Common Praise: Some Considerations

Liberalism is “the underlying, usually unconscious assumption that the language of faith is merely the symbolic representation of our own religious and moral sensitivities, that Scripture, doctrine and liturgy can only express our innate spirituality, instead of informing it and nourishing it with something new.” (Paul Jennings, “Towards a Biblical Church: A Plea for Accountability in the Way We Use Scripture” in The Challenge Of Tradition: Discerning the Future of Anglicanism, ed. John Simons (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1997, p.51)

Know ye what an hymn is? It is a song with praise of God. If thou praisest God and singest not, thou utterest no hymn: if thou singest and praisest not God, thou utterest no hymn: if thou praisest aught else, which pertaineth not to the praise of God, although thou singest and praisest, thou utterest no hymn. An hymn then containeth these three things, song, and praise, and that of God. Praise then of God in song is called an hymn. (St. Augustine of Hippo, on Psalm 148, 5th Century)

To begin, when we speak of hymn books in the Canadian setting, we usually mean the following books:

  • Common Praise (1998-9) (“the new hymn book”)
  • The Book of Common Praise (1938) (“the Blue Book”, the old hymnal)
  • The Hymn Book of the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada (1971) (“the Red Book”)
  • The English Hymnal (“the green hymnal”)

As we look at these books and consider the many differences of style, language, presentation, and so on, we are also struck by some more curious differences. Much of this can be traced to the influence of modern biblical criticism on our hymns and contemporary liturgies. As the telling preface to the Canadian Book of Alternative Services has it,

“Biblical criticism has fostered a rich, subtle, and theological understanding of the holy scriptures as the repository of the Church’s symbols of life and faith.” B.A.S. (1985), p.9.

We may note that what is primary here is the church, and her adoption of the methodology and assumptions of modern scholarship, as a means of standing over the Scriptures, which become in this view a kind of repository (store house) for various symbols and words. The consequences of this viewpoint for both liturgy and hymnody is explicitly laid out in the following assertion:

“The patriarchal idol is no local infection we can treat with the antibiotics of traditional theology. It permeates the central symbol system of Christian faith, the very language that bears Christian revelation. The Bible has to remain our indispensable point of reference, because it records the Jewish and Christian discovery of, and wrestling with, the true and living God. Yet the Bible’s language and imagery cannot control or restrict us…” (What Language Shall I Borrow? Brian Wren, p.130.)

For more on the serious consequences of this Scriptural perspective, please see the article by the Rev. Gary Thorne, “Scripture as the Rule and Ultimate Standard of Faith” in Rebuilding the House of God, The Lambeth Quadrilateral of 1888, Charlottetown, St. Peter Publications, 1998.

The new Canadian Anglican Hymnal, Common Praise, will be in many ways the legitimate companion and successor to the Book of Alternative Services. In particular, it further explicates just what it means to regard the “holy scriptures as the repository of the church’s symbols of life and faith” (BAS, p. 9).

The Bible remains important but it is no longer definitive. The new hymnal goes farther than the Book of Alternative Services in avoiding traditional language for God and begins in earnest the process of renaming or “re-imagining” God according to a variety of contemporary agendas. So Wren can say: “the Bible’s language and imagery cannot control or restrict us.” And we will find out what this means. As Dr. Robert Crouse notes:

The modifying or marginalizing of traditional religious language is an essential part of the liberal agenda. The new liturgies of the Book of Alternative Services did not really accomplish very much in that direction; the new hymn book is a bolder step forward, and it will no doubt be followed by more progressive liturgies. Perhaps the expectation is that people will sing anything so long as they like the tune, and thus will become used to the new language before they have to confront it in more solemn liturgical form.

There are several kinds of changes which Common Praise introduces to our hymnody, some of which we may categorize into the following groups. These selections are by no means theologically representative of the whole or balance of the contents of the book, but illustrate different areas of legitimate concern for classical Anglicans.

In the draft hymnal booklet floated by the hymn committee in the period before the new book was released, and now in Common Praise 1998 (CP), we read the following:

(CP # 1, v.3)
Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide thee,
though our sinful human gaze thy glory may not see,— (the eye of sinful man)
only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
perfect in power, in love, and purity.

