How Can We Name a Love

I talk a lot about historic hymns on this blog, but there are many beautiful, poetic, inspiring, and theological hymns still being written today by brilliant hymnwriters across the world that address the cultural issues of today’s church with a relevancy that is sometimes lost with the older texts.

How Can We Name a Love, UMH #111, was written in 1973 by Brian Wren, Emeritus Professor of Worship, Columbia Theological Seminary, writer, preacher, worship and workshop leader, and internationally published hymn-poet.

How can we name a Love
that wakens heart and mind,
indwelling all we know
or think or do
or seek or find?
Within our daily world,
in every human face,
Love’s echoes sound
and God is found,
hid in the commonplace.

I’ve mentioned before that the church was undergoing some changes in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, working to become more inclusive about gender, race, and ethnicity. It was also very close to the beginning of the movement to question whether God was necessarily male, and whether then we ought to reconsider our use of pronouns when referencing God. In the 1970s, these questions were largely brought up by what some have rather uncharitably called “radical feminist theologians,” but in recent years there has been quite a lot of scholarship about the images of God in the original text of the Bible that have historically been ignored or altered in the English translations– God as mother, bearing us in labor, as any number of “soft” and “feminine/womanly” characteristics that had been rejected by the early church. For those who are seeking a more scriptural approach to worship, a return to the original texts for guidance, and a deeper understanding of who God is as described in the Bible, these revelations can no longer be ignored.

This is the world in which Brian Wren published this hymn; a world that still ascribed these kinds of thoughts to “radical feminist theologians” and dismissed them without acknowledging their scriptural basis. And so, as hymnwriters have done through the ages, he pursued these theological ideas through the text of this hymn. In his own words, this hymn “marks the beginning of an attempt to break out from the heavy masculinity of traditional metaphors and images of God.”

This was something rather shocking for the church of the 70s, but the United Methodist church has historically been sensitive to social issues, and progressive in adopting changes that would promote inclusivity, and was the most likely denomination at the time to be receptive to this text. This hymn, then, was included in our modern Methodist hymnal (published in 1989) as part of the Hymnal Revision Committee’s goal to include hymns that “went beyond the repertory of traditional metaphors and images of God.” At first glance, this hymn seemed ideal for this purpose, but as progressive as it was, the Committee was not ready to fully jump on board; they had several issues with Wren’s original text, requiring several rounds of rewrites on Wren’s part. After much negotiating, the version in our hymnal is the poet’s recasting of his original stanzas 1, 2, 4, and 5.

After such a struggle, the Committee wished to set this “controversial” text to a familiar tune already in our hymnal, in the hopes that a well-known tune would help to assuage issues that local churches might encounter with the text, and encourage its rapid acceptance into the church’s hymnody. However, the text’s meter of SMD (Short Meter Doubled, or 6.6.8.6 D) left limited options for well-known, singable tunes. And so, this hymn that aspired to go beyond the traditional masculine language of God was paired rather ironically with TERRA BEATA, well-known throughout the Christian church as the tune for “This Is My Father’s World.”

Here are the remaining stanzas that can be found in our hymnal:

If we awoke to life
built on a rock of care
that asked no great reward
but firm, assured,
was simply there,
we can, with parents’ names,
describe, and thus adore,
Love unconfined,
a father kind,
a mother strong and sure.

When people share a task,
and strength and skills unite
in projects old or new,
to make or do
with shared delight,
our Friend and Partner’s will
is better understood,
that all should share,
create, and care,
and know that life is good.

So in a hundred names,
each day we all can meet
a presence, sensed and shown
at work, at home,
or in the street.
Yet every name we see,
shines in a brighter sun:
In Christ alone
is Love full grown
and life and hope begun.

Sources: hymnary.org, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, Young

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