We sang a new version of an old hymn last night. It was “How can it be” by Greg de Bliek of new Scottish hymns based on Charles Wesley’s “And can it be”. In recent times there has been a growing appreciation of the real value of so many old hymns: the clear theology and mind engaging words which often contrast with the often shallower themes of some contemporary praise songs. Many have reworked these for congregational singing with varying degrees of success. Inevitably personal taste comes in here and people are often unhappy about changes that do violence to what was for them a well-loved hymn but, in my opinion, this one really works. I have to admit that I disliked the old hymn. The solid theology was lost on me because it was married to a light and almost frivolous tune (Sagina – Thomas Campbell), reminiscent of a Victorian foxtrot and belonging to the dance floor, It seemed completely incongruous and turned me off. Greg de Bliek, on the other hand, has taken Charles Wesley’s words, almost as they are, with a few small changes, and with the simplest of tunes, an almost stark melody, allowed us to sing and think about what we are singing. He makes the last verse, the climax of the piece, into a chorus rising beautifully in the middle section and the whole is a very moving hymn. People will of course say “but I liked the old tune” that may be true but it should not stop us thinking about the music, what it does, what emotions it arouses, and whether it is appropriate or not. I think that what Greg de Bliek has done is not simply to dust down an old relic and make it a curiously but to open it up, bring it into the light and give us a hymn that is as relevant today as it was when it was written in the 18th century.
You can hear it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EtmjMgsPImc but the YouTube video hardly does it justice. You need to hear a congregation singing it and you need to be in that congregation.