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Music as bridge-builder

American hymn poet shares joy of song at city event

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He has rock-star status in some church music circles, but hymn poet Brian Wren is quite accustomed to people singing his songs without necessarily knowing his name.

"It's not the same as being known as the writer of fiction or novels, where the interest is in the person who wrote them," explains the British-born, Oxford-educated Wren, 72, who has published 300 or so hymn texts over the last four decades.

"I think the hymn is written to express what the congregation wants to say in a language that is clear, crisp, and using poetic devices, without drawing attention to itself."

Now based in the United States, Wren visits Winnipeg next week to launch In God Rejoice, a new collection of 32 hymns, co-authored with his wife, Rev. Susan Heafield, minister of a United Methodist congregation in Sidney, N.Y.

The pair also collaborates on a website of worship resources (www.praisepartnersworship.com), which links to all of Wren's published hymns.

Wren's book launch is part of the 90th annual meeting of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, which runs at the University of Manitoba from Sunday to Thursday.

Held in Winnipeg for the first time, the five-day event is expected to attract about 225 hymn poets, composers, church musicians and ministers from Canada and the U.S., says Deborah Loftis, executive director of the society, based in Richmond, Va.

Despite the society's name invoking images of repeated stanzas and refrains, Loftis says members embrace a wide style of music, including traditional European four-part singing, contemporary praise songs, and music from around the world.

"We certainly espouse and treasure the classic hymn form, but we support singing that goes beyond that one form," says Loftis says of the society.

"We also encourage the writing of new hymns and tunes and new understanding of congregational song across the board."

During the conference, the hymn society will also announce the winner of a hymn-writing competition based on the conference theme of building bridges amid diversity.

Although singing together can create strong connections, many times people within a Christian congregation aren't on the same page about what style of songs to sing, says a Dallas minister who consults with congregations facing what he calls musical crises.

"When it comes to the music of the church, they (the congregation) are asking only one question: 'Do I like it?' " explains John Thornburg, a published hymn poet and incoming president of the Hymn Society.

"I am deeply convinced that people's deepest emotion is not about the style of the music, but the accompanying instruments."

To avoid discord about whether congregational singing should be accompanied by a pipe organ or backed up with a praise and worship band, Thornburg teaches songs without any instruments so the congregation can learn a hymn without prejudice.

"I want to teach a song in its deepest form and get them to love it," he explains.

That's also the intent of Manitoba musician Marilyn Houser Hamm, who plans to teach hymns from her Mennonite tradition at the Sunday evening hymn festival, one of six public events of the conference.

Although people may disagree on what instruments should accompany voices in song, what makes a good hymn is not up for debate, says Hamm, who spent several years working on a hymnal for Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches.

"It must be singable. It's designed for the human voice, it's designed for corporate song," says the Altona-area accompanist, song leader and composer who has set some of Wren's hymn poems to music.

When a song doesn't resonate, sing it anyway, advises Thornburg, since it may be stirring the soul of the person beside you.

"Even if the song we are about to sing does not reach the depths in you, sing it as if it is possible God is saving someone's life through it," says the United Methodist minister who began writing hymns to address the gaps he found in his denomination's hymnal.

For Wren, a retired professor of church music, singing together, no matter what the style or instrument, unites people in more than just song. In a culture where people are more attuned to listening to music than making it, he says people who sing together in Christian worship are sharing an experience and creating a bond between each other and the generations who have gone on before.

"Singing together brings people together in a strong way. It's very hard to be mad with people you are singing with," says Wren.

"In the act of singing, what a congregation is singing is 'we are one, we belong together.' "

 

brenda@suderman.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 J13

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Updated on Saturday, July 14, 2012 at 12:37 PM CDT: adds fact box

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