HARD PEWS & THE HYMNS YOU CAN SING

My father was raised a Scots Presbyterian. You may know that this is the church of John Knox: the “fire and brimstone” preacher who spent quite a while [hyperlink to source] trying to depose Mary Queen of Scots, the Catholic Queen. Although Elizabeth I of England was able to accomplish what John Knox couldn’t, Knox left behind a well-disciplined group of followers. It is from this group that my father traced his roots.

When my father married into the Episcopal Church, he was often asked what the difference was between the Scots Presbyterians and Episcopalians and his answer was always the same; “The Scots Presbyterians are the ones with hard benches and hymns you can sing.” The apparent conclusion to even the most casual of listeners is, of course, that Episcopalians have comfy pews and hymns you cannot sing.

Just a brief word about the pews, in most Episcopal churches I have attended the seats indeed do have cushions of some sort, but we also do a fair amount of kneeling and standing, as well as sitting, so it may be a less critical attribute than one would think. But the hymns part deserves more discussion.

My parish is Christ Church Greenwich, and it is one of those “cab ride churches” since it is over two miles from any harbor.[1] Church is a great parish, beautiful building, even more beautiful (as in, kind and welcoming) people, and it is here that I discovered what others meant when they spoke of hymns you may have trouble singing. Now before you jump to any conclusions, Christ Church has what can only be described as a spectacular music program.

Under the leadership of Jamie Hitel, the music director, the parish is blessed with a range of choirs; some of whom are young children singers, adult choirs and bell ringers. They are as talented as those whose voices echo through the great Cathedrals. But it was by enrolling my son in the boys’ choir that I began to understand that you can sing Episcopal hymns, but it takes some time and patience.

For cradle Episcopalians, such as myself, who started singing numerous hymns of great subtlety and complexity at a young age, the problems are fewer. We learn not to fret if we can’t get a tune or make the words come out at the right time. We have learned to hum along or – just fake it – and enjoy listening. We also find favorites like mine JerusalemRaise High the CrossGod of Our Fathers, or of course, Eternal Father, Strong to Save, (aka The Navy Hymn) which we sing with gusto when they are part of the service. We might even show off a bit and not look at the words; we already know them! I tell myself that this robust performance makes up for the times I struggle.

I have also taken the significant role that our elaborate hymns play in the service for granted. Every Sunday, you are the beneficiary of a superb concert of great music, mostly classical (with an occasional contemporary piece – classically styled) that transforms you as you worship. The ability to listen to such performances and let your mind go while focusing on the soaring sounds is a gift. I fear, while the liturgy is essential, the service doesn’t have quite the same impact on me without the musical component. My father used to love Broadway Shows and was fond of rating them by how many tunes you could leave the theatre humming. Well, that is sort of how I feel about church music. Maybe I can’t hum or sing it very well, but I sure feel better for having heard it!

So, as my son struggles in the boys’ choir at Christ Church to learn to sing lots and lots of complicated music, which changes every Sunday, I want him to know that he belongs to a parish. A parish that has comfy pews and hymns he can sing – though it might just take some time and patience.

Fair Winds,

Susan Hynes

P.S. On another note about hymns. My mother, who had a very droll sense of humor had a favorite hymn one known all over the world, Jesus Christ Is Risen Today. She once asked me if people would take it the wrong way if we sang it at her funeral? There isn’t an Easter that goes by that I don’t hear that hymn and fail to sing it for the tears it brings me. When she died, we did decide her wish might be misunderstood, so we didn’t sing it. Instead, we sang Raise High the Cross.

[1] See Greenwich CT Listing