Landmarks in Scottish Church Music: Scotland in the Sixties And Seventies (part 6)

Douglas Galbraith gives us the last of his six part series landmarks in Scottish Church Music by taking us on a whistle stop tour of the Sixties and Seventies.

DDG cmqThis sixth and final article is unashamedly autobiographical, a real blog. Banished are the cool academic appraisals (you didn’t notice!). Now is the time for the distorted memories, hindsight, and nostalgia. I was there!

The nineteen sixties was the decade of the ‘hymn explosion’, a flowering of new hymn writing that reverberates to this day. The Fifties had seen the emergence of rock and roll, music which defined the new demographic of ‘youth’, an attitude rather than an age group, and one that was seen to threaten the status quo. The church’s attempts to win back the teens and early twenties meant youth clubs with rock bands rather than youth fellowships with hymns. Music was key, from hymns written to chart toppers to more sophisticated projects like (English Presbyterian minister) Ernest Marvin’s and (actor) Ewan Hooper’s rock passion play, A Man Dies, staged (and televised) by members of Marvin’s youth club in Bristol.

The earliest initiative was the Twentieth Century Folk Mass by the Anglican priest Fr Geoffrey Beaumont, seeking to emulate the rhythms of Bill Haley’s music but which was criticised as deriving its idiom from the nineteen thirties. It was hugely influential and the Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group went on to publish hymn tunes and words (a survivor is ‘Living Lord’, words and music by Patrick Appleford). The disadvantage of the tunes was that in the main they were usually wedded to old hymn texts, or ‘new’ words were simply a reshuffling of the old, the music being seen as a ‘lure’.

It was soon acknowledged that changes in the theological landscape were pressing for new hymn texts that better reflected the times we were in. There was a questioning of traditional doctrines (Honest to God was published in 1963 – giving rise to a rash of volumes all of whom had titles that sounded like mild oaths!), but the seismograph was also registering a great shift of relationship within the church between clergy and members, and a parallel shift which firmly lodged the ‘church in the world’. In Scotland at that time ‘Kirk Week’ and related initiatives were focusing attention on church members’ Christian witness at work and in society, in which the confrontation of gospel and contemporary life revealed new issues that demanded recognition in the church’s songs of praise and prayer.

For Scotland in these pre-Wild Goose days, one of two main events was the arrival of African hymns at Iona in the luggage of a returning missionary. Written or collected by Tom Colvin from Malawi and Ghana, using traditional African work and ceremonial melodies, they were, for the times, ground-breaking in their interactive music, their unaccompanied style (save for percussion), and the richness of the harmonies. Transcribed and edited from tapes of their performance by Peter McLean and myself, Abbey musicians in two successive years, they were published by the Iona Community and may be found now in many hymn collections.

A focus for the ferment of the time was Scottish Churches House, Dunblane. It was as its programme of consultations between churches and between church and society unfolded,
that the first Warden, Ian Fraser, realised that the encounters taking place, which were putting questions to the church, were also challenging the quality and relevance of its worship and music. Thus was founded the Scottish Churches’ Music Consultation which ran from 1962-69, producing several publications. Its secretary and driving force was Erik Routley, a Congregationalist academic who had become minister of Augustine-Bristo Church in Edinburgh and who by then was well known as a prolific and authoritative commentator on hymns and church music. Others involved included Reginald Barrett-Ayres (head of the department of music at the University of Aberdeen), Ian Mackenzie (later to be head of religious broadcasting, BBC Scotland), George McPhee (director of music, Paisley Abbey – still is!), John Currie (lecturer in music, University of Glasgow, and founder of the John Currie Singers), and Stewart Todd (who during the decade was appointed minister of St. Machar’s Cathedral, Aberdeen), with some representation from south of the Border. Your blogger was the token young person, I think! Other significant writers, such as Sydney Carter and Brian Wren (the latter at that time completing theological research in Oxford), were part of a wider circle of correspondents and occasional visitors.

The aim of the Consultation was to write, and encourage others to write, hymns and songs which took account of the issues and insights of the time, but, equally, to foster discussion in the church over what contemporary hymns needed to say and sound like, and what issues arose in the attempt to source and introduce these into the worship of the church. Consequently, time was spent as much in conference, when papers from members and guests were discussed, as in workshops, where texts and tunes were written and subjected to the scrutiny of colleagues. For some, it was the first time they had attempted to write in these genres. From the start, there was a no-holds-barred critique of each other’s work and writers and composers learned to lay aside all pride when the time of reckoning came!

