to give us something we enjoy doing.
Well,  will it always be like this?   Probably,  unless hymns undergo some unimaginable future change in direction.   But there are the possibilities for changes which we will need to negotiate successfully,  if hymns are to continue to serve us as well as they have done in the past in the context of public worship.

The way in which we provide the materials for hymn-singing in the future will affect the role of hymns as I have described them.

Hymns are a collaborative art.   In the context of worship they are neither a spontaneous nor completely individual activity.   The typical hymn is brought into being by a writer,  and a composer,  or one of that rarer species a writer-composer,  whom the singer will in all likelihood never lay eyes on.   These days it will usually be brought into the community for use through the offices of a publisher who probably lives and works on another continent or in a city far away from the church where the hymn is finally sung.   It will be chosen by a leader of worship whose process of choice will normally remain completely unknown to the congregation:  in my sixty or so years of experience,  hymns are simply what you see listed on the hymn board,  without any explanation as to the rationale for their appearance during that particular Sunday service.   It is the provision of the text in that collaboration that I want to concentrate on for a moment or so.
Once,  pre-literate and pre-print congregations had to operate from memory,  being taught throogh hearing the hymn by someone who might or might not have had access to a written text or score.   It was the way most human groups transmitted their culture:  by word of mouth  (as some still do).   The Scottish precentor,  lining out the psalm for the day,  line by line,  and being imitated by the singers,  line by line was how it was for most congregations in the remote past.

Then came printing and the printed codex,  the book of hymns,  a large volume containing up to a thousand hymns or a small pamphlet with a handful of texts.   The book became more and more elaborate:  first just verbal texts,  then texts and their musical settings,  melodies only,  then full scores.   Then all the apparatus of scholarship was added,  introductions,  indexes,  lists of contents,  dates of authors,  translators,  arrangers and composers,  indications of metre,  alphabetical names of tunes and all the other extras we have come to take for granted.   But even these encyclopaedic monster volumes  (each denomination with its own large standard hymn book)  failed to keep up with the quantity and speed of production of new hymns.   Pews were and are now cluttered with additional books and supplements and eventually loose-leaf folders to contain the inflow,  the impossible overflow.   Books became too heavy for frail wrists to hold;  too many print sources used for a single service brough confusion and disorder.  .  .  .   'We don't seem to have enough folders;  would you mind sharing'  .  .  .   'You'll find this hymn in the second supplement to the hymnbook:  that's the blue-covered volume'  .  .  .  

As improvements in technology have taken place  (photocopiers,  scanners,  computers linked to printers)  many congregations have abandoned their hymnbooks and taken to printing the chosen hymns for the day in a service bulletin,  or have adopted the way of the projected overhead,  with a technician  (perhaps a couple of bible class kids)  shuffling a pile of transparencies projected onto a large screen to provide a common readable text  (seldom a musical score).   There are further changes just out ahead of us which could revolutionise the way we place hymns in the hands or before the eyes of the congregation yet again.   I have spoken to several leading editors of large standard printed hymnbooks who have expressed their belief that the long day of that once familiar form,  the printed codex,  is over.   And you will be aware that library systems are fiercely debating the division of funds for book purchases as against computer terminals,  that much new and old knowledge has been translated onto CD ROMs and laser disc and that new methods of electronic publishing through the Internet are rapidly gaining a place in the sun.

As churches catch up on such developments in the secular world of communication and storage it will become possible  (it is possible now)  to download the hymns for the day from unthinkably vast international depositories on the Internet,  and then to print them direct onto the Sunday worship bulletin or the overhead;  even to Internet text and performed musical setting  -  with or without the sounds of professional singers to lead the swelling chorus.

Now there are advantages and disadvantages in every form of knowledge transmission humans have ever invented.   You can't see overheads in bright sunlight,  and no screen has yet been devised that is big enough for those at the back of a large church to read them  -  let alone the aesthetic disaster which is a huge white screen dangling from the ceiling in an otherwise orthodox altar or sanctuary area.   Overheads can only be put up one at a time so that there are problems with longer texts,  and you have probably experienced the extraordinary muddles that can occur when their manipulators get the order wrong.   Books have serious deficiencies,  too.   Books have the problem of size and weight..   These days they are too expensive to be replaced regularly and they date if held too long.   They are only as serviceable as the wisdom of their editors can make them,  and left too long as the only medium used by a congregation they can become prison-houses of the mind,  impediments to spiritual enlightenment and theological development,  objects of nostalgic affection rather than tools for effective contemporary worship.

