This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of our parish magazine.
As part of her preparations for retirement, Rev Debby needed to find someone to choose hymns for the ‘first Sunday’ services each month. She asked me to consider taking on that responsibility, and I said yes, after all, how hard can it be?
Despite being given full and thorough training in how to pick hymns that are appropriate to the liturgical calendar and to each part of the service, it didn’t dawn on me just how hard this task actually is until I finally bit the bullet and sat down to choose the hymns for Christingle to Easter. This was just one of several jobs I had scheduled to get done that Saturday afternoon in late November, and it took the entire time available, and stretched into the evening too.
Surrounded by the white hymn book (Those Who Sing Pray Twice), the green hymn book (New English Hymnal), the purple hymn book (Church Hymnary 4), and with the Internet to refer to as well, I became acutely aware of how hard this job really is. Did you know for example that the hymns we sing each week follow these criteria:
- Introit: Upbeat, praise of God, medium to long
- Gradual: Bible-themed (gospel prep), quite short
- Offertory: Self-offering/communion, medium to long
- Communion: Prayerful, short
- Recessional: Lively, sending out, short to medium
Then there is the church calendar to consider. Advent and Lent clearly require hymns with a very different mood to Christmas and Easter. In addition there is the designated liturgical theme to each Sunday. Fortunately there are published lists of suitable hymns, but these need to be filtered further based on what is known at St Margaret’s and what will be appropriate to use in a service during which the younger members of the church family will be present for the entire time. “Shine Jesus Shine” week in, week out, just won’t do.
Research has shown that people need to sing a new and unfamiliar song at least six times before it embeds into the musical memory and becomes “known”. I recall choir practices at which Jeremy presented us with music that he knew we had sung before, but of which we claimed no prior knowledge. Similarly there have been times when I have chosen hymns that I know have been sung previously at St Margaret’s, but that the congregation seemed not to know at all.
There has been plenty of feedback, positive and negative. “When are the hymns going to get back to normal?”, “the hymns flowed nicely from one to the next today”, “the hymns weren’t very child-friendly this morning”, “children need to be challenged and learn harder hymns”… All comments were taken to heart. Sometimes I could act on them and make changes but more often I just couldn’t.
I thank all members of the church family for your patience and acceptance of the musical choices for the ‘first Sunday’ services during the vacancy. Nevertheless, it is with huge relief that I will soon be handing this job over to our new priest in charge, along with my best wishes.*
How hard can it be? Enormously difficult!
*UPDATE – Hymns are now chosen by a committee comprising the clergy team, me, and any interested members of the congregation. There is always a list at the back of church on which congregants can write their favourite hymns. Maggie’s Music Makers meet every Wednesday at 5pm to sing through (and learn where necessary) the hymns for the coming Sunday.