Who chooses the hymns?

I’m occasionally asked who chooses the hymns at St Mary’s. We have an extraordinarily wide repertoire. I can’t remember now how many sets of hymn lyrics we use, but I know that we have over five hundred tunes in regular use through the year.

I think that the choice of hymns is one of the most important and the most tricky things to get right in a congregation. There are so many considerations. Here are just some of the criteria –

  • Good tune
  • Something everyone likes singing
  • Something people sing well
  • Words that scan well
  • Words that make you think
  • Words that you don’t need to think too much about
  • Singability
  • Whether the words and music marry well
  • Length (offertory hymn needs to be long enough to set the table to etc)
  • Theological concepts
  • Language that is inclusive of men and women
  • Language that is inclusive of young and old
  • Requests from the congregation
  • Personal taste

Saying what makes a good hymn is incredibly difficult. Very many people who work in an environment where hymns are sung would name Coe Fen as one of the best hymn tunes ever written but almost no-one can say why.

At St Mary’s, the usual procedure is for the Director of Music to prepare a list and then he and I go over it and pull it to pieces and revise it. Sometimes this debate goes on right until the last minute and we are fortunate to have such a good natured office manager to accommodate our nonsense. Sometimes when there is something special on, I make the initial choice because I think I know what kind of liturgy we are trying to create. This is the case tomorrow, when we are celebrating a special Sunday celebrating Creation. (“Yes, yes, why shouldn’t the Gloria be something from Haydn’s Creation, Yes!).

The list still gets pulled apart by both of us though, and I am grateful for it and learn things by that process quite often. The last word on what will be sung in St Mary’s is mine. As in every Episcopal Church, the Rector has the last word on worship decisions like that. However, having the last word also gives you the responsibility and the delight of learning from other people’s talents and in this case drawing on their repertoire and I value that hugely.

As it happens, in St Mary’s, the tastes of the Director of Music and of me as the Provost overlap in a creative way and we hope that produces worship that is exciting as much of the time as we can.

Just occasionally, he and I disagree about the merits of one hymn over another. And that is where we get really interested in what the other is trying to say. This debate can be rather entertaining and certainly can become a little loud. I suspect you could sell tickets.

This week for example, it was a debate about the relative merits of the tunes East Acklam and Stowey.

Of course, in my heart of hearts, I know for certain which one the angels in heaven prefer.

But this time, I yielded.


  1. Who’s the new office manager?


  2. Kelvin says

    Be cheeky about office managers at your peril.

  3. When will tickets be on sale for your discussions with the Director of Music?

  4. There are some things worth dying for…. and sometimes it’s the hymn tunes!

  5. A thought – a few years ago John Bell gave an evening talk on hymns and tunes. Maybe this blog could the genesis of an evening presented by the Director of Music, aided and abetted (maybe hindered) by the Provost.

  6. I sometimes have to sit next to him in the choirstalls, so Heaven forfend that I would slander his good name. Or at least forfend that he would get to hear about it!

  7. Who are we referring to here, Layclerk? Fr Provost, DofM or the Grumpster? Those are all hot seats.

  8. I think you know to whom I’m referring PamB!

    And I’ll take your word that they’ve all got hot seats, since I can’t say I’ve ever looked (or will ever)!

  9. And here was me expecting an erudite conversation about hymnody…

  10. I am as sure as you that I know which the angels prefer. But I am less confident that have been listening to the same angels.

    For those of us not there, do tell…

  11. Gordon says

    You are right Kelvin the angels would indeed prefer “East Acklam” pity we aren’t singing it on Sunday.

  12. David | Dah•veed says

    Knowing neither, but now having listened to both, indeed East Acklam is more majestic. Stowey was syrupy, too sweet for my taste.

    It was a delight to hear the Wells Cathedral Choir’s presentation of East Acklam.

  13. Ritualist Robert says

    Here in Australia we get Songs of Praise on TV, edited down to 30 minutes. The episodes are also repeated so we’re a few years worth behind the UK it seems. What it does seem is that virtually every episode we get here features either ‘Lord for the years’ or ‘How great thou art’ – sometimes both. The amount variety of hymns on the show seems to be getting less and less, though this may be due to the ABC’s editing and broadcasting schedule. Does there seem to be less variety that 10 years ago in the UK?

  14. office manager says

    Two comments:
    “good natured”, besides being accurate, should be hyphenated;
    I have now chosen Lay Clerk’s funeral hymns, and may get to sing them soon, if there’s any more of his nonsense!

  15. Ooh, hark at him! I believe I’ve just been roundly handbagged.


  16. office manager says

    ‘hand’ this time; ‘sand’ next time!!

  17. I’m sure it’s unavoidable that the elements of taste and preference intrude when it comes to the evaluation of our hymnody. However, I have the (perhaps naive) hope that other criteria will take precedence. Here is a list of factors that need to be considered.

    1) The hymn should be truthful.
    It should express the truths of God’s Word clearly and accurately, and also be true to human experience. If a song is doctrinally in error, or spiritually unrealistic, that is a major flaw.

    2) The hymn should be devotional.
    It should be devotionally appealing, with a warmth of feeling that strikes a responsive chord in the heart.

    3) The hymn should be universal.
    Great hymns are able to span generations and cultures. They have a timelessness that ministers to a wide audience. (I’m not one, however who takes so-called political correctness to the extreme that I expunge any reference to “sons of men” and other such generic terms.)

    4) The hymn should be poetical.
    It should be of high literary quality, full of memorable phrases, richly vivid and insightful. And the wording should be appropriate, worthy of the sacredness and importance of its subject.

    5) The hymn should be singable.
    Though they can often be simply read with profit, hymns are intended to be sung. That means the words need to be wedded to a tune that is skillful, suitable, and singable. Unfortunately there are some fine tunes that don’t suit the text they are put with. The tune must act like the frame of a picture, supporting and enhancing the message of the words.


  1. […] 29, 2009 · Leave a Comment Last week Fr Kelvin asked Who Chooses The Hymns? It is a question I am often asked too. And the answer in my case is: I do. To be truthful, I do […]

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