Sabbatical Project


May 21, 1738 was the date of Charles Wesley’s conversion. On that date, he opened his Bible to Psalm 40:3, “He hath put a new song in my mouth; many will see and fear and will trust in the Lord.”  The next day he started his first hymn.  According to church historian Diane Severance, “This was the first of over 6,500 hymns Charles wrote. For decades there poured forth from him an unstoppable stream of spiritual song. Charles Wesley, like Martin Luther, believed hymns were a means of teaching theology. He composed an average of three hymns a week. They covered every area of theology as well as every season of the liturgical year.”

When I was serving the Stirling Pastoral Charge, I organized an ecumenical event series for Lent during which guest theologians spoke about the core spiritual practices for their denomination. To speak about the United Church’s spiritual practices, I invited Chris Levan who at the time was serving in Kingston presbytery. Chris proposed to the participants that central to United Church spiritual practice, as for our Methodist ancestors, was hymn singing. Chris suggested that the primary influence on theological understanding for most United Church adults was not preaching, or Bible study, or personal reading, but rather, the singing of hymns in worship.

I think Chris was right. In the congregations I have served, the hymn books were as holy as the Bible itself. For members of the congregation, the hymns were the expression of their faith and a source of their theological understanding.  The wise minister would consider very carefully a change to the introit which for generations had expressed the trinitarian theology of the church: “Holy, holy, holy …. God in three persons, blessed trinity.” Another beloved hymn, Creation’s Lord,  taught process theology more effectively that a book study on A. N. Whitehead: “Creation’s Lord, we give you thanks, that this your world is incomplete …For what we choose is what we are, and what we love, we yet shall be. The goal may ever shine afar; the will to win it makes us free.”

Beginning in the 1960’s, folk musicians have added to the repertoire of music for congregational singing. Most United Church members are familiar with Micah 6:8 because they have sung it: “What does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” The radically inclusive theology of the church also has been conveyed through song, such as the hymn by Walter Farquharson and Ron Klusmeier that proclaims: “Walls that divide are broken down, Christ is our unity; chains that enslave are thrown aside, Christ is our liberty.” For members of the United Church of Canada, hymn singing, whether traditional or contemporary, has helped form the theology and world view of its members.

So what is the music of the emerging and emergent church? What is the musical repertoire available to leaders who want to teach a liberal theology through today’s contemporary music? The ancient melodies of the 19th century and the folk music of the past 50 years do not appeal to the generation that the United Church is attempting to engage today. Where are the songs that will shape the theology of a new generation? What resources are available to the guitarists, the keyboardists and the drummers who comprise the bands that are now leading music in many congregations?

Most of the musicians in praise bands have minimal formal training and play music “by ear.” They look for songs that suit the instrumentation of the band, and is available for downloading so they can learn the music by listening to it. They prefer music notation that consists of a melody line and a chord chart. The lack of modern rock ballads with liberal theology lyrics has forced many of these “praise bands” to choose music that is derived from fundamentalist denominations in the United States. Using this music in progressive and liberal congregations has become a theological Trojan horse.  The music from fundamentalist churches is lively and engaging, but the lyrics often convey a theology that is sentimental and exclusive, and a world view rooted in western colonialism. The lyrics for most contemporary praise music either portrays Jesus sentimentally (if not romantically), or it issues a call to imperialistic dominance veiled as the great commission.

Beginning with a 4 month sabbatical from my regular position with the United Church of Canada, I am embarking on a song-writing project that I have essentially been putting off for several years.  I hope to write and record some songs for congregational singing that will offer ministry personnel a selection of music and worship resources to engage their congregations in learning and expressing the theology that our ministers preach, teach and proclaim. In a small way, I hope to be able to follow in the path of Charles Wesley, who gave to the church music as a way of teaching theology and inspiring faithfulness.

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