A FUNCTIONAL ART: REFLECTIONS OF A HYMN WRITER
OUP: P/B 978-0-19-340871-5
Timothy Dudley-Smith celebrated his 90th birthday last December; rather than cutting back on his output, he continues to produce his collections of new hymns, an annual seasonal hymn for his Christmas card, and now this outstanding collection of essays. If ‘essays’ sounds academic, these reflections are far from that – at times one feels as if in conversation with the author. As he says in the introduction, he has drawn freely on earlier articles, interviews, forewords, talks, etc. but reworked and assembled with much new material: forming not just a personal credo but also in effect a series of lectures for potential hymn writers, and frequently a challenge for anyone concerned with the words that congregations sing in worship. For the author has no doubt about the tremendous responsibility placed upon the writer of hymns, someone whose job is ‘to find words which may help a congregation to exalt God’s Name and receive his Word.’
After an introduction about himself and how he came to write hymns, there are some broad-brush chapters: ‘Why hymns?’, ‘Why new hymns?’, ‘What sort of hymns?’, before a most enjoyable discussion headed ‘Good and not so good’. Chapters on specific aspects of hymn writing follow, often emphasizing how hymns are a marriage between different elements: ‘Words and music’, ‘Content and form’, ‘Meaning and language’, ‘Rhythm and metre’, before a more general discussion of ‘Creativity and criticism’. And then the final chapter, ‘What of the future?’, with four possibilities: that there is no future for hymnody, that hymns will develop in ways that we do not yet see, that the hymn will be replaced by the modern worship song, and that ‘the hymn, both traditional and contemporary, will be with us and our grandchildren for a long time to come.’ These are not exclusive possibilities: some would argue that the hymn will be with us and our grandchildren for a long time to come because it is developing in ways that in total we may not yet see, but perhaps can glimpse in the range of material now being written for congregations to sing.
Timothy Dudley-Smith has read widely, thought profoundly and clearly prayed intensely about hymnody. He has also listened to other voices to whom he gives considerable space; the range of quotations from other authors is remarkable and enlivens the writing. Whether one sees him as a major voice towards the end of a great tradition – a sort-of Sibelius in the symphonic tradition – or someone who helps to reinvigorate and show the way forward for a tradition still with a glorious future, this book should be essential reading for everyone concerned with hymnody.