92. BLESS THOU THE LORD/ PSALM 23/RAIN SONG – Betty Pulkingham

https://youtube/q7FXgnuO8kY

I had been thinking for a while that this series of essays would not be complete if I did not acknowledge the part that Betty Pulkingham’s compositions had played in my life. And I am prompted to do it finally since that great lady passed on to Glory earlier this year. To my mind, Betty Jane Pulkingham has been a significant figure in the history of Christian hymnody, her output spanning the second half of the 20th century into the beginning of the 21st.

I have written several posts in this blog focused on songs which represented, and traced their lineage back to, the extraordinary renewal of faith, spiritual vitality and worship which took place beginning in the early sixties in Houston, Texas, centred around the Episcopalian ‘Church Of The Redeemer’ and the community lifestyle which developed from that renewal, characterised by a dynamic focus on loving, serving relationships and a remarkable sense of freshness and creativity. Learning of that renewal, reading of it, meeting people involved in it, getting brief tastes of the communities that evolved from it, hearing and experiencing some of the musical ‘output’ from it, has been – even if it seems to be ‘at a remove’- a life-changing experience.

Betty Pulkingham’s place in all that, and most especially in the development of ‘worship life’ which has benefitted so many Christians throughout the church, was seminal. Her husband Graham was of course the priest and pastor who was the figurehead of the renewal that took place in the church, helping to nurture a vibrant community along biblical guidelines, fostering an atmosphere of committed Christian devotion, attentiveness and expectation among the many who began to gather into extended family households to share lives of godly service and caring. True and heartfelt worship was key to that common life and Betty was key in that calling.

Given her scholarly classical training and her highly accomplished musicianship, she could so easily have given herself to the pursuit of traditional ‘ classical church music’ excellence, trained an impressive Episcopalian choir to do a series of fancy anthems, and we might never have heard of her. Her scope became at the same time more humble and yet broader and more far-reaching, her legacy far more extraordinary! Oh she wrote some hymns, songs, what you will, and I have chosen a couple here… well, more about them in a moment. She could even compose intricate, multi-part anthems for trained choirs (we have a few wonderful examples in the recorded output), but she learnt early on, under God’s gracious tutelage, I’m sure she would have said, that music also needed to come from the simplicity of ordinary people, and from the heart, and so despite her musicianship, a surprising number of her compositions are indeed simple, unadorned expressions of praise. Perhaps this is why I have chosen the first of these two songs, taken from the very first album which the church/community released, primarily from the music group which helped to run their coffeehouse ministry, ‘The Way In’. The song ‘Bless Thou The Lord’ is a modest, almost artless, setting of some of the verses from Psalm 103 in a folk idiom, using the opening verse as a refrain. (The song’s verses, incidentally, are sung on the recording by Pat Allen, more about whom in blog essay no.37). The jaunty rhythm, the plinky-plunk banjo accompaniment, are a long way from a choral evensong hymn, yet there is quiet authentic praise in it, I feel.

So, she composed, yes, but what she composed is just one part of her legacy. Her encouragement to a whole community of eager and creative worshippers gathered at the Church of the Redeemer, then the Community of Celebration, is another. While she trained and led worshipping groups and choirs to achieve sensitivity and tightness in their harmonies and balances, it is interesting to see –from the records – that she was in no way just promoting her own songs, but a whole host of talented songwriters emerges under her encouragement, to produce –often in collaborations –a body of work which, when it was disseminated through vinyl discs and song books, helped to invigorate many a church choir, music group, and individual worshipper!

Her choral settings for Eucharistic liturgy form a major part of her legacy. Even this week, in our church we used the ‘Jesus Lamb of God’ chant in our worship, from Betty’s ‘King of Glory’ setting (to be found on the ‘Celebrate the Feast’ recording). The first of these we ever heard was the Melchizedek Mass setting, to be found on the ‘God’s People Give Thanks’ LP. And it seemed then, mid-1970s, like a little piece of heaven. [Actually – anecdote alert: heard this recording on an unlabelled cassette tape handed to me by a friend of my then girlfriend. She claimed she’d recorded it herself on a hand-held recorder, from a church she’d visited in the States. She later proved to be spectacularly mendacious, this girl. But I kept the tape, and later discovered the album]. Another great setting is the ‘El Shaddai’ setting on the ‘Let Our Praise to You Be as Incense’ LP, one of my favourite Fisherfolk albums. Later still (1990?) on the ‘Freedom is Coming’ recording we hear the ambitious ‘Freedom Mass’ setting which used adaptations of black South African songs and rhythms..! Apart from their warm singability, the evident sensitive correspondence between text and melody, these (the first three) settings are remarkable for encouraging accompaniment between traditional church organ AND ‘folk instruments ’(in particular the strummed acoustic guitar) together – instead or their more common frosty competitiveness! They all have something of an anointing, these mass settings, and are deserving of a longevity in their effective church use.

When a sizeable group of people from the Houston church, including Graham and Betty, settled in the UK for a decade or so, the Community of Celebration was named and established; and Betty also set about making these songs (and many others – including old chestnuts from a variety of traditions – that had proved useful in worship) accessible to the church more widely. Initially with Jeanne Harper, wife of Canon Michael Harper, and with the blessings of Hodder and Stoughton publishers, she set about compiling a songbook which quickly became a staple in the Uk church – ‘Sounds of Living Water’ (still a go-to, for me), followed up a few years later by ‘Fresh Sounds’ and later still, with Mimi Farra as co-compiler this time ‘Cry Hosanna’. These three treasures do not gather dust on my shelves, and for these alone I am more than grateful to Betty Jane. In the US, other Celebration hymnals have been published, I believe.