But once we have achieved the new freedoms of choice offered by entry into a computer-dominated rather than a book-dominated world new dangers threaten.   For all its faults the denominational or multi-denominational hymnbook offered an agreed compendium of appropriate hymns,  a standard collection of hymns that both taught and reinforced the unity of a particular field of faith and practice.   The Lutheran hymnbook,  the Scottish Psalter,  Hymns Ancient and Modern,  the Methodist Hymnbook,  the Moody and Sankey collections,  defined the faith communities which created and used them.   It would even be possible to argue that single hymns identified a tradition:  'Eine feste burg',  'And can it be',  'How great thou art',  'Majesty'.   The common use of the same book throughout the churches of a Christian denomination fostered a sense of identity and community.   The use of a large standard set of hymns also fostered catholicity,  a generous theological range,  the preservation of standards of quality,  and guaranteed a broad conspectus of Christian themes and topics.

The possibility that in the future each congregation,  each worship leader,  could exercise independent choice from a virtually unlimited range of options might promise wider horizons and a greater measure of modernity,  but it could just as well lead to loss of all coherence,  religious provincialism,  the bad effects of personal bias especially in leaders uneducated about the hymn and untrained in its use,  and so on to the evils of random choice and blinkered narrow mindedness in our singing worship.   Finally,  since the wide dissemination of new work depends on the existence of a substantial network,  a coherent market larger than the local congregation,  the splitting up of the consumers into tiny free-agencies could quickly check and stifle creativity and innovation.

I have mentioned quality of choice and selection.   But there are other quality issues ahead of us.

We will have to give serious attention both to encouraging creativity and insisting on keeping up quality controls if hymns are to continue to hold an important place in public worship

The growth and development of hymn-singing as a major component in worship has in large measure been brought about by the high quality and effectiveness of a steadily accumulating body of good hymns.   We sing more hymns these days because there are so many good ones about.   And modern congregations have a sharper awareness of relative quality than their predecessors could possibly bring to bear on their hymn resources.   Where a Tudor or African village community might be largely illiterate and have little or no access to cultural and artistic resources outside the walls of the church,  first-world modern congregations have ready access to professional texts and quality music and performance,  through public libraries,  public education systems,  a deluge of commercial products and the omnipresent media  (newspapers,  films,  radio and television).   They have a developed critical awareness based on comparison as well as on a developed personal taste.

Further,  centuries of hymns in worship have tested the quality of what has been produced;  the sheer passage of time purges dross and buries in oblivion enormous quantities of second- and third- rate hymn writing.   Changing needs and emphases over long periods of time further winnow and select the grain from the chaff:  most hymns do have a  'use by'  date on them.


In the changing open-choice environment for hymns it will be necessary to both encourage fresh writing and composition,  and develop better mechanism for quality control.   If we want good new hymns to replace worked-out ones,  to address new issues and satisfy a critical audience,  there are a number of strategies to work on.

  • Workshops,  seminars and conferences to teach and extend the skills of the craft
  • opportunities for writers and composers to network and engage in peer critique,  to submit work for review and to read the reviews of others' writing
  • local support for emerging writers and composers to test out their new work in actual performance and to receive the encouragement of liturgical leaders as well as friends and well-wishers
  • better provision for rewards for and inducements to writing,  such as competitions and prizes,  more commissions,  and financial support for early work deeserving publication  (I can only be envious when I read of the opportunities of this kind advertised in the pages of the journal  The Hymn,  the journal of the Hymn Society of America and Canada.)
  • The encouragement of what I am inclined to call a  'craft mentality'  among writers and composers,  the recognition that inspiration is a precious beginning but only the beginning of a sustained process of drafting and redrafting,  of deliberate elaboration and refinement to bring to completion a hymn worth other people's attention.
  • the establishment of good library and study facilities;  conferences,  networks and guild meetings  . . .  but,  of course,  that's part of what this conference is about,  isn't it.   At the same time,  that may help to set out an agenda for future action.
And now some crystal-ball gazing.

What challenges will the future bring to the hymn as an instrument of worship?