Like the centre itself, the consultation was ecumenical in composition. Some seven Protestant churches were represented, including the Anglican and Free Church traditions in England, so that from the beginning there was an acceptance of a variety of musical and liturgical experience, together with an expectation that the practice of one church might legitimately be influenced by the practice of another.

Characteristic of the new texts was a concern with the relevance of the Christian faith to daily life, as in Fraser’s own ‘Lord, look upon our working days’, exploring the relationship of the Christian faith to ‘factory, office, store’ (tune by Routley). His ‘Christ, burning past all suns’ illustrated another feature, the belief that contemporary images and metaphors could be carriers of Christian praise. ‘God, your glory we have seen in your Son’ (Didier Rimaud, translated from the French by Sir Ronald Johnson and Brian Wren) returned to something of Charles Wesley’s density of biblical imagery, while Wren’s ‘Lord Christ, the Father’s mighty Son’ (now revised as ‘Dear Christ, the Father’s loving Son’), captured the urgency and hope in the ecumenical initiatives of the time.

The first Dunblane Praises (1965) came from the core group but, in the second volume, the inclusion of material from beyond the membership was indicative of the fact that the gathering had become a reference point for contemporary writers and composers. The theme of encounter between Gospel and culture was continued, notably in Routley’s hymn of urban life, ‘All who love and serve your city’, while ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ recalled Christian believers to their responsibility in the face of poverty and injustice, and ‘Think of a world without any flowers’ movingly celebrated the work of the Creator not just in nature but in the good use of human gifts. Most of these may still be found scattered through hymn collections in use today. Remarkably in these early years, Fraser’s hymn ‘Lord, bring the day to pass’, movingly opened up a discussion on caring for the environment. That there is now widespread awareness of this in the church day is a reminder that not only does the church ‘grow’ the hymns it needs but that the resulting hymns assist the church in its continuing growth, calling it to take new steps in faith and witness.

A feature of the decade during which the Consultation met was the folk music revival. Sydney Carter reminded the group of the way folk songs brought together people of different backgrounds and convictions, how folk clubs were able to create strong feelings of fellowship that challenged what was often the poverty of the church’s fellowship, and of the moments when participants were of one mind and felt a unity which was often wanting in the local church community. The folk tradition addressed the church also in that its songs tended to speak for seekers rather than finders and, at a time of theological ferment and cultural change, it was the former whose voice was most needed. Carter’s reminder that devotees of folk music were often not musicians only but representatives of other branches of the arts guided the Consultation into acknowledging the relationship of music to other modes of expression and participation.

This was music which suggested a more dramatic view of liturgy, and the need for more spontaneity in public worship. Thus the second volume of Dunblane Praises contained some songs designed to be sung not by a congregation but by a soloist or small group, and which could also make use of humour and irony in making their point. These were more suitable in relationship to other events within worship rather than as stand-alone items of praise – in preparation, say, for the act of confession or intercession, or in association with the biblical narrative. In his preface the secretary warned that ‘this book will be of very limited use to those who are quite sure that they know what contemporary public worship ought to be doing, and who are content with the traditional views on this subject’.

While the Consultation could be seen as continuing and renewing the traditional hymn, it held to the conviction (expressed in prefaces) that no musical form should be taboo in itself, whether it had an ‘ecclesiastical accent’ or no. The musical establishment was to be humble and teachable before ‘the rhythms and modes which have gained the ear of our contemporaries’. However, this was balanced by another conviction – that, whatever the idiom, what was sought must be of good quality. Already, some of the music that was being written for the church ‘represented no less than a failure of love and mission towards those who were musically aware’. A criterion proposed by C.S. Lewis for measuring literary worth was adapted to define this quality: that the church’s music should be capable of receiving all the best that the worshipper can give.

Thinking back through all these six snapshots of key moments in church music in Scotland, and looking beyond these to the present day and, among other initiatives, the transformative effect of the Wild Goose Resource Group of the Iona Community, Scotland’s contribution to the praise of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer arising from the Church across the globe has been not just respectable, but quite remarkable.

Rev Dr Douglas Galbraith worked in the Church of Scotland Offices between 1995 and 2006 running the former Office for Worship, Doctrine and Artistic Matters. He was founder-editor of the earlier print version of Different Voices. He is former Precentor of the General Assembly and is past Convener of, and the current Church of Scotland trustee on, Action of Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS). He is also Secretary of the Church Service Society, which marks its 150th anniversary this year, and helps run the Scottish Churches Organist Training Scheme (SCOTS).