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I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with the worship music that’s used in the charismatic end of the Church: I have wished the words had more theological content and poetry; I have wished the words and music related better to each other and essentially made more sense.
But this week The Tablet reports that Tom Wright, the former bishop of Durham, in a new book Finding God in the Psalms (SPCK), considers the charismatic end of the Church “crazy” for abandoning “the Church’s original hymnbook” and relying on pop-style music that weaves in only the odd line from them.
As someone still safely below the average age of a Church of England worshipper I can say Anglican psalm chant has yet to do anything for me (maybe my brother is to blame for introducing me to Derek and Clive’s outrageous parody of it when I was a teenager).
And as for the pop-esque worship songs – which one devout septagenarian friend described as “mono-music” for its lack of variation – I maintain that they have their place. I have stood in among the thousands of young people praising away at the big Christian festivals for half an hour, even an hour at a time, and I am pretty sure they would not flock there for that amount of organ-accompanied hymns, anthems and psalm chant. A friend who became a Christian in adulthood said that hymns remind her of school assembly and leave her cold. There is clearly a place for the modern style, which at its best has wonderfully direct and challenging lyrics and puts worshippers at their ease.
They make a great appetiser for discovering more of God. Yet after a diet of only those for a number of years, these songs had not nourished me with lines that would comfort or guide in the face of life’s knocks, as some older hymns did. That’s when I turned to the psalms, read in silence at home when I felt alienated from the loud half-hour worship sets that seemed at that point, dare I say it, like a clanging cymbal.
Dr Wright’s complaint that modern songs do not reflect the breadth of the psalms is indicative of a limitation of more than just the song preferences of that end of the Church. I have attended workshops where worship leaders expressed views similar to his and musicians were told that modern worship music fell far short of the variety of the psalms. I went away and had a go at writing a song of lament only to be told it wasn’t appropriate for congregational use. While my lines may not have been Grammy material, it was the mood that was criticised, even though next to the Bible’s fabulously red-blooded psalms, that looked pretty tame.
And there seemed to be a similar unease with silence. At a church I used to attend, another friend who had struggled with depression asked the vicar if he could open up the side chapel for silent prayer at the end of evening services. But even the attempt was well received – on one occasion I counted 17 people crammed in there. It clearly met a need that the rest of the service, its up-beat worship and accessible sermon, did not.
The psalms are dangerous tools to allow people to use – they are emotional, sometimes furious, sometimes contradictory. They don’t all fit into six-verse formulae that have happy heavenly endings. Judging by the songs it champions, it looked as though the charismatic end of the Church, lively and welcoming as it is as an ecclesiastical shop window, lacked the confidence to accompany people in the darker places of life.
Charismatics are used to participating in church music, not being sung at. If Dr Wright wants psalms back regularly, they may have to be band-led and loud. But as long they are as red-bloodied as the Hebrew originals, I think the style would be a price worth paying.