Poet of Faith: an Interview with Brian Wren
We talk with Rev. Brian Wren in the subdued luxury of the Manor House "parlor" on the Calvin College campus in Grand Rapids, Michigan. "It's a room that tells you, 'We don't have to work,'" Wren remarks smilingly.
Wren, a well-known and sometimes controversial hymn writer, is more often concerned with those who do work and those who are deprived of work than those who sit in idle luxury. He speaks quietly and thoughtfully about his personal struggle with the issues of justice and explains why he believes the hymns that the people of God sing should deal with those issues in a fresh, contemporary way.
Could you begin by telling us a little about who you are and where you come from?
I am English. I was born in 1936, almost an exact contemporary of actor Dudley Moore. In fact, our birth places were only twenty miles apart, so when I lapse into my vernacular British accent, it's almost exactly like his.
I came into the church when I was about fourteen. I began attending a Congregational church in the town where I lived and eventually became a member there. I then felt a strong call to Christian ministry.
What led you to the work you're doing today?
I began with five years in a local pastorate. But by the time I finished my doctoral thesis, I had been drawn into international affairs—particularly Britain's relationship with the developing nations and the gap between our affluence and the poverty of others. I devoted about thirteen years of work to these justice issues—working for Churches' Action for World Development (British Council of Churches) and then for Third World First (a non-profit, student-based campaign).
After seven years with Third World First, I became convinced that I had been there long enough. So I took six months severance pay and left. Hope Publishing Company, with whom I had signed a contract for the rights on my hymns in North America, invited me to the United States for a six-week tour (1983). While I was traveling around the States, I got two invitations to come back and do short-term teaching in seminaries. Those invitations encouraged me to take the risk of going freelance.
For the first three years most of my engagements were in Britain in the area of Third World missions. During the last three years more and more invitations have come from the United States, and my work has focused on worship, hymnody, ways in which people do theology together.
Do you have any academic training in music?
I played the violin from the age of seven to the age of fifteen—long enough to know that I was on the wrong side of greatness. Beyond that, no. I was taught to sing in a church choir—that's where I first learned to sing in parts. I've always enjoyed singing, though I've not done much choral singing for a long time. I don't sight-read very well so I've never had the nerve to audition for a choir.
But you do write some of your own music?
I occasionally compose melody lines, but I have no ability to harmonize or to arrange. If I come up with a melody, I usually write it down with the help of a piano. I then have to find someone to arrange it.
What prompted you to start writing hymns?
My interest in hymnody is predated by a fascination with language. As far back as I can remember I've had an interest in language—the meaning of words, the power of words. I've also always had the ability to use rhyme, to write verse.
But what started me writing hymns? I think the third element was my developing interest, during the 1960s, in the language of prayer. At the beginning of the 60s the Roman Catholic Mass was in Latin, and everybody else in the English-speaking world was using Elizabethan English for worship. By the end of the 60s the Roman Catholic Mass was in the vernacular, and most people had begun using contemporary speech in their prayers. I was one of the first people interested in that change. In fact, in 19671 was a major contributor to Contemporary Prayers for Public Worship, published by Eerdmans in Grand Rapids.
I'm convinced that if we use speech that is archaic or language that is not our own to talk to God, we're imposing an unnecessary screen between ourselves and God. I don't think I've ever found it really helpful to pray in Elizabethan English, although to many people in the early 60s that was the "holy" language.
So what started me writing hymns was a conviction that we need to speak the truth about ourselves and the world we live in and that we need to speak of God and to God in "our" language. From my interest in the language of prayer, it was a natural step to look at the hymnal and ask, "Do we need some new hymns?"
Was your first hymn published?
I sent my first hymn to Erik Routley, who sent it back with a lovely letter that demolished it line by line—but he encouraged me to go further. He had the gift of being honest and critical without being damaging. "The great glory of God and the contemporary needs of humanity need to be made to collide in modern verse," he told me. He also said that to write hymns well, you've got to have something to say.
At that time I didn't have anything new to say— although I did write a couple of hymns about a year later: "Christ, Upon the Mountain Peak"and "Lord Christ, the Father's Mighty Son."
The next hymn I wrote which was of any interest was "Christ is Alive." I wrote that hymn in April of 1968, immediately following the murder of Martin Luther King. I knew that I could not preach on Easter Sunday without dealing with that event. Even though the Congrega- tional church I was ministering to was located four thousand miles away from the American deep South, the people in my congregation were profoundly touched by King's death.