(CP # 29, v.4)
The sun that bids us rest is waking
thy faithful ‘neath the western sky,— (our brethren)
and hour by hour fresh lips are making
thy wondrous doings heard on high.

Such changes to these and many other hymns throughout the book seem mostly harmless, and will trouble few people. They involve the replacement of older language for both sexes with some more politically correct term. At times, however, something is lost in these changes (“faithful” and “brethren” do not mean or express the same thing) and they do raise issues about the integrity of older texts. These changes to our language for human persons must be distinguished from the other changes to our language for God. This takes us to the second level of concern, and so we find:

(CP # 455, v.1)
Dear God, compassionate and kind, – (Lord and Father of mankind)
forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
in purer lives thy service find,
in deeper reverence praise.

(CP # 667)
Praise God from whom all blessings flow;
praise God, all creatures high and low; – (him… here below)
give thanks to God in love made known: – (praise him above, ye heav’nly hosts)
Creator, Word and Spirit, one. – (Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost)

From these examples of re-editing God-language, we reach the point, as in the following, where re-interpreting a hymn with offensive language actually results in re-writing it almost entirely to be rid of the offending language for God.:

(CP 381, v.1)
Praise my soul, the God of heaven, – (Praise my soul, the King of heaven)
Glad of heart your carols raise – (to his feet thy tribute bring)
Like a loving parent caring – (Fatherlike he tends and spares us😉
God knows well our feeble frame – (well our feeble frame he knows)

In some places, both a more traditional version and a radically revised version of a hymn text will be provided, perhaps side-by-side. This avoids getting rid of the old hymn entirely, but having it alongside the new and improved hymn begs many questions. In some of the hymns, the traditional language for God is avoided and replaced with material which in itself is unobjectionable.

However, when you actually see what it has replaced, the new language represents a deliberate move away from the historic Christian faith and the Biblical language expressing that faith.

Thus the biblical basis for many of the older hymns is lost, forgotten, or obscured (after all, “Praise my soul the King of heaven” is directly based on Psalm 103). “Lord” is to be avoided according to many because of its masculine and authoritarian overtones. Still other language is toned down (contrast “Glad of heart your carols raise” with “to his feet thy tribute bring“—we aren’t to think in this new view that God is above us—Anthony Burton comments: “For the sake of those suffering from low self-esteem, humbling oneself to God has been reduced”, so we need not humbly offer gifts to the Lord.

Next we come to the most serious and most revealing revisions and “re-imagining” by the newer hymn-writers and their productions. The agenda is shown in final form, one might say, or we have at last a glimpse of the brave new liturgical and hymn book world which is under construction, with newer hymns which do not owe anything to classical Christian teaching or biblical language emerge. The following gives us a clear idea of where we are headed:

(CP # 425 v.3)
Thou art giving and forgiving
ever blessing, ever blest,
well-spring of the joy of living,
ocean depth of happy rest!
Thou our Father and our Mother,— (thou our Father, Christ our brother)
all who live in love are thine;
teach us how to love each other,
lift us to the joy divine.

(CP #433 v.3)
Though woman-wisdom, woman-truth,
for centuries were hidden,
unsung, unwritten, and unheard,
derided and forbidden,
the Spirit’s breath, the Spirit’s fire,
on free and slave descending,
can tumble our dividing walls,
our shame and sadness mending.

Instead of simply neutering or cut-and-paste editing of older hymns, these new bits of religious imagination set out on their own, to “balance the images” – for every male image, a female, or a neuter, or an attribute of God or his activity in place of a revealed biblical name, most of which are unacceptable to the new outlook and hymnody.

We see, for example, the new ‘maternal imagery’ for God in Common Praise hymns (see 89,124, 255, 256, 310, 390, 392, 395, 425, 492, 523, 554, 600, 635, 650, 656, 657, 669, amongst others). Thus in the spirit of tolerance and inclusive (or as it is now to be called, expansive) language, we must “bring many names” as in the following hymn by Brian Wren:

(CP # 395 v. 1-3)
Bring many names, beautiful and good,
celebrate in parable and story,
holiness and 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, genius 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!

These types of changes and new texts represent precisely what is most troubling about the new hymn book. This hymn “Bring many names” by Brian Wren is a helpful sample of the theology behind the new hymn book. For this kind of religion, we name God, as it pleases, or suits, or helps us.

