What do we do about old hymns?

I have just been reading in preparation for a discussion group tonight, and one of the chapters challenges us about what to do with old hymns where the sentiments are no longer generally held.

In this specific case it was “All things bright and beautiful” and in particular the now mostly omitted verse:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

However, there are also long debates about the use of inclusive language in hymns (and the use of alternative lyrics) and even in modern hymns there is concern about some lyrics, for example:

Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied

from In Christ Alone.

I even recall a discussion between a chaplain and Carol Service organiser about the “theological soundness” of Little Town of Bethlehem:

O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie

Not terribly accurate then or now.

Indeed, so much so that 10 years ago or so alternative lyrics were suggested:

O sad and troubled Bethlehem,
We hear your longing cry
For peace and justice to be born
And cruel oppression die.
How deep your need for that great gift
of love in human form.
Let Christ in you be seen again
and hearts by hope made warm.

While morning stars and evening stars
shine out in your dark sky,
despair now stalks your troubled streets
Where innocents still die.
And Jesus, born of Mary,
Whose love will never cease,
feels even now your pain and fear,
Longs with you for your peace.

Amazingly and lovingly
Jesus the child has come
and, brought to birth through human pain,
makes broken hearts his home.
He comes to comfort all who weep,
to challenge every wrong
and, living with the weak and poor,
Becomes their hope, their song.

Words by Wendy Ross-Barker

The question however was: what should we do about it?  And the suggestion was that just ignoring the problem is insufficient.  We need to look back at the history, and why these things happened, and the theology that drove them to see whether we agree with it.

I do recall one of my theological college principals refusing to sing certain lines in hymns because he didn’t know what they meant – alternatively I also recall hearing of  someone who said they could sing the creeds, but couldn’t say them!

And when you are a vicar, what do you do when people complain about messing about with the words?


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