Monday, August 04, 2008

"Blasphemous Hymns and 'Too Loud' Organs"

Found this article online today.

There is a phenomenon known as "the Worship Wars", where modern day churches have been ripped apart by debate over musical styles. (by the way, defining worship as music alone is a massive mistake. It's a huge topic that I have neither the understanding nor time to explore in this post). To give you a flavour of how impassioned these disagreements can be, here's a portion of letter that was written by a critic of the new style that had infiltrated a church:

"I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it. Last Sunday's new hymn - if you can call it that - sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon. If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this - in God's house! - don't be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship. The hymns we grew up with are all we need."

And another:

"What is wrong with the inspiring hymns with which we grew up? When I go to church, it is to worship God, not to be distracted with learning a new hymn. Last Sunday's was particularly unnerving. The tune was un-singable and the new harmonies were quite distorting."

The hymns they were talking about were cutting-edge for their time, a departure from tradition, and perhaps a foolhardy distraction from what church services should be about. But wait... Letter 1 was written in 1863 about the hymn "Just as I am without one Plea". Letter 2 was written in 1890 about the classic "What a Friend We have In Jesus", which was written by Banbridge man Joseph Scriven.

Growing up in an Ulster gospel hall and mission hall setting, I can't imagine these two hymns being regarded in that light (there would be nothing left in Redemption Songs if the 19th century classics were removed!).But I must admit, most of today's modern christian "praise and worship" music makes my toes curl. I used to think that the hymns I love were traditional, but clearly at one point they were invented too, modern innovations. I wonder what I would have thought in 1890?

It all brings into very sharp perspective the Ulster and Scottish Covenanters' singing of Psalms 71 and 78 as the government troops charged down on them on the snowy slopes of Rullion Green in November 1666.

So, to give you an idea of the variety, here's a series of YouTube finds - firstly, a modernised version of one of my favourite hymns, Jesus Paid It All (written in 1865) - performed by ex-pat Ulsterman Alastair Vance who now lives in North Carolina.

To be contrasted with this - communal unaccompanied singing of Psalm 102 at the RPCNA International event last month:

And this, from my favourite gospel singer that I've ever found on YouTube. He seems to be on a one-man mission to flood YouTube with old hymns - his style reminds me a lot of the singers that came to Carrowdore Mission Hall when I was a wee boy. Here he is singing "Years I Spent in Vanity and Pride":

Finally, this is a hymn that's very dear to me. Five years ago, when my mother was in intensive care, in a coma and clinging to life following a car crash at my own front door, I played a version of this to her through the earphones of my iPod - the Robert Lowry hymn Christ Arose (1874). I couldn't find any footage of a traditional Ulster gospel hall on Youtube (as if!), but this clip is as close as it gets - men in suits trying to sing harmony. Just close your eyes... and ignore the flowers, stained glass and large pipe organ in the background.