By Morwenna Ludlow, Canon Theologian
I was delighted this week to be able to sing hymns again in the Cathedral. Not everyone enjoys singing. But for many people singing is so life-enhancing, whether it’s singing in worship, singing in the football terraces, singing to a child or singing along to a favourite song in the car.
Singing can connect us with other people: sometimes hundreds or thousands of people you’ve never met before. I remember being in Paris on 14 July, the year France won the World Cup: the whole city was caught up in a joyful chant of ‘On a gagné! On a gagné!’ (‘We’ve won! We’ve won!’). It was impossible not to join in.
And singing makes other connections too. It’s a good way of memorising information which is why I can still remember some of the facts I committed to song for my Biology GCSE! Even if we are singing to ourselves, singing can connect us through our memory to friends, to past events, perhaps to people we have loved and lost. There are so many ways singing makes connections between our heart and our head.
For this reason, song has been a powerful part of Christianity, although its history has not always been uncontroversial. Early Christians kept psalm-singing from Jewish tradition, but it was only gradually that they added their own new hymns, as theologians realised the power of harnessing tunes to Christian words. The only problem was that some of those theologians were heretics! In the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria the heretic Arius set his theology to some catchy popular tunes, so that his supporters could show their vocal support for his ideas as they walked around the city. More traditional churchmen ridiculed the ‘disgusting’ music as much as the dodgy theology.
But eventually the wider church caught up with the heretics. The great hymn-writer Ambrose of Milan composed some of his hymns to foster community-spirit among Christians who were feeling harassed by the large numbers of rival heretical groups who had their own songs. In Syria, Ephrem (perhaps the greatest Christian poet of all) wrote hymns with the same purpose: to educate congregations in orthodox beliefs and unite them in a strong community. Most unusually he is also said to have written hymns specifically for female choirs.
Some Christians continued to feel ambivalent about hymns. Saint Augustine, who was part of Ambrose’s community in Milan for a while, noted how singing the psalms moved him very deeply and drew his soul closer to God. But he also agonised over the fact that sometimes he was so transported by the music that he failed to take in the words.
On this point at least, I think Augustine was wrong. One of the beauties of singing is precisely its power to take us from one place to another. If we like to sing, let’s revel in its power to reconnect us to our past, to sustain hope for the future and create community with those around us.