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United Reformed Church Spirituality articles:

Singing, in hymns and psalms

Mark Argent
4 August 2018

One of the musical fruits of the Reformation was a new current in hymn- and psalm-singing. Musical settings of scripture have always had a prominent place in Reformed worship and spirituality.

St Augustine said that someone “who sings, prays twice”. Singing is not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of spirituality and silence, but both singing and hymn-writing are rich parts of the Reformed heritage.

Some of the great hymn-writers in the Reformed world, like Isaac Watts and Philip Dodderidge, have seen the writing of hymns as something that goes with preaching. Writing hymns is something that gets easier with practice. Writing a paraphrase of a piece of scripture can be a really rich way of dwelling more deeply with it.

Bach’s cantatas provide an example, where he quotes chorale (hymn) tunes in the fabric of the music, adding a huge amount to the sense of the cantata (see the article Morimur: dying and rising on this site).

In our own time, I remember visiting an elderly couple who, for my first few visits, gave me a sense of showing me what they wanted me to see — there was the “Sunday best”, the good china, the cake, and a bible open. One day, they’d heard of my interest in cooking, and I was shown their kitchen. The connection deepened. Next visit the dress and the china were normal, the Bible was gone, and they chatted about hymns they remembered. That was when pastoral visits there became real.

Paraphrasing scripture into hymns has been a characteristic of the Reformed world since the Reformation. It’s a fascinating process because you are attending closely to the scripture not to preach on it, or (consciously) to pray with it, but something profound happens in the “being present to it” to render it into music, that something goes further when the congregation takes it into their singing.