You vs. Thou

Recently, I came across the album “Homemade Worship by Handmade People” by Rend Collective Experiment. (You can see more about it here or here.)

On first glance, I didn’t recognise any of the songs listed, which was promising, and it wasn’t until I listened to the album that I recognised the second track; “You Are My Vision”. Usually, when we sing this at our church, it’s called “Be Thou My Vision”, and is one of my favourite hymns. As I was planning on including this hymn in a service, we practiced it during our weekly music team rehearsal, and, as an experiment, I played the R.C.E. version to the team first. It went down very well, with positive comments regarding the main difference between the two.

This difference (other than the Fleet Foxes / Mumford & Sons styling of R.C.E. which we can’t quite pull off) is the modernisation of the lyrics. What R.C.E. have done is adapt the traditional lyrics for a modern audience. Here’s a comparison between the first verses;

1912 version;

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart,
naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Rend Collective Experiment version;

You are my vision, O King of my heart
Nothing else satisfies, only You Lord
You are my best thought by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Your presence my light.

The hymn continues along these lines, replacing “Thou” with “You”, “Thy” with “Your” etc., and amending syntax where necessary.

Initially, my response was “What have they done? What was wrong with the old lyrics?”. However, the more I listened, and the more we discussed the change at church, I came to the conclusion that it was a useful change.

One of the points raised at the music practice was the fact that this new version removed all the archaisms that, in day-to-day English, we haven’t used for decades, and made the hymn more accessible to new people. For a person new to church, it can often be intimidating enough without having to make sense of early 20th century lyrics.

On the other hand, when changing lyrics to an updated version, you do have to be careful to keep the meaning. It’s entirely possible, in the attempt to be completely free of archaisms, to dilute the meaning or change the words, especially if you’re keeping the original, familiar tune. The theology in those hymns that have lasted the centuries is so sound (for the most part), and so ingrained in the minds of the church, that any change could be detrimental to the act of worship, where people are unwilling to sing unfamiliar words in case they contain a sentiment that they cannot agree with.

However, that last point can be said of any new song introduced to the congregation, with the added bonus of new words making a singer look at the content of the hymn afresh, or perhaps leading to a new understanding of a song that may now be sung purely on auto-pilot.

Personally, I’m still on the fence. I enjoy R.C.E.’s version of “Be Thou My Vision”, almost as much as I enjoy the 1912 version, and I would quite happily lead a congregation in either. Other hymns don’t work quite so well with contemporary language, as it waters down or amends the theology, and for a rousing start or end of a service, it’s great to hear the whole church ring in praise with a tried and tested hymn.

I’ll keep listening for new versions of the classics, I may even have a go at re-writing some myself, but at the moment, I’m quite happy to use the traditional words for traditional hymns, with occasional dalliances with modern English when the occasion suits.

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