Saturday, 20 November 2010

Hymns, honestly

Yesterday, a special Plenary Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland agreed to allow congregations freedom to include suitable hymns and instrumental music in worship services. In a sense, this is returning the Free Church to its position on worship in the second half of the nineteenth century.

We now have a situation in which two different views are held concerning public worship (although no clear description of such worship was accepted). One view (held by those who adhere to inspired praise) is that the use of hymns in public worship is unbiblical because there is no biblical example of such or any biblical warrant for using them; the other view (held by those who embrace hymns) is that the alternative view is inadequate for expressing New Testament revelation concerning the Trinity, use of the name of Jesus, etc, and that traces of New Testament hymns expressing such truths are cited in the New Testament letters.

One inevitable consequence of using hymns is that congregations will now include within their services the words of men (and women) whom they would not normally allow to teach in their churches. Hymns reflect the theological opinions of their authors, yet it is possible for their words to mean different things to different people (so that a Calvinist can read, for example, some of Charles Wesley’s hymns in a Calvinist manner, which I did for several years when I was a member of a hymn-singing church). Eventually I concluded such a practice was not one I could agree with because it was a misuse of the authors’ purposes in writing their hymns. If I was to treat their other types of writing in such a way, I would be accused, correctly, of abusing their texts for my own benefit.

The denomination in which I was previously also adopted the practice of rewriting phrases or lines in many hymns in order to conform them to its doctrinal perspectives. Most of the authors were dead, so obviously permission could not be obtained from them for these adjustments to their words (I suspect that sometimes permission was not obtained from living authors either). No information was given to indicate where or why such changes were made. If we adopted such practice with regard to their books, we would be criticised for inappropriate editing (at the least!), and for making them say something that they had not intended to say. I am not aware of what authority a church committee has for such a practice.

It was also the case within that denomination that many of the theological opinions of the church members (very fine people) was taken from the hymns they were singing. For example, many of the ideas about heaven which were adopted were based on hymns and not on the Bible (even if the hymns themselves were expressing biblical truths; my point is that the Bible was moved a step further away).

It was a relief to me to discover that the concept of using only inspired praise, the ‘psalms, hymns and songs’ referred to by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians (and equated by him with the word of Christ in Colossians, a description that cannot be made of hymns that require re-adjusting by doctrinal committees). Of course, I will continue to use inspired praise, but I feel sorry for those who now have to wonder whether they truly understand the intended message of the hymns they sing or whether they are actually singing the original words of the authors.