Church casts out golden oldie hymns

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Traditional hymns enjoyed by generations of churchgoers, including "Jerusalem" and "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus", have been abandoned by the Church of Scotland because they are deemed to be out of tune with the 21st century.

Two hundred "golden oldies" will fail to make it into the Kirk's new hymn book, the absentees including "God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen", "Tell Me the Old, Old Story", and "Forty Days and Forty Nights".

Rather than singing hymns which are "incomprehensible", the modern worshipper should be able to focus on themes such as ecology, healing and unity with people around the world, says the Kirk.

"The Church's One Foundation" was the only survivor of a list of "unsuitable" hymns - rescued thanks to a flood of objections from traditionalists.

The Kirk's revision committee has concluded that military imagery, exclusively male references and archaic language are unsuitable for modern day churchgoers.

Today's worshippers "may not have the familiarity with Biblical language and the Christian tradition which has been true for previous generations," it concluded.

The Reverend John Bell, the committee's convener, who will present the new list to the Church of Scotland's General Assembly later this month, has urged worshippers to cast aside sentimental attachments to the old favourites.

"People like a hymn not because of what the text says but because of what associations they have with their past, be it one they sung at school, a wedding or their grandmother's funeral," he said.

"There is something unjust if a church includes a hymn which only speaks to the past of those who are singing it and not to the future of those who are being born."

Some may feel emotionally attached to "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus", for example, but the references to trumpet calls, foes and armour will be lost on younger churchgoers.

"A soldier in the year 2000 is very different from a soldier in the 1950s or indeed the 1850s when the hymn was written," he explained.

The new hymn book, which was last updated in 1973 and will be shared by the Church of Scotland, the United Free Church in Scotland and the Presbyterian Church in England, will be ready in 2003.

South of the Border, the Church of England is no stranger to controversy over attempts to modernise the music.

The public still prefers the longer-standing hymns, irrespective of archaic language and incomprehensible phrases.

At the end of last year BBC's Songs of Praise asked viewers to nominate their favourite hymn. They chose "How Great Thou Art", which was written by a Swedish minister in the 1880s and became popular during Billy Graham's crusade to the UK in the 1950s and 1960s.

Hugh Faupel, editor of the programme, was surprised by some of the Church of Scotland's omissions.

"'Forty Days and Forty Nights' featured in our favourite hymns," he said. "'Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus', although it comes from a military tradition, has a good, sound theology and is popular with our viewers. 'Jerusalem' may not say much theologically but people have a strong emotional attachment to it."

But Professor John Harper, director general of the Royal School of Church Music, said that, while it was sad to see some of the old favourites go, it was also important to make room for the "superb" hymns being produced today.

Alan Luff, executive vice-president of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, is also keen to defend modern hymns: the so-called happyclappy songs which are "often slight in content and poor in craftsmanship" are not the only sort of modern hymn, he argues.

"I get quite excited when I hear that people are working on hymn books and doing the pruning that any prudent gardener does, getting rid of things which by comparison with what is available get in the way of the spiritual growth of the congregation," he added.

Canon Michael Saward, canon treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral who has written around 80 hymns himself, has no such emotional attachment to "Jerusalem".

"I can't blame a Scotsman for not wanting to sing about England having a special claim to Jesus," he said.

"I would also be delighted to see 'Jerusalem' dropped. Blake's words are all right, but they've got nothing whatsoever to do with Christianity. The idea that Christ came to Glastonbury is so evidently a legend."