Hands up all those who remember Max Boyce, the Welsh comedian, singer and entertainer. He rose to fame during the mid-1970s with an act that combined musical comedy with his passion for rugby union and his origins in the mining communities of South Wales. Having sold more than two million albums in a career spanning four decades, and playing to full houses all around the world, Boyce is one of the most successful and enduring entertainers in Welsh history. He is perhaps best known for his song Hymns and Arias which became popular with Welsh rugby crowds and which you will always hear sung at Welsh International Matches today. He is still performing today, although not as much on our TV screens as he was in the 70s.
Hymns and Arias was inspired by the Welsh love of singing, particularly the prominence of hymn singing in the non-conformist chapels of Max Boyce’s youth. Seemingly it is not just the Welsh (even the non-religious Welsh) who love hymn singing? Danny Boyle’s brilliant opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics incorporated several Christian hymns: Jerusalem, Guide me O Thou great Redeemer, Abide with me to name but three. Abide with me was sung in its entirety by Emeli Sandé even including the final verse:
Hold now your cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee:
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
H F Lyte’s famous hymn, sadly associated more today with cup finals than church, was the background to a very moving tableau on the theme of reconciliation and restoration which could have been understood in a number of ways, not least God seeking out lost humanity and drawing us back to himself in Christ.
Judging by the response of ordinary people – Emeli Sandé’s already strong popularity was boosted even further by her performance at the Opening Ceremony – we may well be missing a trick here as church by dismissing the old hymns. Many evangelical and charismatic churches today hardly ever sing the old hymns, preferring to use more modern ‘worship songs’ almost exclusively. A ‘worship leader’ told me recently that he never uses any songs more than two years old? I enjoy singing some of these ‘worship songs’. Some of them, without doubt, will find a sustained place in the musical tradition of the Church in time. These songs, however, have not yet gone through the ‘weeding out’ process of time that the scores of old hymns written through the centuries have already gone through. Sunday after Sunday, however, I sit in church and watch as half the congregation don’t join in with the modern ‘worship songs’ the band play so enthusiastically, because they are not familiar with the tunes or can’t get to grips with the tempo. And when ‘outsiders’ join us for special ‘outreach type services’ they never sing any of the ‘modern songs’ because they have never heard them before – and many of them are expecting the old familiar hymns to be sung anyway.
I am not convinced that ‘contemporary worship’ actually has the pulling power that some people claim it has. For me it is very monotone and one dimensional and, quite frankly, can get rather boring after a time. I am not at all sure that ‘young people’ really are attracted by ‘contemporary worship’. It seems to me that, by and large, the emphasis on ‘contemporary worship’ today is largely driven by the 50 plus age group ‘baby boomers’ trying to re-live their youth. Even the 20 plus somethings that advocate the exclusive use of ‘worship songs’ are usually musicians themselves who play in the ‘worship band’? At the same time there would appear to be a resurgence (incorporating a lot of young people, if my experience of Taizé with its weekly attendance of 4,000-6,000 young people throughout the summer is anything to go by, or the growing ‘pulling power’ of festivals like Greenbelt) of interest in liturgical worship.
For myself, I am an advocate of what has become known as ‘ancient-future worship’ or ‘blended worship’ – making use of the best of the old and the best of the new in terms of music, prayer, liturgy, communication, participation, and so on, including the use of old hymns as well as modern songs. At least if we had some of the old hymns like Abide with me at our services (sung in a lively but meaningful way) everyone present would at least be able to join in, even if they only recalled it from the Cup Final?!