I was given a beautiful mug with music on it for Christmas this year by one of my music students, and as I’ve begun to use it for coffee and tea, I’ve realised that it is completely, wonderfully impractical. It isn’t big enough to hold the mug-sized measure of coffee I usually like to sip and for its size, it actually is too heavy. The music printed on it makes no sense at all, with notes, bar lines and other random markings completely in the wrong position. Best (or worst) of all, the handle is in the shape of a big treble clef sign and is extremely awkward to use. I love it and find myself reaching for it all the time. The mug reminds me of all the awkward problems that have to be solved when you learn or teach music and the sometimes impractical but often beautiful answers that music provides to many of life’s questions.
To extend the metaphor a bit, choosing hymns for Sunday services at Saint Nicholas’ is a bit like deciding what mug to take from the cupboard for the morning (or afternoon, or evening) cup of coffee. Some hymns have associations with certain times of the church year, or parts of worship or particular messages found in the lessons of any given Sunday. A mug might appeal at a particular moment because of its shape, size, colour or design. Something fits at the point in time you reach for it, and so it is with choosing hymns. But what else is needed or useful when considering this important aspect of our worship?
When I sit down to make a list of hymns to correspond with services for several weeks or months to come in our services, I have a number of resources that I can draw on.
The Royal School of Church Music publishes a quarterly bulletin with articles about worship trends and special features mainly focussed on music. It is through an issue of CMQ that I found the anthem that the combined choirs in our Radio 4 broadcast service sang, God of Hope and Lord of Healing. One recent issue had an interview with broadcaster and former choirboy Aled Jones, and the current issue has an article about this very subject: how to choose music for congregational worship.
One paragraph that strikes me particularly is this:
“Worship is generally understood not as a one-sided activity in which church people remind themselves of their purpose, nor an uttering of praise and thanksgiving which vanishes into the ether, but an encounter in which Christ is present in the midst of the Church. The music we make, therefore, has to open out in two directions”.
These ‘two directions’ are basically towards God in the liturgy and towards ourselves as a community of believers. I felt a real sense of this during the visit of the PSNI Ladies Choir recently. Their music making was an enthusiastic example of hard work on the quality of the performance they shared with us and also an expression of true personal belief in the sentiment of the words and music. It was a great service, a great evening and a wonderful example of meaningful service and sharing.
When I next sit down to plan hymns for use in worship, I’ll refer to Sunday by Sunday, a printed resources provided by the RSCM, as well as Sing to the Word, a wonderful publication by Bishop Edward Darling which functions as a specific reference work for own hymnal. Beyond that, it’s a process of thinking about Saint Nicholas’ congregation and choir and our own tradition of worship, which is, at the end of the day, the best possible resource of all.