For the hymn to continue to play a significant role in the worshipping congregations of the future I see a number of things we have yet to do or to do better than we have done them in the past.

We will have to achieve a better balance between the volume of international hymn material which will be available to the congregations and worship leaders of the future and the growing claims of indigenous writing to be seen and heard.

I have recently completed a survey of representations of the New Zealand landscape in the hymn literature of Christian congregations in my own land.   What I quickly discovered is that from the time of the first Christian services in New Zealand right up until the early 1980s the hymns sung by New Zealanders were predominantly British or European in origin;  the theological understandings,  the images of the texts focussed on ancient Middle Eastern or British and European geographies.   It was as though the spirituality of their very own land,  the world of nature all around them,  did not exist.   Now we are replacing one form of hymnic imperialism with another.   The huge impact of American religious musical styles and their accompanying texts  (and theologies)  is obvious;  there is the distinct possibility that this energetic,  inventive,  fertile and well-resourced Christian culture will colonise and subsume the native developing cultures of countries even as large as this one.   The rapid globalisation of western civilisation,  which we commonly think of in secular terms of economic,  political and cultural development has the potential for disabling and marginalising local and indigenous distinctiveness in the field of hymn production and consumption.

A similar point might be made about the never-ending struggle between those who wish to conserve and replicate tradition and those who wish to make room for growth and change.

In this case,  however, the balance of power lies with the conserving and not the innovating present.   Nostalgia for the hymns of yesteryear seeps through media programmes on hymns  (radio is highly conservative,  TV less so in my country;  what about yours?);  it often determines the composition of hymn lists in services of worship  (we take modern prayer texts more easily than we take new hymns):  it has a power-base among congregations where the average age-level steadily rises;  and it is assisted by the discomfort of learning new things and adjusting to new ways.   However,  the Christian sense of history is neither circular nor static,  but dynamic and open-ended.   'There is yet more light and truth to break forth from His word'  says the old hymn,  and that is true of the future history of the hymn itself;  we must just make sure that there are open windows for the new light and truth to shine in,  otherwise our congregations will grow pale and weak in their closed rooms.

We will need to educate leaders of worship  (both ordained and lay)  to much higher standards in selecting and presenting hymns as well as in more intelligent use of the hymn resources of their time.

I am greatly under-whelmed by present levels of competence among the worship formers and leaders of today's churches in this crucial area of their liturgical work.   Far too many ministers,  priests and lay preachers have little understanding of the powerful formative influence of repeated hymn singing in matters of faith and practice,  and consequently treat the selection and presentation of hymns to their congregations in the most casual,  unthinking way.

There are those who are passive purveyers of whatever they find within the book's covers.   If the editors print fourteen verses of a hymn,  without question that is the demand placed on the singers  -  no matter that they may be gasping for breath and exhausted by the end of the performance.   Few attempt to pre-programme the hymns to be sung over several Sundays or over a full year of congregational song;  to develop a thematic or theological or historical series of engagements with hymn literature.   'Hymns of the Reformation',  'The work of contemporary women hymn writers',  'Folk-tune settings of hymns',  'Celtic hymns',  'Famous writers and composers of hymns',  'The top pops in our congregation',  'Modern expressions of the faith,  in hymns',  'Australian hymn writers',  'Hymns of the Trinity',  'Earth,  air,  fire and water:  Nature in the hymns we sing' . . . and so on.   Fewer still bother to background the hymns,  using the biographies of their makers and the stories associated with their conception or their performance,  to engage and inform the congregation,  whether dealing with older  'heritage'  hymns or the work of a very contemporary composer or writer.   Many are simply and absolutely ignorant of hymnology or of any strategies to turn this powerful ally into the educational and inspirational tool it might be.   'And now we will sing hymn thirty-nine,  "Beauteous are thy feet upon the waters"'  is too often the only preface to a hymn.   Where are the courses to fill such needs,  to train and inform the choosers and announcers of hymns in worship?   Are we planning them now,  for the next millennium?

Hymn-makers and worship leaders alike will need to become more sensitive to cultural and social issues embodied in the texts and musical styles of the hymns they require to be sung by their congregations.

While we think of hymns as primarily and purely  'religious'  in character,  inhabiting a circumscribed and special-purpose world,  in fact they are loaded with cultural and social implications and assumptions.   Like all other human creations they carry the usual freight of the secular world,  indelible marks of the whole culture in which they are born.

