In 1880 J.S. Curwen wrote Studies in Worship Music, an attempt to study the psalms and hymns sung throughout English churches of the time. The final third of the book records Curwen’s eye-witness accounts of the churches he visited. The following are some excerpts from his visit to the Metropolitan Tabernacle.
“Mr. Spurgeon evidently takes delight in the service of song, and is anxious above all things that every man, woman, and child in the place should sing. In announcing the hymn he generally makes some remark, such as, ‘Let us sing joyfully the 48th Psalm,’ — ‘Dear friends, this hymn is full of joy, let’s sing it with all our hearts,’. Occasionally he will stop the congregation, and make them sing more softly or more quickly, when the effect is at once felt in a surprising degree.”
“The first hymn on Sunday morning last was ‘God is our refuge and our strength,’ to the tune ‘Evan.’ Mr. Spurgeon read it slowly through, then he announced the tune and read the first verse again. As the people stood up the precentor advanced from the back of the platform, and started the melody with a clear voice…The second hymn was ‘Thou hidden love of God,’ to one of the old tunes, ‘New Creation’, made up from Haydn’s chorus, ‘The heavens are telling.’ This the people enjoyed, and sang as generally as before. The third hymn was ‘Beneath Thy cross I lay me down,’ to the tune ‘Buckingham,’ which, of course, was a congenial melody. The people were warming to their work, and the volume of sound poured forth more solid and powerful than before. But why should the hymns be read twice through? It may help some illiterate people to understand the words, and Mr. Spurgeon’s energetic reading may infuse the devotional spirit of the poet among the congregation; but nearly all the hymns are so well known that these considerations must be of little practical worth. The reading takes up time, and is evidently wearisome to many; besides, it takes away the freshness of the thoughts that are to be uttered.”
Some observations are in order. As wearisome at it seemed to Curwen, and as familiar as the hymns were to most, Spurgeon apparently thought it needful to read through each hymn, and make remarks before singing them. Apparently, Spurgeon thought the risk of seeming tedious was worth the benefits brought by such a practice. What could such benefits have been? Here we speculate, using our own experience as a possible guide.
Reading all or certain stanzas of a hymn before singing prepares the mind to work with the heart. The nature of a good melody is to evoke certain affections in us. These we often feel apart from the lyrics. The more challenging the lyrics, the more we find ourselves swooping in and out of conscious comprehension of what we are singing. For a real synergy between head and heart, it is often worthwhile to give the mind a walk-through what it will be saying, praying or confessing in song.
Reading the stanzas can stave off musical autopilot. Familiarity tends to lead us to a kind of automatic response. Not all such memorised responses are ‘vain repetitions’, nor do they need to seem new every time we sing them. However, there is something to be said for our love for God being unfeigned – that is, sincere in every way. Words sung with little conscious attention on their meaning can hardly be thought of as fully sincere.
Reading the stanzas of a hymn gives appreciation for what is about to be offered to the Lord. To sing a thing of beauty to the Lord is fitting; to be aware that it is beautiful magnifies the enjoyment of the offering. To find poetic expression of love for God that take us beyond our own expressions of piety serve to grow and stretch our conceptions of God. But if these are done while trying to learn or keep up with a melody, the result may be less illuminating, than if the mind had been given a few moments to meditate.
Curwen’s comments remind us that this can be overdone. Done too often or too frequently, it becomes obnoxious and patronising. The aim is not to explain what is self-evident, or to dissect word-pictures as if they were butterfly abdomen on an entomologist’s table. We do not have to explain every ‘thee’ in the hymn, or ask repeatedly, “Do we really mean what we’re singing?” In my experience, this kind of thing tends to get in the way of worship, rather than assisting it.
However, for many Christians, hymnody may be some of the only serious poetry they encounter. The better the hymnody, typically the greater the comprehension and apprehension gap will be present. If we’re going to resist the dumbing down trend, we had better do our share of “lifting up”: where appropriate, explanations, reiterations and exhortations.