In compositions (as in her eucharist settings) she often brought new life into the old and perhaps-too-familiar. Just like with my good friend Graham Oakes, her new tunes to old hymns helped us to rediscover the potency and beauty of their lyrical content – ‘Hail to the Lord’s Anointed’ and ‘Lo He Comes’ come to mind, especially. Her folksy driving adaptation of the familiar ‘Christ the Lord is Risen today’ is given an added sense of liveliness in her transformation of it as ‘Hallelujah Today!’ But she especially had a prayerfully deft touch in her adaptation of psalms (as in the earlier Psalm 103 song we mentioned). Later in her ‘career’ she put together a whole book of psalm settings (‘Celebrate the Church Year with Psalms and Canticles’) which once again breathed new life into our beloved psaltery, and this time the settings were for congregations who wished to chant/sing the ‘complete’ psalms, instead of singing selective and adapted song-versions. I have vivid memories of the summer when I acquired the cassette tape which accompanied this book, the Fisherfolk with customary clarity and brightness presenting a representative selection of these psalm settings: it was 1989, the cassette lived all summer in my car cassette player – I can recall driving the kids to the beach singing along at the top of my voice to several of the psalms (poor kids). I’ve chosen ‘Psalm 23’ here, because I love the way that Betty has chosen to use the gospel verse from John chapter 10 (where Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’) as the refrain in between the familiar much loved psalm verses. It brings a new breadth to the psalm, linking it with our Saviour’s tender shepherding of us.

Since I am paying homage to her more generally, here, and not just commenting on a couple of songs, let me also recommend her own prose writings, if you can get them. The first book she wrote was ‘Mustard Seeds’ (called something else in the US?), a wonderful series of personal anecdotes of her own (and inevitably the family’s and community’s) faith-fuelled journey, and how she perceived the Lord’s surprises and grace-encounters along the way. The second, ‘Sing To God a Simple Song’ explores more reflectively the lessons she has learnt (and was willing to share) about using music in church contexts. Her third and final book was her autobiography ‘This Is My Story, This Is My Song’ which was just a delight to read. Oh, and when we’re thinking of songbooks, she produced a book of a choral anthem pieces (including the wonderful ‘For Ye Shall Go Out With Joy’ sung at our wedding by a choir of loving friends) AND a book of descants, which every serious choirleader should try to track down.

I only ever met her once –she and her husband were away on my two visits to the Cumbrae community –and this was at a Fisherfolk day (or was it called a Celebration Day?) held, if I remember rightly, in a school hall somewhere in Brighton or Bournemouth (?). It was in my pre-driving days so I caught the train (with you, Caris, if you’re reading). Betty Pulkingham was the key speaker of the day’s events and not surprisingly I hung onto her every word. These are the things I remember: one, her endearingly southern twang; two, her reminder that worship was creating an environment in which God would ‘just feel at home’; three, she quoted from Evelyn Underhill. I had never heard the name before, so you could say Betty Pulkingham introduced me to Ms Underhill, whose works I love, and for that alone I am supremely grateful.

There’s more, I’m sure. I haven’t even mentioned the children’s songs she wrote, several of which feature on the 1972 album ‘Hey Kids, do you love Jesus’. Ok maybe the style and delivery date it somewhat, but the songs retain a value. I’m adding ‘Rain Song’ (from that album) to the youtube clip to accompany this piece – it’s a song that has a beautiful childlike delicacy, and yet still says something important about the refreshing and empowering work of God’s Spirit. Also we get to hear Betty’s own voice here!… Like I said, there must be so much more that could be said: those who’ve lived with her, worked with her, worshipped, played and sung with her, lived through house moves and community changes with her, laughed and cried through celebrations and crises, with have more to remember and share , and no doubt have been doing so in recent months. As for me, from my remote distance as lurking ‘enthusiast/admirer/student’, I can only say how my little life has been touched by her music. And as I consider her recent passing, I’m pleased to think that the songs she’s singing now, of course, are richer and fuller than ever.

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86. SO WILL I (A HUNDRED BILLION X) _ Hillsong United (Hastings/Houston/Fatkin)

We had a beautiful time in Mary and Dan’s church, couple of months back, where prayers of thanksgiving and dedication for our lovely granddaughter were being incorporated into the service! In the middle of this service, I was introduced to this particular song, and it had quite an effect on me.

In fact, the ‘worship’ generally, drew me in to an authentic experience of the same. Despite my ruminations in an earlier essay (no.63 ‘When the Music Fades’), I confess I can still be quite dismissive about much modern Christian worship music – and I can sniffily and patronisingly point out limited-range, repetitive melodies, unimaginative language choices, too performance-orientated a stance etc etc. And I can also keep forgetting that to some extent Christian worship music is meant to be utilitarian, in the sense that if we are distracted by a particular intricate melody, by imaginative imagery, by clever construction, then in some ways a song runs the risk of failing to do its job, to be a vehicle in which we can, with freedom and focus, express praise, adoration or even supplication.

As someone pointed out to me recently, for the above reason, it’s OK for hymns/songs to be ephemeral in this respect – eg. probably the bulk of the Wesleys’ prodigious output had its season and served its purpose for its generation. But then I think I’m also right in saying (I kind of hope I am) that a song can manage both to be a praise-vehicle for its time, and yet because of the care and beauty of its composition has perhaps more lasting quality and can –on a more objective level maybe –be admired for its artistry. And perhaps in the very best songs we can hold these two things together, and the intrinsic beauty, the compositional and lyrical movement within the song can even elevate our worship-expression as we sing..?

(Musing aloud, folks. You’d think, after half a century of ‘involvement’ with Christian worship music, that I would have it all sussed out by now. Clearly not.)