It is now a commonplace that well into the twentieth century  -  and,  some would argue,  to this very day  -  the majority of hymns created in male-dominated societies affirmed male primacy in ways that went well beyond the use of exclusive or male-gendered language.   Now we are bringing better understandings of the sub-textual messages that hymns carry,  and our congregations  (many of them)  are becoming sensitive and openly critical of what they are given.   The hymns chosen for worship in the future will need to undergo a much more serious critique than they were ever given in the past,  when a quick check for theological orthodoxy and congregational familiarity was almost the only kind of screening thought necessary.

In this respect it is an interesting exercise to compare the 1977 Australian  Hymnbook  with its successor  Together in Song.   The editors of the first book,  published over twenty years ago,  devoted pages to explaining their practice in modernising the language,  removing archaic forms of address,  adopting contemporary practice in matters of spelling, punctuation and capitalisation.   The editors of  Together in Song  are concerned to present all their material so that today's worshippers  'can use it without embarrassment or confusion'.   They address seriously and at length the issues of gender-inclusiveness and the different needs of younger and older members of congregations for  'classic'  hymns and  'the newer songs'.

Ethnicity,  recognition of the first people of the land,  changing attitudes to militarism  ('Onward Christian soldier'  looks no better in the context of Kosovo than a militant Muslim song would look in the context of East Timor),  new understandings of our relationship to the natural world and to each other:  these are issues which future generations of hymn-writers,  hymn-singers and worship leaders will have to take into account.

While the spontaneous writing of hymns on whatever subjects interest their makers must go on  (which probably means more thousands of  'Jesus loves me'  hymns)  we should be encouraging writers and composers to address the black holes,  the serious voids in existing hymn literature;  to write,  that is,  for the needs of a growing,  developing,  moving ahead Christian Church in the context of a changing society.

A useful strategy here is the  'hymn search',  a declared subject or topic which writers and composers are challenged or invited to address,  often with a prize or promise of publication for the winner.   As an example,  the Hymn Society of the United States and Canada recently announced a search for a new text taking  'a broad look at the history and future of Christianity,  giving thanks for faithful persons and important events of the past,  while outlining the mission and challenges which call the Church into the future'.   Specific commissions are another way of bringing into being hymns which fill the gaps.   And gaps there are aplenty.

For all its riches,  the body of Christian hymnology is spindly and undernourished in many areas opened up by modern scientific advances,  contemporary social,  ethical and intellectual problems,  recent theological developments,  and much else.   Genetic engineering,  the impact of Aids  (though Shirley Murray's  'When our lives know sudden shadow'  is a magnificent exception)  the character of life in our cities,  the brutalities of civil and religious wars,  the plight of refugees and the marginalised,  the religious needs of children and young adults,  the daily realities of our common life,  the moods of alienation,  despair,  anger and grief,  schism and division within the communities of the Christian church,  there is so much to write about,  to create a new vocabulary of Christian song to express the new circumstances of the Christian church.   Writers and composers,  editors of hymn books,  worship and choir leaders,  there is so much to do to bring into existence what Wesley Milgate called  Songs of the People of God  fitting to be sung in the strange wastelands of the present and even the stranger unknown lands of the new millennium.

It is very difficult to make intelligent choices for the future without a knowledge of the past,  and I foresee the need for much more intentional study and recording of the huge heritage of international and national hymnologies.

