Somewhere over the rainbow,

way up high,

there’s a land that I heard of

once in a lullaby.


Occasionally English people will wonder why there is such a wealth of folk songs from Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, yet relatively few from England, despite its having the largest population of the four nations.

There are a number of plausible reasons.

One is that England, having the capital city and the court, was more liable to be affected by and encourage “serious music” than those parts of Great Britain geographically furthest from London. A capital city naturally attracts to itself visitors, performers and impresarios from abroad and, especially in previous eras, would be a seed bed for musical creativity which would eventually affect the regions closest to it.

Another reason for the paucity of English folksong has to do with the effect of industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries. People were forced or encouraged to leave rural areas and live in growing conurbations such as Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The resulting loss of extended families in rural areas contributed also to a loss in folk culture which these families had hitherto kept alive.

It was indeed a great blessing that musicians such as Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharpe, perceiving the slow death of rural folk music, did so much at the beginning of the 20th century to transcribe what was still in the memory of older country people.

But there is a third reason, a little less obvious, which is associated with the other two. It is that during the imperial era, when Britain was fighting battles and colonising the globe, there were deliberate moves by the government of the day to foster popular support for overseas “projects” by encouraging the singing of attractive songs and ditties whose implicit message was one of positive affirmation of Britain’s exploits.

Writers and composers were encouraged to produce words and music for what became known as “national songs.” They included such defiant odes as:

Rule, Britannia

The British Grenadiers

Hearts of Oak

They appeared, until recently, in collections often including some of the more popular English folk songs like Greensleevesand O Waly Waly, and some other parlour ditties such as Little Brown Jugand There’s No Place Like Home.

Although precise evidence would be hard to assemble, there is good reason to suspect that the politically encouraged songs gradually eroded interest in the indigenous folk material which in an urban setting would not resonate as it had in rural areas.

Conversations with a French musicologist suggested that exactly the same thing happened in France from the Napoleonic period onwards. National songs – of which La Marseillaiseis the best known – were promulgated in the large centres of population. It is now mainly in the rural and coastal areas such as Brittany and Normandy that the indigenous folk literature is still alive.

This may come as a surprise to people who thought that it was only Germany, in the days of the Goebbels culture ministry, or Stalinist Russia with its oppression of free-thinking composers like Shostakovitch which manipulated song and music to increase popular support for political causes.

Attending a performance of Joan Littlewood’s Oh, What a Lovely Warprovides a necessary corrective. For this musical, set amidst the horror of the First World War trenches, uses the songs of that era which were intended to steel the nerves for the fight and to deal euphemistically with tragedy and grueling circumstances.

More immediately accessible to most people may be the lyrics sung by Vera Lynn for comfort and encouragement during World War II:

O there’s no place like home for a holiday

There’s be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover

Such songs were not innocent ditties with catchy tunes written mainly for pleasure. Their purposes were political. They were part of government propaganda to get the nation behind the war effort.

Now, what has all this to do with the purpose of this chapter, let alone this book? And what has it to do with the music of the Church?

It is simply to illustrate from a secular context what is equally true in a religious one, namely that what we sing informs and indeed shapes what we believe. Singing is not a neutral exercise. It should carry a government health warning that it can affect minds.

That is one of the principal reasons for singing in the Church. In our song we do not simply versify what is written in the Bible. We also state what we hold to be true about life and God, in the hope that those who sing the verses will believe them.

It is salutary in this respect to describe what the Iona Community’s Wild Goose Resource Group has consistently found over 15 years of working in the area of public worship and liturgy.

When the group asks people to recount what for them has been a significant worship experience, only one in a hundred ever mention a sermon – and those who do are usually preachers. More commonly people will talk about a song, a silence, a symbolic action, a service of worship in an unusual place. And yet clergy commonly hold that it is the sermon or homily which primarily informs people’s thinking about God. This is an arrogant presumption. It is much more what they sing that shapes their faith. For when the most memorable line of the most rhetorically astute sermon has been forgotten, people will remember the words of Abide With Me, or Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, or Majesty.

And they will remember such texts because, unlike sermons, the same combination of words will be used on many occasions. And, unlike sermons, the words will be in verse, set to a tune, both of which aid memory.