I suppose what I’m saying is that for me, this is one of those special songs which manages to do that. There is a definite millennium generation vibe to the melody, I think, keeping the range narrowish and building in plenty of repetitive pattern (useful for learning, obviously). But the construction is anything but bland! Just on an organisation level, the 3 verse & chorus patterns are broken up by a powerful ‘bridge’ and there is a repeated verse three, and a final power-punch of a three-line coda or ‘tag’. And none of that seems ‘forced’ or contrived. Plus, none of the choruses are the same, but instead, while retaining a similar structure, reflect the thematic scope of the preceding verse.

Here’s something of how the song develops .The opening section – well, the whole thing, really – is very much a paean to God the Creator. It’s hard to remember any hymns that have done this with such a sense of sweeping expansiveness – there’s ‘All Creatures of Our God and King’, a fabulous example, and based on something St Francis wrote, but even he was less space-aware, of course. So here we have ‘You spoke to the dark/And fleshed out the wonder of Light’. We have ‘And as you speak a hundred billion galaxies are formed/In the vapour of your breath the planets form’. .. Of course there’s plenty of precedent for this kind of talk in the psalms (see Ps 89, 139..) – what’s startlingly fresh is the modern succinct colloquial response to follow the perceived example of Creation’s testimony to the Creator’s glory – ‘If creation sings your praises So will I’

In the second section the composers shift us on to considering God’s communicated purposes, His ‘word’, his promises – but even this is of course inextricably linked with his creations. It acknowledges that since God is a God of meaningful communication (‘You don’t speak in vain/No syllable empty or void’), then the universe too is consequently of ultimate meaning and value. This is a vision of Nature that somehow reveals God’s ‘heart’ as well as his power, and we are led to a new response , this time to emulate creation in ‘obedience’ not just in praise.

Though the two are linked.. and the wonderful ‘Bridge’ to the song highlights this with a pulsing cumulative force as each condition builds on the last ‘If the stars… so will I’; ‘If the mountains..If the oceans..’ blending these ideas of praise and obedience here – ‘If the wind goes where you send it, so will I’ and culminating in an acknowledgment that no amount of praise can adequately match God’s praiseworthiness – the expression is oddly literary – ‘If the sum of all our praises still falls shy’ – then hyperbolic ..’Then we’ll sing again a hundred billion times’ – but hyperbolic only in the sense that the Book of Revelation is hyperbolic in its descriptions of worship in Heaven.

The final section hones the focus onto God as ‘God of Salvation’, his redemption of fallen mankind in the person of himself as Son, as God-made-man Jesus. The brief verse does two things – it highlights God as initiator – You chased down my heart/Through all of my failure and pride’ and it highlights the supreme heavenly irony (in a similar way to Graham Kendrick’s ‘Hands that flung starts into space/ To cruel nails surrendered’) – ‘On a hill you created, the light of the world/ Abandoned in darkness to die..’

We’re on holy ground here, and I can imagine the composers needing to take specially prayerful steps putting these lines together. For in the uniqueness of Christ’s sacrifice we cannot blithely offer up an intent to follow suit, yet the images are carefully chosen –firstly a great note of victory – ‘If you left the grave behind you so will I’! – but also of the necessity of following Jesus, as he bids, in ‘surrender’, and compassionate sacrificial-living ‘Every precious one a child you died to save/If you gave your life to love them so will I’. Wow – the song has led us, through natural steps, from awed praise to a remembrance of God’s word, his saving grace, the cross, and our own discipleship steps following his lead. And in case we’ve missed the point, the little ‘tag’ reminds us that God – and our calling in him – is all about love for people – ‘What measure could amount to your desire/ You’re the One who never leaves the one behind..’

This is a powerful conclusion – the repeated mega-number the ‘hundred billion’ have helped to create an expansive sense of the unlimited variety of God’s creative energies, and of the need for worship to echo that limitlessness and variety – but then with seemingly improbable miraculousness, the apparent converse is also true – the individual counts, with a value as great as the huge number. As God sees that, so must we.

I was wondering if ‘Hillsong United’ were not keen on acknowledging individual composers, but I think I’ve got them now: Benjamin Hastings, Joel Houston and Michael Fatkin. Thanks guys, for listening hearts, and poets’ tongues to give us a great song to sing. Thanks Freedom Church for introducing me to this (and for Dotty’s dedication) x

80. ST. PATRICK’S BREASTPLATE – ancient Celtic hymn

Here’s one I’ve carried around in my head for a long time; and knew I’d have to write about, but how to start? I think I need to tell you about my first trip to York.

It was the late 1970s. For youngish twentysomethings with aspirations of lives characterised by meaningful Christian service, and by deeper, fresher and more creative worship, there was much to be excited about. Whether it was jumping on bandwagons, or simply recognizing communities, churches and movements that were proving visionary and innovative, it was hard not to chase up sources of inspirational teaching and vibrant worship resources. Saint Michael-le-Belfrey in York was one of those places where ‘it was happening’. Not only had their rector, Canon David Watson become a renowned conference speaker on many aspects of New Testament lifestyle-rediscovery taking place alongside the broader ‘charismatic renewal’ in the church, but the church’s worship-life and ministry were also beginning to make names for themselves, perhaps along the lines of The Fisherfolk /Community of Celebration output, which, one imagined, had helped to inform their own communal vision, as it had for so many up and down the country.

Fairly fancy free in those days, at least during holiday times, I decided to go and visit the church to get the flavour of it, and even -who knows-return with sparks of something which might prove useful for my own little fellowship. I caught trains (my pre-car days, I think) and booked into a youth hostel for the Saturday night. Mooched around the charity shops and bookshops of York on the Saturday afternoon, (bought some CS Lewis first editions sold decades later on ebay!), checked out the glorious Minster, discovered St Michael’s own coffee-and-book shop across the square from the church, and picked up the music group’s debut LP ‘With Thanksgiving’. Some cracking songs on that, a few of which I was to sample on the following morning.

