Brigid Coult

My visible ministry is one familiar to all - at the piano or in front of the choir (or even at the organ on the few occasions Susan is away). But “doing” the music for services is only a small part of what I do - there is a lot that goes on to prepare for those services. One of the most important parts of that is the selection of music, and specifically of hymns - the music of the congregation.

The number of hymns available to us through our Common Praise and Gather hymnals constitutes a great resource, and I maintain a collection of other hymn collections together with copyright permission from LicenSing and OneLicense to give us further possibilities.

Each one has been submitted, evaluated, and made available for publishing in a hymnal only after careful consideration by an editorial board. Even so, there are hymns that we will seldom, if ever, sing, and hymns that have become favourites.

The question is often asked, “By what standards do we judge hymns? What makes a hymn good or not-so- good?” Answers to those questions will vary depending upon who answers - it can all be quite subjective. However, I believe there are some standards and qualities for measuring a good hymn, just as there are some personal preferences I use in selecting hymnody for worship. Here are the major points I consider:

What is the congregation I am choosing for? What Paul Westermeyer calls “the people’s song” is an important factor - the songs beloved at the 9:15 service will be unfamiliar at 11:15 and vice versa.

What are the themes for the day? My preparation is usually done 6-8 weeks ahead of time; I read the lections and consider which hymns will complement the readings.

What is the function of any given hymn? What may be appropriate at offertory may not work at Communion: a short hymn may be not long enough for a procession but perfect for the Gospel acclamation.

What is the balance of familiar to unfamiliar? We are exhorted to “sing God a new song”, but too many new songs at once can be scary! On the other hand, we don’t really want to be singing the same 30-40 songs over and over again.


Members of Christ Church Cathedral’s choir, one of many excellent choirs leading hymns in the diocese

Once the initial choices are made, I will very often go back to those hymns for a second look. Do the music and the text balance? Does the text show sound theology and a scriptural basis? Do the textual images contribute to our understanding of God, or give us fresh insights? Can we use those texts in prayer? Do they speak of our life as the corporate body of God, or are they what I call me-and- Jesus songs?

There is an increasing amount of hymnody that speaks with the voice of God: I think of “Here I am, Lord” (Gather 291) or “I am the bread of life” (Gather 337). I will include these from time to time, because they do have important content, as well as being favourites, but we need to remember that the function of our music is to sing to God, rather than to have God sing to us. Similarly, there are many “traditional” hymns in Common Praise that speak of a blood-and-atonement theology that was more common fifty years ago; again, many of those hymns are congregational favourites and will be included in worship, but I need to check that a balance is maintained.

So much in the end is subjective. In a pew there may be one person who is looking for hymns that will excite and stimulate, songs that perhaps have that gospel swing or a strong chorus–and another who is seeking quiet and reflection, music that may express sadness or questioning.

The important thing is that we sing. Many of you know that I love John Bell’s phrase about each of us having the voice of an apprentice angel. The thing to remember about angels is that there’s nowhere that says, how well they sing; what’s important is that they do sing, unceasingly, of God’s praises.

Brigid Coult was convener of the Service Music Working Group putting together Common Praise, the most recent Anglican Church of Canada hymnal, authorized in 1998 (the “blue book”). She is also choral director for the Richmond Chorus and Orchestra, and occasionally sings in the Cathedral choir. This article first appeared in the Icon, St. Mary’s parish newsletter.