However, after I had framed my sermon around that tragedy, I discovered there weren't any appropriate hymns for the congregation to respond with. There were plenty of songs that spoke about Easter as something very triumphant that happened a long time ago or that happens again in the heart of the believer. But there wasn't anything that suggested a combination of suffering and life. So I wrote the hymn "Christ Is Alive! Let Christians Sing."
Is it usually some incident or moment that leads you to write a new hymn?
There's always a reason for writing. I've written hymns for weddings and other specific occasions. Quite often I write out of a theological concern. For example, I wrote "I Come With Joy to Meet My Lord" (See "Hymn of the Month," pp. 22-27) after I'd preached a series on the meaning of communion and wanted to sum up some of the things that I'd been sharing with my congregation. Most people view communion as a very personal thing between them and God. I wanted to move past that to a feeling of the corporateness of the communion. So the hymn was designed with that agenda in mind.
"Thank You, God, for Water, Soil, and Air" was written out of a conviction that we need to sing to God about creation from an awareness of the fragility of our environment. I wrote it because I believe that we should sing honestly—that what we sing should be connected with the world we look at when we leave church, the air we breathe and the exhaust fumes we make when we drive.
Should the majority of the hymns we sing be contemporary?
When I was choosing hymns for my own congregation, I tried to select a variety. I also tried to ensure that out of the five hymns we were going to sing, at least two were known and liked by members of the congregation.
As pastor, I had an unwritten contract with the congregation to make worship an experience that people wanted to come to, and hymns are one of the acts of worship that make a service familiar and inviting. It's not fair to dump a lot of unfamiliar hymnody into the middle of worship.
When choosing hymns, I ask if the tune is familiar or not, and if not, can the congregation learn it easily? I'm committed to including a variety of types of hymns—often selecting some which are not connected to the theme of the sermon. If I'm teaching a hymn, I always teach it before worship. I teach it by singing it—if necessary lining it out—until everyone knows it. It takes ten times as long for a congregation to learn one hymn as it takes me to write one.
Is it appropriate to have parts of a hymn read in a worship service?
I often use a hymn as a prayer—either have it read by the entire congregation or by just one voice. Sometimes I use a combination of reading and singing. Most hymns that are worth singing are worth reading as poetry and prayer.
You have a special problem in the U.S.A., because the only way most Americans ever see a hymn is dismembered between lines of music for the benefit of sight-singers. Hymns are literally not seen as poetry. Yet a hymn is a poem, and a poem is a visual art form. The act of reading a hymn aloud helps to recover its poetry and its power to move us—the power of language, image, metaphor, and faith-expression.
Is it necessary to have a worship leader introduce hymns during a worship service?
Not all hymns can be sung without introduction. Some hymns from the past or hymns from a different tradition or part of the world need to be given a context. Even a sentence may help—"Here is a hymn from the Evangelical Revival in the 18th century where the crucial issue was, Does God accept us? Are we right with God?" In singing that hymn after such an introduction, we take the urgency of that issue and relate it to ourselves, making contact through it with Christians of an earlier time.
Likewise, if we learn a hymn from the Philippines or Taiwan or any other country or tradition, it's important to say where the hymn comes from. The music of such a hymn will be different from what we are used to. And in singing it we get a sense, at least, of feeling one with the worldwide community of Christ.
When did the whole matter of inclusive language become important to you?
In the early 70s an American publisher wrote to me about the hymn "Christ Is Alive," wanting to change the language in the original final stanza to make it more inclusive. That was my first acquaintance with the term, and with British prejudice I said to myself, "Oh, this is an American fad."
But when I thought about what they were asking, which had to do with my use of the word man, I realized that it was odd to talk about human beings as if they were all men. At that stage I had not read any of the research, the literature about it. Such a broad use of man just seemed odd to me as a linguist. So I made the change and got rid of that word, and that prompted me to think more deeply about what is now referred to as "he-man language."
Words and Women and other books I studied described research which shows that the use of he-man language is no longer generic and should not be used to describe all human beings. I became convinced by that research and changed my own ways of speaking accordingly. I also began listening to the women who were important in my life, and they made me aware of the roles I was playing in the household, of the conditioning I'd been brought up with.
That's one part of the story.
The other part roots back to Beverly Harrison's review of a book I published in 1977 called Education for Justice. She gave it a helpful, critical, favorable review. One of the things she said was that though I'd made a real attempt to use inclusive language about people, "his image of God is still resolutely male." That was an "Aha!" moment for me. I realized that she was right and that there was an oddity about that.
And you began to change your practice after that?