That following morning was the main reason I’d come, of course. I got there bright and early, and was glad that I did, not just because there was a modest struggle for a good seat, but because Andrew Maries, director of worship at Saint Michael-le-Belfrey, used the 30 minutes prior to the start of the service to lead the congregation through a few of the more unfamiliar songs, so that when we encountered them in the service itself, we could join in with unembarrassed abandon. One such practice was the children’s song – Robert Stoodley’s ‘Everybody Song’ (from the aforementioned LP). And then there was this long, strange hymn I had never heard before. ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’ he called it. Maries must have been a brilliant teacher that morning because we got into it; we couple of hundred or whatever gathered before the service, were led to surprising confidence in the twists and turns and trills of that alien song. So much so that although I remember very few of the words, the tune has never left my head since that time.

Hard to say exactly what thrilled me and arrested me so completely about that song – no one simple factor, I’m sure. I know more about the song now than I did then of course; I know for instance that this hymn was a tidied up, metrical version of the long Celtic prayer/hymn/series of invocations attributed to fifth century St Patrick, but probably written ‘in the spirit of Patrick’ (as scholars seem to agree) in the eighth century. The Victorian hymn-lyricist, Mrs. Alexander, based her version on several prose translations of the original. I know too that the man who set this metrical hymn to music (Stanford) chose two Irish tunes as the bases of his melody. Those tunes certainly helped to arrest me! I say tunes, because of course, the penultimate verse of the hymn changes completely into this (as it seemed to me then) poignantly simple, invocatory chant (‘Christ be with me, Christ within me,/ Christ behind me, Christ before me…’). This too was intriguing!

But the language of the song seemed so different from most hymnody I knew -less flowery and sentimental than Victorian hymns, less didactic than many of the Wesleyan hymns, less simplistic than many of the modern hymns. I felt caught off guard, even, by the kind of robust earthiness and physicality of some of the imagery – even the very idea of ‘binding [spiritual truths] to myself..’ seemed quite startling and new.

Today we are all pretty familiar with the idea of ‘Celtic spirituality’ – and perhaps it’s a little bit sad, even, that its ‘in-fashion trendiness’ in at least the UK Christian church (including slightly unreal prettied-up versions of it being marketed) has perhaps distracted from some of the valid reasons why Christian writers and teachers began to find in aspects of ancient Christian Celtic texts and symbols elements which could help to refocus and reinvigorate contemporary worship. Including, for instance, more holistic praise-responses incorporating an awareness of the natural world. So we get this in the song too – ‘I bind unto myself today/ The virtues of the starlit heaven/ The glorious sun’s life giving ray..’ Encompassing nature in all its moods –‘the whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks/ the stable earth, the deep salt sea/around the old eternal rocks’. This too was arresting!

Scholars will no doubt propose several hypotheses about why the idea of ‘trinity’ grabbed the Celtic imagination so unshakeably (some magical, mystical power to the number 3 etc) but the song sort of reinforces that theological concept with new vigour, too. Another reason. I could go on. I could comment on every verse but, as ever, that would give a slightly unrealistic reflection of its initial impact on me which was of course not close and analytical. [Others have written in both commentative and reflective ways about this song. See footnote*]. Other imagery in the hymn boldly referenced the scary hostilities and evils of a dark world, though, that needed us to pray prayers like the ones for protection and shelter included in the song , and to invoke and declare stuff like this about ‘binding to ourselves’ these God-bolstered vigorous and virile realities!

So I returned to our little valleys congregation, with a few books, a half-poem about York Minster, a new LP, some stories about the church (‘There’s no easy answer to involving kids in the service’ I said, remembering how chaotic the presence of children had been in St Michael’s as much as anywhere else; oh and extolling the excellent teaching of young Rev. Graham Cray). Why I didn’t share this song which had been a memorable discovery from my trip, I’m not entirely sure. It wasn’t a guitar song, that’s certain, so I couldn’t have ‘shared’ it easily. Did a selfish part of me want to hold it secretly in my own head for my own private prayers and invocations? I don’t know. But I’ve certainly buried it firmly within myself.

I do know that I regret not having sung it enough over the years – not just in my head or on my own, but out loud with others, I mean, in congregations of the faithful, and preferably with some loud lusty pipe organ as accompaniment!

[I mentioned that at least two modern Christian books reflect on the hymn – David Adam’s ‘The Cry of the Deer’ and John Davies’s ‘A Song for Every Morning’]

72. NEVER IN MY LIFE – Mikel Kennedy/ The Fisherfolk

This morning, while breakfasting on my porridge and blueberries, I listened to this wonderful CD by Mikel Kennedy, entitled ‘Isn’t It Good’, and it wasn’t difficult to concur! The title track, the first track of the CD, is in some ways another wonderful morning song – ‘a song for celebrating every day new..!'( I love ‘love-life’ morning songs!), and so very suitable for breakfast listening. When or in what circumstances he wrote it I don’t know, but the song was used in the musical presentation ‘Ah there’s the celebration’ which the Fisherfolk showcased at the Edinburgh fringe in 1976 (see essay number 37 ‘I’d like to sit you down’) and in that context represented the Son’s confident delight in his Father’s love.