And people will remember them because of the truth in the basic educational maxim:




Singing is a hearing and seeing and, above all, doing activity. It requires us to take into ourselves and circulate through our system words and music which others have written and, for a shorter or longer period, to make these our own.

What the Church sings, therefore, is determinative of the faith which the singers hold.

At this juncture, it is tempting to give a thousand testimonies from different people about how what they sang – especially in childhood – has affected their faith for good or ill.

In the interests of brevity, we will attend to three aspects of faith which are open to the influence of the songs we sing: theology, Christology and missiology…or what you believe about God, Jesus, and the mission of the Church.


A number of years ago, I was invited to be a visiting professor at Bangor Seminary, Maine. One of the responsibilities was to teach a course in church music.

Students were asked in advance to submit essays on how the songs of their childhood had affected their understanding of God. All the submissions were salutory.

One woman had been brought up in the Roman Catholic Church prior to Vatican II. Although the songs she had sung as a child were unintelligible through being in Latin, from these songs she had inherited a sense that God was “warm and mysterious, not frightening, just wonderful.” She had sung songs like

O magnum mysterium


Tantum ergo sacramentum

A Protestant man had grown up in a strict Calvinist environment. He had sense from him childhood hymns that God was eternally angry, judgmental, and curious about the minutia of everyone’s failings. He also had an underdeveloped notion of the importance of Jesus, since the adult church tended to sing psalms which do not explicitly mention the Saviour’s name.

Among the children’s hymns he sang were:

Do no sinful action, speak no angry word


God is always near me, hearing what I say

Then there was a man who had grown up in a Redemptionist background where hymns with military imagery were very popular. He had sung texts such as:

Onward, Christian Soldiers

Dare to Be a Daniel

When the Roll is Called Up Yonder

Soldiers of Christ, Arise

During the Vietnam war, this man was conscripted. He went in as a believer and came out as an atheist. Part of the reason was that in the army there were reprises in the military church services of the songs he had sung since childhood. But he could not believe that the butchery he was involved in could be at all consonant with a reputedly loving God. He did not want to know that God.

Only later in life was he able to distance himself from the icon of a predominantly militaristic deity, and meet – as for the first time – the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What we sing shapes the way we understand and think of God.


It also affects the way we think about, understand and follow Jesus.

I was once asked by an Australian pastor to lead a men’s Bible study in a church in a remote part of New South Wales. Around twelve men appeared for this early on a Wednesday morning. The passage chosen for discussion was the miracle of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel.

The passage was read over in the New English Bible translation so that all might hear and it was suggested that if any words seemed unclear, these should be dealt with before the passage was explored in depth.

One of the group, a medical consultant, asked what the word “indignation” meant, as it was used to describe Jesus’ reaction to the grief show by Mary, Lazarus’ sister:

When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he was moved with indignation and deeply distressed. (John 11:33)

When it was pointed out that the word meant angry, the doctor became visibly distressed himself.

“That can’t possibly be true,” he protested. “I have followed Jesus Christ all my life and I have never known him to be angry!”

Behind that protestation there may have been a man who could not deal with his own anger and therefore did not want to think of Jesus having to cope with a similar human dilemma. Or, more probably, there was a man who had been reared on a hymnal published in 1927 for use in the Presbyterian churches of Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. In this book one not only finds children’s hymns such as:

Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild

But also lines in adult hymns such as:

No one marked an angry word / who ever heard him speak.

By and large, our songs about Jesus are deficient. They deal, in the main, with his birth or death. They seldom deal with recurrent themes of his life such as the inclusion of outsiders, the enjoyment of food, anger at injustice and an acceptance and appreciation of women.

And what they say regarding the birth or early life of Jesus is often far from the truth.

Take, for example, the carol Away in a Manger. The first verse might be adequate, but ponder this:

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, / but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.

Why not? Every other human baby does. What a contrast with the more apt description of the seventeenth-century hymnwriter Thomas Pestel:

Hark, hark, the wise eternal Word / like a weak infant crise.

And as we progress into the childhood of Jesus, can we really claim that:

And through all his wondrous childhood, / he would honor and obey, / watch and love the lowly maiden / in whose gentle arms he lay?

(from Once in Royal David’s City by Cecil Francis Alexander)

…especially when the ‘wondrous childhood’ would go right up to his Barmitzvah, and especially when the only thing we know about that era in Jesus’ life is that he ran away from his parents when he was twelve.