For classical Christianity, God is simply beyond our naming, but indeed he has revealed and named himself, supremely by and in Jesus Christ. One of the early church writers and teachers, Justin Martyr provides us with a helpful correction and warning in this regard:

“For no one can give a name to God, who is too great for words; if anyone dares to say it is possible to do so, he must be suffering from an incurable madness.” (Apology in Defence of Christians).

So the new hymn book would have us ‘bring many names’, and sing and name God as:

Womb of life, and source of being,… Mother, Brother, holy Partner; Father, Spirit, Only Son: we would praise your name forever.

An incurable madness indeed!

Another such hymn is “Mother and God” by Miriam Terse Winter from Woman Prayer/Woman Song. This hymn, far from a fringe or extremist use, was actually sung as the communion hymn for the Diocese of Huron Clergy Conference on October 3, 1995. From the experimental to the mainstream– and the following is the text of the “hymn”:

Mother and God, to you we sing:
Wide is Your womb, warm is Your wing.
In You we live, move, and are fed,
sweet flowing milk, life-giving bread.
Mother and God, to You we bring
all broken hearts, all broken wings.

Finally we will find texts in Common Praise which violate plain good taste. These texts presumably are an attempt “to balance” traditional imagery but that language and imagery has never included reference to masculine reproductive organs of God. This is the next stage of what will follow Common Praise and we are not far from the fertility cults which so often ensnared Israel: the goddess religion in modern dress, so to speak.

Some Christian people will use this new book very carefully, others will have nothing to do with it, and still others will consider its wholehearted use and promotion to be a step outside the bounds of the Catholic Church. Primarily this new book should move us to pray and to return to the Scriptures and the living tradition of the Church. Finally it should recall us to the praise of Almighty God.

If the introduction of this new hymn book only excites in us a reaction of anger, loss of faith, or even self-righteous contempt, we will be the biggest losers. If however, it recalls us to repentance, prayer, study and praise, then we may again see how the Lord can bring good out of ill.

By contrast with the present situation of radical liturgy and hymns leading the way outside and beyond the doctrine and Scriptural bounds of the Christian Communion, we may recall the resolution of the General Synod, passed at its fourteenth Session, held at Halifax in September 1937, during the composition of what would become The Book of Common Praise (1938):

It is understood that nothing in the Hymnal contained shall be construed as an authoritative pronouncement upon any doctrinal question, or interpreted as impugning or varying any of the articles or standards of the Church, as set forth in the solemn declaration prefixed to the Constitution of this Synod; and it is directed that a copy of this resolution be printed in or after the preface to the Hymnal. (The Book of Common Praise 1938, p. v)

And again:

Your Committee has also had in mind a direction given by the General Synod to the first Compilation Committee, that in the selection of hymns and tunes the book be as representative as possible of all legitimate schools of thought and taste within the Church, and has acted upon this as a principle of selection. (The Book of Common Praise 1938, p.iii)

Clearly the wisdom of these past resolutions has not been carried forward to moderate the work of some contemporary hymn-writers and revisionists. We may pray at least that in this time of uncertainty, change, and what appears to be open abandonment of the faith on the part of some, and the attempted imposition of such changes on the majority, that God shall yet be faithful, and call us back to worthily sing his praises, according to the wisdom of the church down the ages, his most holy word, by the true inspiration of his Holy Spirit.


The following are Scriptural quotes which directly touch on many of the issues discussed in this paper, and illustrate the mind of Christ and the early church.

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; And shewing mercy unto thousands in them that love me, and keep my commandments. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain. (Exodus 20.4-7)

Jesus saith unto her, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet at Jerusalem, worship the Father. Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth. (John 4.21-24)

Jesus saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And, Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 16.15-17 )

No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. (1 Corinthians 12.3b)

And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. (Galatians 4.6)

For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again unto fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God. (Romans 8.15-16)

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. (Matthew 28.19)

And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven… (Luke 11.2)

Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God. (John 20.17)

Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels. (Mark 8.38)

Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me. (John 14.23-24)

For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding. (Psalm 47.7)

I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. (1 Corinthians 14.15)

Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5.19-20)

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatsoever ye do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God and the Father by him. (Colossians 3.16-17)

That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, who is the head, even Christ: (Ephesians 4.14-15)