You, too, can write a hymn — no experience necessary

Posted on October 8, 2019

By Stuart Mann

For centuries, Christians have been encouraged to “sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 96:1). Now a new workshop allows them to do just that.

Dr. Lydia Pedersen, a United Church member and a church musician for more than 50 years, is offering a workshop on hymn writing. Anyone can attend and no experience is necessary.

Dr. Lydia Pedersen and the Rev. Sherman Hesselgrave outside Holy Trinity, Trinity Square. Photo by Michael Hudson

“Most people think that writing a hymn is a terribly esoteric thing to do and only clergy ever think of doing it, but I want to debunk that myth by showing that regular people can do it, too,” she says.  

Ms. Pedersen, who teaches hymn writing to seminary students at Emmanuel College in Toronto, says people want to write hymns for all sorts of different reasons. Some simply want to express their love of God, while others want to mark special occasions or use language and imagery that are more relevant to their context.

“Things are changing in society,” she explains. “We need hymns for the LGBTQ community. We need hymns about the ecological crisis. Things that we didn’t worry about thirty years ago have become crucial issues, and people need to sing about them in church.”

 She says hymns are an important way of forming a person’s theology, often more so than the Sunday sermon. “Ministers don’t like to hear that, but it happens to be true. People will go home still humming the hymn, but they’ve already forgotten what they heard in the sermon. So hymns are terribly important in the liturgy.”

Her workshops have attracted people from across the spectrum, from clergy and church musicians to lay people who just wanted to put their thoughts on paper. A workshop held at St. Paul, Uxbridge last February resulted in new hymns about caring for Creation, reconciling with Indigenous people, celebrating a church’s anniversary and being on a faith journey.

The workshop, called “Write a New Song: A workshop for amateur hymn writers like you!” is usually one day long but can be divided into evenings or a weekend. To the metre of a familiar tune, participants are guided in writing the lyrics of a congregational song on a topic of their own choosing. In the process, they learn the mechanics of hymn poetry: metre, accents, tune matching, rhyme, the use of inclusive language and working with the hymnal index.

She says participants explore their personal beliefs, fears, longings and hopes as they share their work with their fellow writers, learning from each other as they go. “You may find yourself discussing with your neighbour the naming and nature of God in a multi-faith society. You may want to write a hymn for a friend’s same-sex marriage, or a grandchild’s baptism. Your hymn may be a cry for justice for refugees, or a lament for our natural world in crisis.”

At the end of the workshop, participants have a complete hymn text to take home with them; if time allows, the group has a hymn-sing of their work. “Participants have said they’ve gained a whole new appreciation for hymns as liturgy, art and profound expressions of faith,” she says.

The Rev. Sherman Hesselgrave, incumbent of Holy Trinity, Trinity Square, has taken part in the workshop and says it was an “eye-opening” experience. Mr. Hesselgrave is the president of the Southern Ontario Chapter of the Hymn Society and a hymn writer in his own right, having composed about a dozen hymns, one of which will be sung at the diocese’s upcoming Synod in November.

He says hymn writing is as important today as it ever was, and he encourages people to try their hands at it. “It’s something that might not have occurred to a lot of people: that the hymns that are in the books that get published have to start out somewhere, and they’re not all written by famous people from the 17th century.”

He cites a project that Holy Trinity undertook about 30 years ago that produced three hymns that are in Common Praise, the hymnal of the Anglican Church of Canada. One of the hymns, “Living Justice,” is also in the Lutheran hymnal and has been sung in many other denominations. “That happened out of an effort by a local congregation and now it’s sung all over the world,” he says.

As society changes, so should hymns, he says. “Human beings are never in the same place forever. Our relationship with God evolves, so I think it’s natural to have ongoing, new expressions of how we feel about what God is doing in our lives and in the world.”

The Southern Ontario Chapter of the Hymn Society is offering a workshop on singing new texts to old tunes, new texts with new tunes, and worship songs from other countries. The workshop will be held on Nov. 17 at 2:30 p.m. at Islington United Church, 25 Burnhamthorpe Rd., Toronto. All are invited. Visit the chapter’s website.

For more information about Ms. Pedersen’s workshop or to host it at your church, contact her at Lydia.pedersen@symptico.ca.