The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on our lives as a church family over the past six months has been immense. Who could have thought that we would have to close our church building, or that we would resume worship in such strange circumstances? One of the things I’ve missed most about not meeting physically in church is singing hymns, and I know I’m not alone. I want to reflect for just a few moments on what it is about hymns that makes them such a special part of our communal worship.
I imagine that most of us grew up with hymns, and remember them in the deep and lasting way that we remember things learned in childhood. I can still hear my mother’s voice trilling away in the kitchen, ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus, / All our sins and griefs to bear!’ At the Salvation Army Sunday School I attended, we sang rousing hymns like ‘Stand Up! – Stand Up for Jesus’. On Sundays, metrical psalms were always part of the service, along with the great evangelical hymns.
One of the earliest hymn writers in England was Isaac Watts, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and he realised that the power of hymns is emotional and psychological as much as intellectual. He wrote hymns, he said, to give voice to ‘our Love, our Fear, our Hope’. These words sum up beautifully why hymns are so important in our lives and worship as Christians.
In singing hymns, we express our love – for the Creator God, for our saviour Jesus Christ, for our fellow-Christians, and for our neighbours. We address through hymns our deepest fears – of suffering and death, of doubting our faith, of losing those we love. In singing hymns together, we find encouragement and hope. They strengthen our confidence that God cares about us and walks with us at every stage of life, and that a day will come when he will establish mercy and peace, truth and justice in his everlasting Kingdom.
For about the last twenty weeks I’ve been sending Mary our churchwarden a hymn to include in her weekly emails to members of the church. I write a little paragraph about my chosen hymn, give a link to a performance on YouTube, and provide the words. Watching and listening to hymns on YouTube cannot of course replace the experience of singing them together in church. But I believe that it does something to keep the hymns we love alive in our minds and hearts. It perhaps encourages us pay more attention to the words – hymns are a form of poetry, after all, and the words matter. It is striking how ecumenical many hymns are. Protestants and Roman Catholics happily sing words written by Charles Wesley as well as John Henry Newman: they unite us in a way that practically nothing else does.
I know from emails I’ve received that many people have appreciated these weekly hymns, and felt blessed by them. Sometimes a particular hymn awakens a memory of a loved one, or of a special occasion, but often people simply say how much they enjoy and feel uplifted by hearing the familiar words and music. Hymns allow us to express our collective faith, using our minds, our bodies, and our souls. I hope that when we resume full worship we will do so with a fresh sense of thankfulness for the great hymns that are such a gift to us as Christian people.