More Than Meets the Ear

AS THE ROAR OF HYMN AND SONG TRAFFIC continues to thunder past our church windows, and an occasional passenger jumps off to join those inside, we may just spot two newish-looking long vehicles speeding along the road. They are quite different in shape, but both have that unmistakable quality of service-traffic. One is a book, the other, a disk.

First in our double snapshot is the latest volume from Dr Brian Wren, Englishman turned American, URC pastor turned international traveller, hymnwriter turned historical interpreter. His book is Praying Twice, a title borrowed from Augustine’s ‘Whoever sings, prays twice’.

If he will excuse my masculine language (he lives in America) here is a magisterial survey of hymn-singing. While differing from J R (Dick) Watson’s masterpiece The English Hymn, it does one thing which Prof Watson did not. His book is yet another major work of proven scholarship in an area often served by what is merely anecdotal, sentimental or worse. So far from hymns being in decline, they are a growing field of serious study – not merely of the antiquarian kind – but asking what you sang last Sunday and why.

Brian Wren achieves two more things which Dick Watson does not, because he did not aim to. On a scale not seen since the early death of Dr Erik Routley, he speaks with intelligence and intelligibility (a powerful duo) about both words and music. To master either is a great gift; to move with ease between both is rare. And he applies a generous but critical mind to the song-culture in which some churches have practically drowned.

Simplicity, he says, is the opposite of triviality. You cannot ‘just sing Scripture’ without imposing your own context. And ‘If all our songs are ephemeral, we shall widen, not bridge, the communication gap between generations’.

This is not a review; I simply wave my small flag, in a paper which Dr Wren would hardly allow in his bathroom, to welcome a book which will feed hymn-loving minds for years. It is not for theological faint-hearts, nor for those who read only what they agree with.

But first along the road, with further models to come, is something completely different. I enthused elsewhere about HymnQuest even before I had much chance to operate it.

Physically it’s a featherweight compared with Wren’s book or any other; but on this small CD-ROM are stored I don’t know how many trillions or words and numbers (and some pictures) which are growing all the time as the brand is improved, but which still occupy only a small fraction of the available space or memory or whatever it’s called. Hymn-wise, there is nothing like it. Do you, or I, need it?

Of course you can get by without it – and without a phone or a fridge. It is a luxury. But compared with all the junk-luxuries which seem to encumber many of our Christian homes, this one is absorbingly useful. I know; I fed in some of the data. This will enable you to find the hymn you want and then tell you all about it, at a glance and the touch of a mouse. Complete texts of 12,000 hymns, and counting. Ask for a leaflet.


Watson’s book, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997; Wren’s, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2000; HymnQuest, Stainer and Bell, London, 2000 and annual supplements. They all cost money, but so do the Dome, the Wheel, the Globe, the Oval, the Valley, the Tower and quite possibly the Spire.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.