Thursday, May 6, 2010

Wee Frees ponder a new age of worship with hymns

For more than a hundred years the Free Church of Scotland has been governed by a strict Calvinist tradition — the singing of hymns has been prohibited. The austere but hauntingly beautiful sound of unaccompanied psalms has been the only music permitted in a Church which believes in maintaining the sanctity of the Sabbath.

Now, in a move which could divide its congregations, the Church — known as the Wee Frees — is considering overturning the ban in a belated bid to move with the times. Not only might hymns be sung, it is suggested, but they could even be allowed a musical accompaniment. A report is due to be published in the next few days, which will then be discussed at the Church’s General Assembly later this month.

The Rev Iver Martin, a spokesman for the Church, said he knew of up to a dozen ministers who backed a move towards relaxing the ban, and believed there could be many more. But he conceded the change might produce “mixed feelings” among followers.

“Some will be dead against the change, some will be in favour, some will be split 50:50,” Mr Martin said. “This is where wisdom comes in because you need to be sure you don’t divide people unnecessarily.”

Hymns and musical instruments were banned by the Church in 1910 under legislation which stated that worship must consist of “inspired materials of praise” — drawn mainly from the Old Testament.

Some ministers now believe that singing hymns would provide a means of celebrating the New Testament as well. They also point out that, despite the long-standing ban, there are references in the Old Testament to accompanied singing, so there is no biblical argument against doing it now.

Yet these progressive views are unlikely to hold much sway with the Church’s traditionalists. One of them, the Rev Kenneth Ferguson, a minister in the Isle of Lewis and a former Moderator of the Church’s General Assembly, said that two thirds of churches had voted to maintain the status quo. “With the unaccompanied singing, there is a natural harmony to the voices in Gaelic that really appeals to a lot of people,” he said. “I really love it.”

There may also be fears that relaxing the law could jeopardise one of Scotland’s great traditions. Emotive and haunting, the sound of unaccompanied psalms is redolent of the Highlands and Islands. The practice also inspired black American soul music, after white slaves from Scotland shared their psalms with African slaves tending the plantations of the Deep South.

Professor Donald Macleod, principal of the Free Church of Scotland College in Edinburgh, said the psalms were part of the Scottish psyche and culture, but he claimed it was time for the Church to modernise.

“The Church will always sing psalms, but the issue is should it sing psalms only?” he said. “We all love the psalms, including me, but some of us feel they don’t express the New Testament. We want to recognise that Christ lived among us, died and rose again.”

Professor Macleod insisted that it was not a “split issue” for the Church, which has already been through a number of schisms and was formed after splitting from the Church of Scotland in 1843.

“The rest of the Christian world sings hymns as well as psalms, so I feel we are on the margins of Christianity and I don’t want to be on the margins.”

The Free Church of Scotland, with about 1,000 members, claims to be the largest Calvinist congregation in Scotland. Although the Highlands and Islands are still its heartlands, the Church has 100 branches across Scotland, as well as two in London and five in North America.

Defending the change, Mr Martin added: “We are trying to raise a question that needs to be raised. And that is whether psalm singing is the right way — or the only way — to worship God.”

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