Now that we have the technology to make it possible,  many developed nations have come to a realisation of the value of their past and their cultural heritage.   They are embarking on the monumental enterprise of recording and preserving their total print culture and history.   Hymns are part of that history:  but they are difficult,  intractable stuff for the bibliographer,  often ignored as merely popular art,  and they suffer a high rate of mortality.   There are some general written accounts of the hymn as an international phenomenon but too few national histories or biographical studies.   Dictionaries,  companions,  theses,  critical and interpretive works:  there are unfilled needs for all of these forms of study,  interpretation and explanation.   There are some archival collections,  but they are scattered,  frequently the work of private collectors,  and often highly selective and not well organised.   Data bases are just coming into existence:  the Hymn Society of America and Canada's work is leading the way here,  but there is a long way to go.   Notoriously,  theological colleges have given little or no attention to equipping and preparing ministers and priests in training  (the usual leaders of worship)  for their task of selecting and presenting hymns for the community's use.   In many liturgies and services hymns and hymn singing occupies almost one-third of the precious 'Sunday hour of praise',  the sermon,  ten minutes,  but you would tell this from the proportion of educational time given to the one as against the other.   Academic courses on church music,  including the hymn,  are not common,  and interest in the hymn is easily smothered by the heavyweights of classical liturgical music  (Bach,  Mozart,  Haydn,  Britten),  the grand tradition of choral composition  (Tallis,  Purcell,  Vaughan Williams,  Arvo Pärt),  or the lure of the unfamiliar  (medieval plainsong,  African chant,  South American religious music).   We will need more conferences of the Melbourne kind and those organised by the British,  Asian and North American churches and hymn societies,  more journals given to hymnology and its context,  more courses of study,  more theses on hymns,  hymn-writers and the sociology of the hymn,  more information gathering.   More,  more,  much more.   And when we have more,  we can bring into being a well-informed appreciative body of practitioners  -  I mean singing congregations,  who know what they are about and why.

We will need to address urgently and intelligently issues concerned with providing the means for hymn-singing,  because this activity  -  at least,  as it is practised now in so-called main-stream churches in developed countries  -  depends heavily on technical aid and assistance.

The average hymn-singer in a western-style congregation,  habituated to a state of dependence,  expects to have a physical copy of the hymn in his or her hands,  and the comfort of a competent musical accompaniment,  before taking up the time-honoured invitation:  'Now we will join in singing hymn fifty-six,  hymn fifty-six,  "Now thank we all our God".   I have already alluded to the problems of providing that physical copy of the hymn,  so I won't repeat myself.   But there are other considerations.

As pipe-organs and even electronic organs and pianos of a reasonable quality escalate in cost beyond the reach of most congregations;  as enthusiastic instrumental groups break up when their players have to move on to further their training,  their career or find a job,  a partner,  a new church association;  as fewer and fewer piano and organ players emerge with the skills or the willing commitment of time that regular worship entails;  as those voluntary workers now occupying the organ benches and piano seats in our churches age to the point of incompetence  -  do I describe reality for you,  or just some nightmare of my own private imagining?  -  where will we find the music to go with the song?   Or will the inventiveness of modern technology save us from such a crisis?

I recall an important 1987 conference on Liturgy and Music,  held at Manila under the direction of Dr Francisco Feliciano,  at which a Japanese musician and World Council of Churches representative,  the Reverence Tishitsugu Arai flourished a small black box as the instrument of our salvation.   It contained,  he explained,  a full musical accompaniment for every one of the verses in every one of the hymns in the hymnbook which it was designed to accompany.   A kind of karaoke instrumental accompaniment,  no longer requiring a person to be present and play for the hymn singers.   I am not inclined to scorn it,  particularly since a small elderly congregation in my own home town asked me to record on tape accompaniments for a selection of their most used hymns.   It may be the way of the future;  but at the very least we need to urgently consider what is to be done to ensure that hymn singing in the new millennium does not falter into the silent air.

Shouldn't we be creating realistic career structures for church musicians,  exploring substitutes for traditional ways of accompanying singers,  thinking of new kinds of support music  (and getting our congregations used to the idea)?   In my own home parish there are seven places of worship:  one organsit broke her leg,  a second is losing her eyesight,  a third has had a severe illness,  a fourth shifted away.   We are in crisis!  Please help!

And there is one more problem which looms large as the church moves away from a system of voluntary support and free services into a user-pays economic structure.   I don't believe I am exaggerating when I say that the legal issues of copyright and the ownership of hymns are becoming a threat to the survival of the tradition of hymn-singing.   They are a particular threat to the acquisition by congregations and worship leaders of new music and new texts;  that is,  to the development and continuation of the tradition of hymn-singing.   Hymns nowadays mean money for those who can claim ownership.   Despite the appearance of umbrella licensing companies  (none of them able to protect the whole range of hymns any reasonable leader or congregation might want to sing in their time)  has gone some way to relieve responsible leaders of the need to seek permissions from  -  in some cases  -  all over the world;  but at a cost which not all can afford.   The commercialisation of the hymn as intellectual property is just one more issue which we will need to address in the next millennium more adequately than we have done in the present century,  if hymns are to continue to play their vital role in worship.
And surely that is what we all want.



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