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SHIRLEY ERENA MURRAY R.I.P.
By Colin Gibson in All Sorts
refelctions on her life and work as writer of contemporary inclusive hymns, 'singing her song of love into its darknes'SHIRLEY ERENA MURRAY R.I.P.
Having tried teaching languages, producing radio programmes, acting as Religious Affairs Coordinator for the New Zealand branch of Amnesty and doing parliamentary research work for the Labour Party, she found herself and her life’s work when she took up a ministry of hymn writing at the Presbyterian church of St Andrews on the Terrace, responding to her husband’s urgent need for modern hymns that would address the contemporary issues with which the pair of them were passionately
And she found she was good at it. Her first small publication, privately printed at Wellington and challengingly titled in Every Corner Sing: New Hymns to Familiar Tunes in Inclusive language, already contained ‘Come now, Lord Jesus, enter our Christmas, be to us no stranger in this new- made manger, ‘Come to this Christmas singing! Come to a birthday, bringing gifts from our country’s treasure, beauty of shell and stone’, ‘Faith has set us on a journey past the landmarks that we know’, ‘Now to your table spread we come, each one, in faith that you alone provide the words of life and death...Here is our common wealth in sharing what is good, as though all humankind around one table stood’, ‘God of freedom, God of justice, you whose love is strong as death...touch our world of sad oppression with your Spirit’s healing breath’, ‘O God, we bear the imprint of your face: the colours of our skin are your design, and what we have of beauty in our race as man or woman, you alone define,’ ‘Loving Spirit, loving Spirit, you have chosen me to be—you have drawn me to your wonder, you have set your sign on me.’
The same little book publishes her first manifesto: Singing our faith in the present tense means having to stock some corners of the Christian household with new themes. For me, human rights and racism, women and peacemaking all need singing out, and words to sing are hard to find.... Some corners need refurbishing, since the words of the past do not always express the theological emphasis we now value.... I take it for granted that inclusive language is the mode in which Christian people must express belief.
She went to write words that have rung true for modern Christians throughout the world, creating new classics, and a whole new landscape of hymns for we New Zealanders to sing. I think of ‘Honour the dead’, undoubtedly our greatest Anzac hymn and one that daringly for its time upholds the conscientious objectors we treated so shamefully. I think of ‘Where mountains rise to open skies’, her great hymn for Waitangi Day and the nearest we have to a truly contemporary national anthem: ‘Your people’s heart, your people’s part be in our caring for this land, for faith to flower, for aroha to let each other’s mana stand.’ I think of the universal musician’s anthem, ‘For the music of creation’. And I think of ‘Touch the earth lightly’, the finest hymn for the environment we and the world have, for it is sung even in America while Trump dismantles environmental protections as fast as he can.
And she laid out her own heart of compassion and maternal care for all to see—‘Like a mother you enfold me, hold my life within your own, feed me with your very body, form me of your flesh and bone’—revealing a faith that faced the world as it really is, singing her song of love into its darkness: ‘Shine through our winter grey, break through depression’s day, live in the little deaths we die in growing: meaning for whom we grope, home of our strongest hope, power and peace through all creation flowing.’
In the end she wrote hundreds of hymns, whose quality and passion are acknowledged throughout the Christian world, and rank her with the best in our heritage of song, Luther and Cowper and Watts and Wesley and Bell (all of them men). She showed us that the languages of science and te reo could meet and kiss in religious poetry, poetry that is full beauty and truth. And she urged us never to give up on the faith, even though she was often ashamed of the behaviour of individuals and groups within its institutions: ‘There’s never a time to stop believing, there’s never a time for hope to die, there’s never a time to stop loving, these three things go on.’
Shirley Murray may have been taken into the eternal rest of the loving God she trusted to the end, but her spirit goes marching on. As her friend and fellow hymn writer Marnie Barrell said, ‘She left a legacy of hymns for the Church that is to be.’ Let us continue to sing them.