But I must have first heard Mikel’s very distinctive voice on the album ‘Celebrate The Feast’ with a beautiful song about the eucharist ‘When You do This‘; there’s also a track where his acoustic style deftly interprets the old testament lesson, singing and playing the bulk of the Isaiah lyric in ‘Who Has Measured The Waters’ (Maggie Durren’s voice reciting the middle section against his acoustic guitar). There is something quite captivating about Mikel’s voice and ‘performance’ on both those tracks; as a wannabe folksinger myself I may even have been a little envious of his ease of delivery.

The Fisherfolk’s album ‘On Tiptoe’ brought us quite a few ‘solo’ performances. I suppose I was becoming aware that even though this ‘worship band’ came out of community lifestyle, it was inevitably made up of individuals, with individualistic musical styles and concerns. So, in ‘On Tiptoe’ (and probably on most of the other albums, if I stop to think about it) we become aware of particular composers -Jonathan Asprey, Jodi Page, for instance -not that this distracts from the community focus. It is a reminder that even where intentional community occurs, and people work to live harmoniously, that harmony is always made up of a variety of human beings, all with different wills, backgrounds, personalities, creative leanings – amazingly ‘submitting’ these, with a sense of calling, common purpose, and love. Mikel Kennedy’s contributions to this particular album are lovely, and I was reminded this morning of my particular fondness for ‘Never In My Life’ which is a kind of unadorned ‘testimony’, an expression of sheer gratitude for the affirmation, the sense of worth we rediscover in acknowledging the unconditional love of God. The delivery is simple, understated: there’s a key change before the last verse and there’s a lovely string-section homage to ‘What a Friend we have in Jesus’ most appropriately woven in to the presentation.

One strange thing was that as I listened again to this much beloved song, I realized that one of my own songs ‘Reconciled’ very much echoed the sentiments of this song. ‘Never thought I’d make friends with myself again…’ etc – all the same sort of wonderment at the grace of the Almighty, the sense of discovery and surprise… There’s so much that I love about this song, but I think what touches me is that there feels like a sensibility quite complex here (‘my hands were always quick to shed innocent blood/for things like independence, freedom, pride..’) who has been humbled and awed by something divinely simple – the song ends ‘Now that you’ve come in/never go away again/for never in my life/did I know someone could take away my sin’. That kind of gratitude-song, for our redemption and forgiveness, seems almost too simple, too intimate; but I know its validity.

I know little about Mike Kennedy the person: I have a feeling I’ve read his conversion story somewhere – remembering that he’d been drawn to the Church of the Redeemer as quite a troubled young man, and had found God, and healing, there ;his friendship seems to have touched many; reading between the lines, I’ve worked out too that he didn’t stop being a ‘real person’ even when Jesus took hold of him: i.e.he encountered some struggles, I believe, especially in the community’s life as lived out in their Scotland base. There are inevitably struggles in any community, between the call to share together and the pull of our own individuality; still, for Mikel, the excitement and the commitment of the call to share is evident in his beautiful setting of Psalm 133 – ‘Oh how good and how delightful it is/for us to live together like this..’ But we would be naive to think that this was always easy, especially for the creative person he was perhaps? The only time that I saw Mikel Kennedy perform as part of the Fisherfolk was in that Edinburgh festival – first of all as ‘Jesus on a step ladder’ (see again essay no. 37), but also in that same week – we’re talking August 1976, I think – a late night concert venue – amongst all of the worship songs drawn from the Fisherfolk’s own heritage, Mikel also sang Guy Clark’s haunting song ‘Desperadoes Waiting For A Train’. At that time I was surprised by the ‘secular’ song choice! Which strikes me now as a bit silly and hypocritical! Like me, Mikel appreciated a good song – but maybe it was indicative of the growing difficulties of remaining within the strictures of that particular covenant community ? I don’t know.

Mikel died in 1998, and The Community Of Celebration was sensible enough to honour his legacy, by putting together and releasing a compilation of some of his great songs, from Fisherfolk albums and from his own private tapes; the wonderful Fisherfolk cellist Max Dyer did much of the spadework that made this possible. This is the CD I listened to over breakfast this morning – warmed by the opening song, as I said, I was made oddly tearful by a couple of the others! Betty Pulkingham’s ‘ sleeve notes’ are wonderfully moving: ‘Mike will for ever be a part of us. His warmth, his uncanny ability to come alongside another person…’ And it may seem a bit daft, I know, for someone who has never really known him in this life, but in so many ways I can only agree with Betty, finding no better words : ‘over the years, Mike has been turning up regularly in my life through the beauty of his songs….. I expect him to be turning up again and again for each one of us, until that day when we join him in that ‘larger place’ Jesus has prepared for us all….’

71. A TOUCHING PLACE – John Bell & Graham Maule

 

 

What a gift John Bell is to the church in the 21st century.  As a contributor to BBC Radio’s ‘Thought for the Day’ he speaks an infinite deal of very listenable common sense and godly compassion.  As a speaker representing the Iona community and the Wild Goose Resource Group, he is both engaging and inspiring.  Yet in extremely low key, human ways.

In my early years as a Christian, I remember that we were often counselled about the dangers of ‘being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly use’ (Ha! Really?  I’m not sure even now if this can ever be a genuine concern, since most of the really heavenly minded people that I’ve met tend also to be those most focused on making a difference in real, practical terms too.)  Still, if there’s any validity to this malaise, it’s an accusation that can certainly never be levelled at John Bell, whose Godly down-to-earth-ness is tangible, and whose most worshipful songs never lose touch of the needs and sorrows of humanity.  Which makes this song eminently representative of both his style and his concerns.  Heaven touching earth etc.

