Church of England

Songs of Praise goes ecumenical


It seems that Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s Head of Religion & Ethics, essentially agrees with the Bishop of Truro: the Church of England will be dead in six years, so it’s probably best to divide the spoils and share out the inheritance now. Basically, mass immigration from Africa and Eastern Europe has profoundly changed the national church scene, so, henceforth (according to news reports), after 53 years, Songs of Praise is to receive a “migrant makeover” to include “other Christian faiths” (who writes this tosh?). No longer will the programme restrict itself to chocolate-box parish churches where elderly Anglican women sing robust Wesleyan hymns of sin and salvation: henceforth the worship mix will be widened to include inter alia a bit of Roman Catholic ‘Hail, Queen of Heaven’; Pentecostal ‘Shine Jesus Shine’; and Salvation Army ‘Dreary, so dreary, footsore and weary’ – to better reflect national denominational diversity.

I suppose we must be grateful that Mr Ahmad hasn’t (yet) re-branded the show Chants of Mediation or Shabads of Gurbani or (coming soon) Call to Du’a, for where precisely does the threshold fall in the quest to be religiously inclusive to better reflect a plural society? If a distinctly Anglican programme (which has, by the way, long included episodes broadcast from other Christian denominations) is perceived to be parochial, why is its essential conventional Christianness not considered equally (or unequally) insular?

Ann Widdecombe fires a warning, which is not without relevance:

In many ways he is right. When I made my own documentary on the future of Christianity in this country I found that the growing churches were Evangelical or Catholic and in both cases much aided by immigration, the former by that from African countries and the latter by the Eastern European influx. However Ahmed should be cautious. His core audience is still C of E and if people suddenly find their favourite hymns ditched and replaced by unfamiliar ones they may drift away and that will mean he has alienated his loyal followers for an uncertain gain from new ones. I know well, having been brought up in the Evangelical tradition, that such Christians tend to be at Sunday evening services rather than watching them at home.

There is an element of inevitability about this development, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. Music is a universal language: songs of praise to God should not be bound by denominational pettiness. Jonathan Edwards writes of relationship between worship and revival; of raised affections to the heights of heavenly worship and expression: heaven.. holiness is raised to an exceeding great height, to be strong, high, exalted exercises of the heart.. The more eminent the saints are on earth, the stronger their grace, and the higher its exercises are, the more they are like the saints in heaven.. ie, the more they have of high or raised affections in religion.

Worship, he says, should be “raised to an exceeding great height (and) not be suspected merely because of (its) degree”. We should not fear robust expressions of thankfulness to God: drums and trumpets have a place alongside organs and choirs. Both may lead to a sense of spiritual rapture and develop a longing to know more of God and sense the heart of Jesus.

Worship is a work of the Holy Spirit: it can induce strong cries for mercy and floods of tears or rejoicing of the soul. As Edwards wrote, our gratitude is “expressed in impassioned singing, and long-continued, and oft repeated hallelujahs of praise to ‘Him who loved us, and gave Himself for us'”. A more ecumenical Songs of Praise is simply one that is more catholic, and fervent worship in the home is to be encouraged. In an era where Sunday home-staying is more prevalent than church-going, there is no reason at all why the music of a Sankey, the Wesleys and Graham Kendrick should be denied those who are prevented – for whatever reason – from worshipping with the people of God.