Perhaps it is all a ploy to make Jesus out to be the most docile of creatures in order that:

Christian children all must be / mild, obedient, good as he.

It is not the divinity of Christ that our hymns need to extol. We have plenty of texts which are sung to Jesus on the throne. It is the glorious incarnation, which puts a new value on human life and reveals the true nature of God, that calls out to be celebrated in word and song in order that our discipleship might be informed by the true example of Jesus.


Then there is missiology, or what we believe about the mission of the Church.

In the late 1980s the Wild Goose Worship Group was asked to sing at a missionary rally in Glasgow. It attracted almost 700 people per year; and it enabled the Church of Scotland to inform people about its work overseas and to let them hear the testimonies of those who had been working abroad.

Because South Africa and the Philippines were going to be featured, and because the Group had recently learned songs from these countries, it was decided that these would be taught to the gathering in the twenty minutes of musical “warm-up” prior to the rally proper.

There was a marked reluctance in the hall to entertain such songs. People were visibly and audibly resistant. This seemed unusual because the same songs had received an enthusiastic response when sung in the open air at anti-apartheid meetings. However, when the time came for the old missionary hymns, these were sung treble forte and gutsioso.

The assembly roared to God about how

Oe’r heathen lands afar / thick darkness broodeth yet

…despite the fact that in parts of Asia and Africa church growth was in inverse proportion to church decline in the UK, and despite the fact that there were Christian settlements in North Africa and India centuries before there was significant missionary activity in Scotland.

The reason for the reluctance to sing the songs of churches abroad was a result of years of subliminal persuasion, via the texts of hymns, that the rest of the world was what we gave to, not what we took from. Any notion of solidarity in the body of Christ, of reciprocation of ministry, of mutual encouragement, was alien to the missionary preconceptions of those who had been brought up to sing about the plight of God’s “sun-kissed” children, not to share their potential. For many, the seeds of this religious imperialism were planted in childhood.

There was a children’s song sung in Sunday Schools until the 1970s which went:

Do you see this penny? / It is brought by me / for the little children / far across the sea.

Hurry, penny, quickly / though you are so small; / help to tell the heathen / Jesus loves them all. 

In some Sunday Schools, while this was being sung, children would trot out to the front of the class where the miniature metal torso of a black man sat on a table. It had two rows of white teeth opened wide, and an arm attached, the hand of which rested just below the chin. Children put a penny on the palm of the hand, twisted “Sambo’s” ear and he swallowed the penny.

Imagine what that inculcated in the young about Britain’s relationship to the developing world!

This may seem like a catalogue of woes about the damage which inaccurate words can do as they affect he faith of those who sing and believe them. So let a more positive story vindicate the claim that what we sing can work for good.

In 1993, I visited St. Louis, USA, and at a Pastoral Musicians’ Convention introduced church musicians to musical literature from the Global Church. Four years later, I was in the neighbouring Roman Catholic diocese of Bellville, where a number of people talked about the effect which songs from around the world had had on children to whom they had been taught.

Not only did the children (unlike so many adults) jump at the opportunity of singing the songs both in English and the indigenous language, but parents were reporting that when there was a news headline about Zimbabwe their sons or daughters would burst into Jesu, Tawa Pano.Or if Argentina were mentioned, they might begin to sing Santo, Santo, Santo.

The people who told these stories were all involved in Christian education, either in school or church, and they claimed that children exposed to this multicultural kind of music had a far more integrated idea of the world than they (the teachers) had had as children. And they were proud that it was the Church which was enabling this most positive development.

If space permitted, we could look at how our hymns and songs enable or inhibit our understanding of evangelism, discipleship, public witness and a host of other things. For the moment let it be sufficient to admit that what we sing shapes what we believe.

This article is an adaptation of a chapter from the following resource. For more information, click on the title or cover image.

The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song

John L. Bell


The first of two books addressing the “whys” and “hows” of congregational singing. Unapologetically anecdotal, it deals not with musical theories but with the reasons why people sing and how best to enable them to do so. This highly accessible analysis by John L. Bell, one of the world’s leading experts on congregational song, offers ten persuasive answers to the question, “Why do we sing?”