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.