DVORAK, THE CELEBRATED CZECH COMPOSER, was listening to an Anglican chant being performed in church, when he asked, "Why do they repeat a bad tune so many times?" 

He was not alone in his observation. Of course - given the right choristers - a top cathedral will put on an Anglican chant with such superb precision, that the harmonies can send exquisite shivers down your spine! But the average local church is not up to such expertise, and in the growing churches of today 'chanting' has largely gone out of the window.

The whole thing is, of course, international - and it is a thrill. I'll never forget a musical tour of Uganda with singer Garth Hewitt. He did the singing, I the preaching. We did thirty concerts in ten days. Highlight was the visit to the girls of Gayaza School in Kampala . With a tremendous musical tradition behind them, we learnt far more than they did, in the few hours we spent with them.

Africa melody! The girls of Gayaza High School

We have to keep working at the music! In July 1886 the great American evangelist, D.L. Moody, was speaking to students from a hundred colleges. He said, "Music and the Bible are the two important agencies with which to reach the world" ( Moody without Sankey: John Pollock, Hodder). The trick is to have those hymns in church which can credibly be sung together by a good number of people - with words and tunes memorable enough to become part of the corporate heritage of an entire community.

By the famous organ that accompanied
Ira D. Sankey. Moody Museum, Chicago

Bishop Michael Baughen and I once asked BBC Songs of Praise producer, Raymond Short, what his aim was in the weekly television programme that was touching millions. "To keep the faith alive", was his answer. And that is not a bad aim. Such was the impact of the Moody and Sankey missions in Britain 125 years ago that the very term hold the fort - in common usage today - derived immediately from the song with that title that featured in their meetings up and down the land.

Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, the only thing that could prevent relatively untaught Gospel people around the world from caving in to the incoming tide of destructive liberal German theology were the hymns of Wesley, Sankey and Fanny Crosby. It was the hymns that held the saints, at a time when Evangelical scholarship had yet to find its feet. The content of our hymns is vital for the next generation.

In choosing hymns for public gatherings, several questions are worth asking:
  • Could the majority sing it without having to practise it?
  • Could an unchurched modern secularist, from the world of sport, politics or the media walk in and sing it without cringing too much?
  • Is the hymn or song focused mainly on the Lord God, or is it only informing him how marvellous we are?
  • Allowing that the tune of a hymn or song may lift the spirits, how worthy are the words being sung - or would we feel obliged to echo Voltaire's words in the eighteenth century: "If a thing is too silly to be said, it can always be sung" ?
  • Does the actual content of the songs and hymns we are writing help to express and communicate a credible world-view? For while there is a place for enjoying great times of worship and praise, we cannot actually pass on 'a great time' to the next generation - only a body of truth.
I've been honoured to contribute in a number of music publishing ventures - the most recent being Sing Glory (published by Kevin Mayhew Ltd), with some 700 hymns, traditional and contemporary. Produced by Jubilate Hymns ( www.jubilate.co.uk ), its chief editors - Michael Baughen, David Iliff, David Peacock and Michael Saward -have all developed immense skills over the last forty-five years. And for years I have had the honour of working closely with Professor Noel Tredinnick and Gerard Brooks of All Souls Church in London .

I do not fancy myself as an expert on Hymnody - but I am experienced in knowing what hymns will take off in a sizeable congregation! Ever tried All that thrills my soul is Jesus in a fair-sized congregation? Or Blessing and honour, glory and power, be to the Ancient of Days ?

If, here and there, I have myself offered an occasional hymn to the Christian public, it is not because I compare myself with such writers as Timothy Dudley-Smith, Michael Saward, Graham Kendrick or Stuart Townend. Rather it is that I keep an eye open for gaps that can usefully be filled. Once, when trying to choose a hymn for Sunday that related to Moses and the burning bush, I turned to Noel Tredinnick and said, "There's nothing on this key passage, Noel!"

"Go on, then," he challenged, "you write it, Richard. Try Chariots of Fire as a tune to have in mind." Later we obtained permission to use the tune, and even had it featured on BBC Songs of Praise. Does it take off? Well, try it!

On some of my hymns I have never felt satisfied with the tune given it. If someone can come up with a top tune for my City of God hymn ('All dreams must fade away'), I will be grateful. As it is, the hymn is set to 'Christ's own Peace', and I was pleased that Christian Aid published it in one of their hymn books..but the tune is a little 'pubby'; you feel you ought to be swaying to it.

Feel free to have a look at twenty of my hymns (or revisions) in the pages that follow. And then click onto www.jubilate.co.uk - also onto www.allsouls.com and try the music section and Langham Arts; they have helped music people all over the world!