That was 1978, and from then on I began to experiment with that question, to play with it, to explore what it might mean for me to speak to God in female terms. When I first began thinking in these terms, thinking of God as she, or as mother, was profoundly disturbing. When I thought about the disturbance, it became clear to me that I couldn't see any rational grounds for it. Whatever the source of it was, it was deep in my own psyche. It took me some time to become happy with this wider language.
I would also want to connect my concern about inclusive language with my visit to South Africa, where I heard something of the pain and experience of black Africans, of the terrible things that people do to others in an oppressing system.
That experience and many others like it made me aware of how little I know of the experience of others—particularly of those who are members of an oppressed or subordinate group. It's very easy for white men in the privileged areas of the world to think they can speak for the whole human race and that in particular they know, understand, or can speak for women. I've learned that this is not true!
In the hymns you write you seem to be ahead of much of the church—for example, in our congregations we don't speak of "mother God" or "gambler God." Are you deliberately trying to lead the churches into new ways of thinking?
There is a double vocation in being a poet in the church. One vocation is to write poems of faith which people will pick up and sing and say, "Yes, this is exactly the way I think." or "Yes, this is what I believe, although I've never put it this way."
The other vocation of the poet is to try to speak truth by stepping beyond the church's limits of comfort and convention.
I usually know when I have written a "bread-and-butter hymn"—a hymn that people will be able to sing and say "Yes." I also know when I'm writing over the margin, although the margin is different for different people. I have a hunch that mainstream trinitarian faith is expanding its image of God. I find more acceptance for some of my more adventurous songs now than I was aware of even a year ago.
We live in exciting times, and writing is for me a way into greater wonder and amazement at the love, life, pain, and joy of God.
COLLECTIONS OF WREN HYMNS
The following Brian Wren hymns appear in the Psalter Hymnal and/or Rejoice in the Lord:
"Christ Is Alive! Let Christians
Sing" (PsH 413)
"Christ, upon the Mountain Peak"
(PsH 369, RL 257)
"God, Your Glory We Have Seen in Your Son"
"I Come with Joy to Meet My Lord"
(PsH 311, RL 534)
"Lord Christ, the Father's Mighty Son"
"Lord God, Your Love Has Called Us Here"
"Lord Jesus, If I Love and Serve My Neighbor"
"Thank You, God, for Water, Soil and Air"
(PsH 437, RL 22)
"There's a Spirit in the Air"
"We Are Your People"
Three collections of Brian Wren's texts have been published (with new or familiar tunes) by Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188 (800)323-1049.
Faith Looking Forward (1983)
Praising a Mystery (1986)—30 texts
Bring Many Names (1989) —38 texts
Bring Many Names
Bring many names, beautiful and good,
celebrate, in parable and story,
holiness in glory
living, loving God.
Hail and Hosanna!
bring many names!
Strong mother God, working night and day,
planning all the wonders of creation,
setting each equation,
gen-i-us at play:
Hail and Hosanna,
strong mother God!
Warm father God, hugging every child,
feeling all the strains of human living,
caring and forgiving
till we're reconciled:
Hail and Hosanna,
warm father God!
Old, aching God, grey with endless care,
calmly piercing evil's new disguises,
glad of good surprises,
wiser than despair:
Hail and Hosanna,
old, aching God!
Young, growing God, eager, on the move,
seeing all, and fretting at our blindness,
crying out for justice,
giving all you have:
Hail and Hosanna,
young, growing God!
Great living God, never fully known,
joyful darkness far beyond our seeing,
closer yet than breathing,
Hail and Hosanna,
great, living God!
Notes from the Author: If the human race is created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), it follows that both femaleness and maleness reveal the divine, and (since we are not static but have a changing life cycle), both youth and age give glimpses of God. The hymn originally began with what is now the second stanza, the first version being completed in February 1986. In mid-1987 the present first stanza was added whilst the hymn was under consideration by the Hymnal Revision Committee of the United Methodist Church (UMC) (USA). The line "strong mother God" caused controversy, and the hymn failed by one vote to gain acceptance in that hymnal. The fifth stanza ("Young, growing God") was revised in August 1988 after conversations with the Mennonite-Brethren Hymnal Council (USA). The original read: "Young, growing God, eager still to know,/willing to be changed by what you've started,/quick to be delighted,/singing as you go etc.". I stand by the theology, but believe the revision better suggests God's "youthfulness." WESTCHASE was composeed by Carlton Young, Editor of the UMC Hymnal Revision Committee, in September/October 1987, and superbly interprets the words.
—Brian Wren, in Bring Many Names