Recovering lost language in worship

Posted in Faith

It’s not often that people can call themselves hymn writers these days – but it’s a claim that Rev Don Bell and Dr Maarten Ryder can now boldly make with the upcoming launch of their new publication, Hymns for Times and Seasons. Catherine Hoffman sat down with Don to talk about the creation of this new hymn book, and the importance of language in worship music.

Many people don’t think of hymns as an exciting topic of conversation – but Rev Don Bell isn’t most people. Talking about hymns and his long history with them, Don’s face lights up in delight. He’s interested in all aspects of hymns – the theology, the language, the music, the history and how they’re used in church settings.

“I’ve actually been writing hymns since about 1970 – with varying degrees of success,” Don laughs. “This book is the culmination of years of interest and study in both church and university settings.”

During his time as a Uniting Church minister in locations across Victoria and South Australia, Don witnessed firsthand the ways congregations engage with hymns, verse and music. He was particularly interested in the language people use to address God and express themselves in worship.

It is easy for church members to recognise that the language we use in worship is very important, and to understand that this language has undergone significant changes in recent decades. Not many of us, however, have given as much thought to this topic as Don.

Since retiring in 2005, Don has spent considerable time reflecting on the language used to address God in worship, and the theology reflected in worship music. He previously completed a Masters thesis comparing language in older styles of worship with contemporary styles. These topics also form part of his current PhD work with Flinders University.

“What I’m interested in is not only the theology within our old hymns, but the theological and literary issues within worship music in general,” Don emphasises.

It is, perhaps, natural that Don’s interest in the language of worship would translate to writing hymns of his own – particularly after joining forces with Dr Maarten Ryder, the musician and scientist behind the music accompanying Don’s words.

“I call the songs in Hymns for Times and Seasons ‘hymns’ rather than ‘songs’ because I feel much of the language used in modern worship music has had the older beauty simplified out if it. But simplification isn’t everything, and in popularising the language and imagery used, many modern songs have lost the poetry of older hymns,” he says.

“The hymns Maarten and I have written really concentrate on the Bible, and follow the church times and seasons. We’ve tried to create these hymns to give worshippers entry into the literary world of the Bible, so that they discover in it their own theology.”

According to Flinders University English Professor Graham Tulloch, the hymn writers have succeeded in this endeavour. In the foreword of Hymns for Times and Seasons, Graham writes that the hymns in this collection “offer a language in which modern people can express their beliefs, but also a language fit to be addressed to God”.

“There are many riches in this collection, both in Don's verse and in Maarten's music,” Graham writes later in the foreword. “I commend these new traditional hymns to you – a new addition to an old and venerable tradition. They are hymns for today's people and they are hymns for today's worship.” 

Rev Prof Andrew Dutney, who also wrote a foreword for the book, adds that “they speak from the heart to the heart, and lift my heart to worship God.”

The music accompanying the hymns is also a topic that excites Don – he can’t help but sing a few bars of one of his favourites, “As Treasure Hid Within Our Time”, while speaking about it.

“Maarten, apart from being a brilliant microbiologist, is also a classically trained musician, and he’s the first oboist in the Unley Symphony Orchestra,” says Don.

“He’s written some really inventive music for this book.  There is a delightful story that Maarten tells of his recent work in China: One evening he heard a bird outside his window. He sang the tune to his Chinese assistant, who said ‘Oh! That’s our Chinese cuckoo’.  This is now the basis of one of our hymn tunes. That’s a real inventive composer for you.”

Members of the wider Uniting Church community will have an opportunity to hear this music – and Don’s thoughtful wording – at a launch event being held at Pilgrim Uniting Church on Friday 2 September at 7.30pm. Entrance to the launch event costs $10 and includes a copy of Hymns for Times and Seasons, which is being published by MediaCom.

“We’re really excited to share this music with everyone,” Don enthuses. “We want to fill Pilgrim with people!”

For more information about Hymns for Times and Seasons or the launch event, please contact Rev Don Bell on 8278 7764 or email bellgriff@internode.on.net


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