If you’ve been in a John Bell singing workshop, you know what a privilege that is.  I suppose I first saw him in that role in Greenbelt festivals, where not only is he often a keynote speaker, but in the past has often been known to help lead Wild Goose Sing A Long sessions in one of the meeting tents.  These are always incredibly well attended, and you can sense the palpable delight of people learning to sing these beautiful new chants and songs, in unison, in men-and-women ‘echoes’, and gloriously also in four part harmonies.  I was privileged enough to go to a whole day workshop he led in a church in Cardiff-oh, probably 20 years ago now –I’d just started teaching in the Catholic comprehensive school where I ended my fulltime teaching career –and was delighted to find, when I got there, others from my teaching staff with an equal interest in developing and exploring worship songs.John Bell clearly crossed ‘sectarian boundaries’!  It was a great day.

I can’t remember if we sang this one, but it seems to have been on my radar and in my mental repertoire for quite some time, along with his other classic ‘The Summons’.  Many of the pieces that I love from John Bell’s prolific output are the short, simple chants that allow us to meditate in more focused ways on simple God-realities– he demonstrated that we didn’t have to rely on the Taize output for this kind of song! ‘A  Touching Place’, though, is one of the longer,  more ‘fully formed’ songs and (this again a very Wild Goose approach) employs a traditional Scottish melody –Dream Angus.  For me it’s not just a beautiful song but it’s beautifully crafted too.  We start off establishing a Christ-centric perspective of the world “Christ’s is the world in which we move;/Christ’s are the folk we’re summoned to love;/Christ’s is the voice which calls us to care,/and Christ is the one who meets us here.” While the chorus underlines Christ as actively compassionate in that world through/with ‘his friends’ : “to those who cry in pain or disgrace/Christ makes with his friends a touching place’

What a fresh, interesting phrase. John Bell  (and Graham Maule, presumably! Sorry Graham that I know less about you!) not only avoids the clichés of traditional hymnody, but he finds language, phrases that make us think and rediscover spiritual truths –because yes ‘touch’ is very much at the heart of of Jesus’ ministry, if we think of the gospel narratives of his interactions with people.  There’s been quite a bit of footage of Princess Diana on TV over the last couple of weeks (20th anniversary of her death) and I had forgotten what a revolutionary thing it was when she broke with royal protocol to visit Aids victims, people afflicted with leprosy and other diseases –turning up gloveless!  Touching them and allowing them to touch her.  I’m not beatifying Diana here, just saying that kind of spirit was a reminder of the Christ spirit which this song addresses.

The remaining three verses of the song start with the same imperative ‘feel for..’ addressed  I suppose to the singing congregations themselves, but also implying (if we think of feel as sort of a synonym for touch) that these are the people Christ’s hands are reaching out to draw into that tangible embrace.  And the verses catalogue some of the hurts of ordinary humanity ‘feel for the strange or bereaved or never employed’;  .. ‘feel for the women whom men have defiled’; ‘feel for the lives by life confused/riddled with doubt, in loving abused’etc…And there is the realistic recognition that this is not always easy for us- ‘Feel for the people we most avoid..’ After the painful reminders of these verses, it is a joy to return to the affirmations of the chorus.

Many of these little blog essays, while claiming to have been about songs, have often ended up focusing on particular recordings by the composer or this or that artist.  This time, though, we are very much about the song, not the recording.  The song as a living breathing usable thing, of affirmation, celebration, reminder and challenge.  Having said that, recordings do exist of course, from the stable of  the Wild Goose Resources.  And what is always lovely and commendable is, on their own recordings [and I couldn’t find a youtube clip, sorry]the sheer unabashed Scottishness of the singing –so refreshing in this X factor age when –even in some Christian music –the temptation seems to be to distort ones vowels to something more (at least) ‘mid-atlantic’!  And this may seem a simple thing, but in a small way I think it adds to the very authentic humanness of this kind of holiness. Lovely song: let’s keep using it.

63. WHEN THE MUSIC FADES (‘THE HEART OF WORSHIP’) – Matt Redman

 

I feel like I have given ‘mainstream contemporary Christian music’ bad press and short shrift thus far in this series of postings; and I’m feeling something of the need to redress a balance.

And when I initially wrote this piece (oh, two years ago now I think) I was particularly indebted to Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, for including a Matt Redman song (not this one, actually) amongst his eight Desert Island Discs when he ‘appeared’ on that programme over Christmas 2014.  It was if I recall a lovely, gracious interview, as ever.  It made me reconsider my prejudices; and another thing it made me realise, and despite what I have said elsewhere, what I need to affirm is this: probably every generation has its cohort of pioneering hymn writers/psalmists/Jesus-troubadours who manage either to resist that glamorization and the inevitable contortions of identity that come with the commercial machinery of mass promotion and mass production; or to transcend it in some way; or perhaps just to ignore it and create  valuable psalmody in spite of it.

Now, I wouldn’t really say that I have my finger on the pulse of the current sources of great contemporary Christian music. In the greenness of my prime there was the Wesleyan prolificness (prolificity?) of Graham Kendrick, the sensitive and accomplished Adrian Snell… Possibly today it’s bands like Rend Collective whose passionate, homespun, semi-makeshift style of joyous worship breathes authenticity.  20 years ago I found the same excitement in Delirious who –even in concert in Greenbelt a dozen years ago seemed to have managed to sustain their sense of heartfelt worship. (I wouldn’t know if the lucrative results of their excellence have eroded something of that: I surely hope not); and then in amidst the whole ‘stables’ of worship music – Hillsong, Vineyard etc –  there’s the Soul Survivor team with Beth Croft etc; there’s the wonderful solid crafting of Stuart Townend’s songs- these seem to have held on to some kind of worshipful integrity – and there must be loads more I’ve forgotten, or am ignorant of.  In that list (somewhere there) of songsmiths of spiritual integrity, number such as Tim Hughes and…. Matt Redman, composer of this wonderful song.

