Thursday, 27 April 2017

Worship Restored: On innovation

Isaac Watts (the author of 'When I survey the Wondrous Cross' and 'I'm not ashamed to own my Lord') caused a stir when he began to write his hymns. It was a new innovation among the nonconformists, who would only sing metrical psalms, and he was opposed by many. To this day, some churches in rural Scotland stick to the Psalter, holding out against the innovation of hymns and musical instruments.
When Martin Luther began to put Christian lyrics to popular drinking songs, he was similarly challenged. In reply, he coined the oft quoted phrase, 'Why should the Devil have all the best Tunes?'.
The Salvation Army similarly not only took songs from the pub, but they accompanied them with the instruments of working people, such as tambourines, drums, trombones and cornets. When William Booth heard a beautiful rendition of 'Bless His Name, He sets me free', and found that it was set to the tune of 'Champagne Charlie, that's my name', a translated songs like 'Champagne Charlie, that's my Name' to 'Bless His Name, He sets me Free'. It's worth quoting the chorus more fully:
Bless his name, he sets me free,
Bless his name, he sets me free,
O the blood, the precious blood,
I am trusting in the cleansing flood.
Bless his name, he sets me free.
Bless his name, he sets me free,
I know my sins are washed away,
And now in Jesus I am free.

Booth once said,
You must sing good tunes. Let it be a good tune to begin with. I don't care much whether you call it secular or sacred. I rather enjoy robbing the devil of his choicest tunes and, after his subjects themselves, music is about the best commodity he possesses. It is like taking the enemy's guns and turning them against him.
Not long afterwards, the American singer Ira Sankey came on the scene. He traveled around the cities of the UK with the evangelist DL Moody with his range of popular hymns. His selection of hymns, published in the book 'Sacred Songs and Solos', had a simplicity to them, a lilting tone and greater emotion than the previous generation of church songs. Although some church leaders criticised his music, they were a hit with the common people. Singing along at the music hall was a popular pastime, and Sankey's hymns had a similar style, exemplified by 'Blessed Assurance', 'What a friend we have in Jesus', 'O Happy Day', and 'Trust and Obey'.
Fast forward to the late 20th century. As a babe in Christ, a friend lent me a tape of songs by someone called Larry Norman. I'm amused now when I think of the lyrics of one of the songs, "Why should the Devil have all the good Music". Here are some extracts:
Sometimes people can't understand
What's a good boy doing in a Rock 'n' Roll Band?
Jesus is the Rock and He Rolled my Blues Away
I ain't knocking the Hymns, just give me a song with a beat
I don't want any of those funeral marches... I ain't dead yet!
Inspired stuff! Hmmm ? Perhaps not! My tastes have moved on a little since then.
Cliff Richard later covered this song, leaving out the derogatory line about funeral marches.
The moral of the story so far. Worship styles have always followed the popular style of the age. There is nothing wrong with using popular music styles. In fact, I believe it makes a strong impact. I wanted to lay this principle down before making my next point.
For your music, I'm putting up one of Isaac Watt's radical hymns. The exquisite 'When I Survey the Wondrous Cross"

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