HYMN lovers have a new reason to rejoice. The Methodist School of Music (MSM) recently started a new fellowship for those who love the music and spirituality of Christian hymns.
Bishop Dr Robert Solomon officially launched the Charles Wesley Circle on Sept 21 during an evening service held at the chapel of Trinity Theological College. The Rev Dr S. T. Kimbrough, Jr, a Wesley scholar, singer and missionary, gave the inaugural lecture before a gathering of about 200 people from the Methodist Church as well as other denominations.
The Charles Wesley Circle aims to promote the goals of MSM, the development of Asian Christian music and liturgy, support Christian music education, advise MSM on the priorities of music ministry, and develop a network of prayer and funding support for the music ministry.
The MSM Principal, Ms Mary Gan, said: “We are looking for people who are passionate about hymns, who are willing to be proactive about music education.”
The MSM, founded in 1997 as an agency of The Methodist Church in Singapore, is a ministry conceived to build on the rich music traditions of the church and the legacy left by Charles Wesley.
Before officially launching the Circle, Bishop Dr Solomon spoke about the great treasure in Charles Wesley’s hymns: Teaching, worship and devotion. Hymnody, he said, is “an important characteristic of Methodism, expressing doctrine, discipline and spirit”.
While more may have been heard of the elder brother, John, it was actually the younger brother Charles who was first in many things — first to start the Holy Club at Oxford and first to experience the heart-warming presence of the Spirit on May 21, 1738.
A year later, on the anniversary of this experience, he wrote the words of the famous hymn: “O for a thousand tongues to sing”.
Born into a family of poets, Charles was born in 1707. He wrote 6,000 hymns out of 9,000 poems, or 180,000 lines of poetry in his lifetime. That amounts to three hymns per week. Charles wrote hymns covering every area of theology and every season of the liturgical year. In fact, he wrote a biblical commentary in verse, touching all but four books of the Bible.
In his address, the Rev Dr Kimbrough talked about the value of keeping the old hymns. However, he said that it is not good enough simply to preserve the hymns of Charles Wesley. “We must also remember the spirituality that the hymns represent,” he said.
He compared the Wesleys’ spiritual formation with that of the Eastern Orthodox icon painters. Orthodox Christians see these icons as aids to prayer and windows into the presence of God. They are not items to be worshipped.
The icons are the culmination of Bible study, prayer, worship, fasting and service to the poor. These were the same spiritual disciplines practised by Charles and John Wesley.
The hymns emerged out of that kind of disciplined spirituality and, by the frequent singing, helped to focus Methodists on its continued application, hew added.
The Rev Dr Kimbrough concluded with four principles of music-making. First, “the songs of the people that emerge from their contexts are vital in building bridges for the Gospel”, he said. Just as the early Methodists sang tunes that were indigenous to the British Isles, Christians in South-east Asia would do well to find and use indigenous musical bridges to their cultures.
Second, “the gathering of the songs is vital to the nurture and witness of faith communities”. John and Charles Wesley collected and organised a variety of hymns and tunes in their day in order to teach the complete way of salvation.
Third, “music memory matters”. Just as most people can remember their childhood songs, so Christian music ought to be memorable.
Finally, he noted that “theological memory matters”. The Methodist hymns have enabled Christians to sing the full range of Christian theology and hope. “The music we sing in worship needs to help us remember what we believe.”
The launch included several Charles Wesley hymns, “Praise the Lord who Reigns Above”, sung by the Voices of Praise choir, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”, and “And can it be”. Accompanying the hymn singing was Dr Evelyn Lim, an MSM instructor and Esplanade organist.
The Rev George Martzen is Minister Attached to the Bishop’s Office