Because this song is something special, isn’t it.  Its unique because as well as being a valid worship song which engages mind and heart in its lyric and its musical construction – like so many of the psalms almost socratically working through to something that demands resolution in true submission and praise -, its special in that it kind of questions and challenges the very genre of which it is a part – “worship” (or perhaps I mean ‘the worship industry’) “I’m sorry, Lord, for the thing I’ve made it” he writes, and in doing so, wonderfully refocuses himself and anyone engaged in the listening/singing to the whole raison d’être – “it’s all about you, Jesus”.  For this reason, the song has a distinctive prophetic resonance: it was a song that needed to be written for those of my own Christian generation who have –let’s face it – because of the excitement of the creative process, or even the excitement of musical collaboration, or the alluringly emotive power of the poetic/musical engagement, been tempted to see song as an end in itself. “I’ll bring you more than a song/for a song in itself is not what you have required..” We are indebted to Mr. Redman for bringing us back in this song to the ‘heart of worship’ –which is of course not worship itself, but the object of our worship, our beloved, our redeemer and saviour. Him to whom we sing!

Does all of this have a wider relevance, even, to this very blog (which was conceived initially as a book of autobiographical reflections), to this whole process of reflecting and re-evaluating the place of songs in my life?  Hmmm… in some ways I think so: I hope that that is indeed what’s happening here, too – seeing and appreciating a song for what it is, sure, but also beyond it to its wider context of experiences and resonances that have shaped, continue to shape, our little lives, and how we see things.

 

50. THE SUN’S GONNA SHINE and STAYING IN THE SORROW – The Fisherfolk

Christians who want wide, rich, real worship expressions ignore the Psalter to their own great detriment – for within it are songs and prayers, rants and exultations, moans, lamentations, sighs of wonder and bafflement to cover most if not all human emotions. Like the News of the World’s old byline ‘All human life is there’; which is to say that the psalms help us somehow to encompass it all, and offer up in songs-of-a-kind all manner of reactions –adoring, angry and ambiguous, and the rest. This is relevant; bear with me.

Anyone who’s been part of an exciting community of believers (and this probably holds true for kinds of fellowships, fraternities and societies) will have known times of burgeoning and creativity, where solidarity is sweet, new experiences come thick and fast, and there’s a spring-like sense  of learning and newness, flow and fruition…and songs of joy and praise come easy and seem natural as breath. If they stick at it, they’ll also know times of quiet fallowness and consolidation; but then there’ll also be times of reduction, of ‘paring back’, times of challenge and disagreements, where once-simple comradeships seem complex and less secure, where disenchantments are expressed, old zeals diminished and where people change course, succumb to tragedy, or simply leave. There needs to be song-prayers for these occasions too, and perhaps that’s something which this pair of songs – never far away from my current playlists – continues to remind me.

Both these songs come from the Woodland Park Community, another expression of the Community of Celebration stemming from the historic renewal that took place at Houston’s Church of the Redeemer in the 1960s. While the U.K.-based Fisherfolk (the C of C’s touring/recording musical ministry teams) produced the great majority of recordings, the Colorado community’s ‘Fisherfolk’ produced three albums in the early 1980s. The first, ‘This is the Day’ reflects more of that early stage of community I mentioned – with songs of great joy, commitment and adoration. It’s a beautiful album. These two songs – both by Margo Farra – more later – come from the second and third albums, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’(1982)  and ‘Willing to Row’(1983). And although these albums are no less commendable and full of vibrant praise, their joy is undoubtedly tinged with more shadowy qualities – resignation, fortitude, consolations….that suggest, perhaps, a community of worship having to confront and embrace difficulties that make their sacrifice of praise all the more steely-real.

And so to the first of these songs, ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine’ which gives the album its title too. It ends the album, with Margo herself (I think?) taking the lead on her own self-penned lyrics. While it is indeed a song of hope and confirmation (the chorus: ‘The Sun’s gonna shine/ Just wait and see/ Spring’s gonna come/ I can feel it in me, can’t you?’), there’s an undeniable melancholy about it, underscored by the hypnotically repetitive melody lines, and explicit in its context – ‘Watching you go is the hardest thing I’ve ever done…’. There’s an elegiac quality to this (appropriate then that it was sung in Margo’s funeral some years later),  but more probably it’s about someone leaving community, breaking strong familial links forged over years of common spiritual struggle and friendship. The details in it make it sound an intensely personal song, yet for me it’s personal in the same way as David’s rawest psalms, which become ‘universal’ as cries and prayers we can all tap into. Like many a psalm, too, it traces a line through the sorrow and incomprehension to a kind of faith-intuition and acceptance (‘To find your life, you’ve got to lose your life, so you say/ Well that’s hard to believe, but in your life/ I see it working that way…’) and a further step, to the faith-declaration of the chorus, where other voices join, harmonizing, to swell out to something substantial.

Margo’s contribution to album three was also the closing track, and there’s something of a similar feel to it, and once again, a similar honest psalm-like quality to its plaint – ‘Staying in each other’s sorrow/ Bearing one another’s pain/ Sometimes I wonder/ If we’ll ever, ever laugh again..’ which hints at some of the sadnesses and challenges  the community was confronting in faithfully following their call. Once again, for most of the song the melodic range is repetitive, though in a haunting rather than a numbing way – and this time the lead vocal is given to Diane Davis Andrew whose sensitivity and precision give the sound a beautiful stark crispness. Lyrically here, even moreso than in ‘The sun’s gonna shine’, we have that psalmic note of yearning and enquiry – ‘Will we ever laugh..?’ –at one point ‘Sir, we’re here to ask you, will we ever…?’ The corresponding strain of faith, the answering response, comes in two ways: in a counter-song (taken up by the male vocalists) towards the end of the song, with the Lord’s promises and invitation to rest, peace, sustenance, healing… (‘Place your hurting hearts…in my love/ and let me warm them with my truth..’) and secondly in the more declarative hopeful tone of the last verse – sung now in unison, while Diane’s voice soars a joyous descant – Singing in the sorrow/ dancing in one another’s pain..’ and there’s something wonderful and slightly enigmatic about the final lines – ‘Because we asked the question/ our lives will never be the same..’ Not sure I fully comprehend it, but it sounds to me like an unapologetic endorsement of the way of life the community has chosen – despite sorrowful  difficulty, to live authentically with real-ness, asking questions of God (and of each other) and open to answers in ways that are literally life-changing.

I might not have recognized the beauty and worth of these two songs if they had not appeared at a time when my own awareness of church/community struggles and difficulties made them seem eminently applicable. Like I said at the start, we need songs for these stages in our communal experiences, and these fitted the bill. In a not dissimilar vein, I wrote some songs of my own at this time – ‘Calvary Love’, ‘We have a Saviour’, songs of a consolatory/encouraging tone. Perhaps Margo’s songs (and some of King David’s) helped me to find a voice.

Margo  Farra – perhaps someone should write the story of how the Farra tribe and spouses got touched by God in the destiny-shaping sweep of Spirit-renewal  at Houston… I never met Margo Farra in any of my visits to the Community of Celebration or various ‘Celebration Days’ in Dorset. But everything I’ve read and heard of her attests that not only was she well acquainted with grief – from childhood, through marriage difficulties, to her early death from cancer – but that she was an effervescent, creative character, with enormous vivacity alongside great pastoral sensitivity and warmth.  I wish I’d known her, but all I’ve known of her is these two songs, and I am more than grateful to her for them, for they have extended for me the Psalter, encouraging and enabling me to offer even the most painful experiences up in melodic prayer.

[Since completing this I’ve discovered a youtube clip containing Wiley Beveridge’s beautiful tribute to Margo, his song ‘ I will RememberYou’

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js7xvpj8MT4  ]

46. A SIMPLE SONG – from Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

Started singing this, this morning, while I was showering and changing after a swim at Merthyr Leisure Centre. What triggered it I can’t imagine. I haven’t thought of it in a long time.

Its place in the timeline of my music-life is easy to pinpoint: 1976, I’d just started my PGCE teacher’s training in Cardiff University and bought the LP in a wander-about-town, one lunchtime, on a total whim. The purchase of such an item hints quite strongly at a complex confluence of attractions: not just the exotic and (at that time, for me) alien appeal of a liturgical Eucharistic mass (as opposed to the distinctly low-key non-conformist ‘communion’ services) but also – what seems an incongrous alliance – the excitement of performance and of experimental  musical ‘theatre’– after all what I mainly knew of Bernstein was that he had created the great score for ‘West Side Story’. The liner notes suggested, too, an attempt to blend a variety of musical styles and traditions in this enterprise of re-interpreting ancient liturgy. And even then, 40 years ago, such attempts at a kind of artistic synchretism always appealed.

This song sort of opens the performance, or..no, it kind of breaks across a grander, more traditionally choral ‘false beginning’ to the Mass, and it speaks to yet another internal impulse within this worshipper. I’m not sure whether, by this time, we’d discovered the simpler worship music songs of John Wimber and Vineyard; I’m pretty sure I hadn’t yet discovered Taize or (even later) John Bell/ Wild Goose Worship chants, but the longing for less-cluttered expressions, to balance wordier, more cerebral hymnody, was certainly there. [Of course we were becoming familiar with songs emanating from the house-church movement, many of which meditated on single phrases: ‘Jesus/ He died/He rose’.. etc.. And many of the songs coming from the charismatic movement eg. Fisherfolk/Church of the Redeemer songs were both ‘simple’ (Consider their famous ‘8-fold Alleluia’) and frequently open-ended in a way that encouraged improvisation (‘Come into his presence singing’.. and Max Dyer’s work song ‘Pulling the Weeds’, and  Diane Davis’s artless-timeless’Thank you Lord’ and many more…)]

So yes, this song eloquently addresses that need: along with ‘simplicity’, an invitation also to  improvisation. ‘Sing like you like to sing/God loves all simple things/For God is the simplest of all.’ There’s truth in this. Of course, there’s a quaint and obvious irony  in the song’s premise – ‘Sing God a simple song/Lauda laude/Make it up as you go along…’ – that this is a constructed casualness, only apparently improvisational (ars celare artem!): this ‘simple song’ is of course exquisitely and consciously crafted by a master musician’s skilful artistry.

I’ve only ever seen Bernstein’s Mass performed on one occasion (in Cardiff’s St David’s Hall – beautiful but often criticised for poor acoustics) and found it on the one hand a bold and exciting project and on the other a little awkward in overall construction and ultimately not totally satisfying. Still, the ‘simple song’ has stuck with me, as a song and I suppose as a concept – and it was a nice surprise to find, since it came popping up out of my head this morning, that it must have taken some kind of root in this little brain; and this heart still thrills to ‘make it up as you go along’ and sing out semi-improvised Laudas and Laudes to its God.

39. CONFITEMINI DOMINO – Taize

I was first introduced to Taize chants – and it was this one, in fact – in a fairly unusual setting. In 1988 I attended a weekend conference on ‘The Early Church’ run by the London Mennonite Centre and held at their lovely place in Highgate. The directors of the centre, Alan and Eleanor Kreider led the teaching (in the most collaborative manner I’d ever seen, incidentally) and also led the worship – which was low-key in some ways, but consisted of a few songs unfamiliar to me, most of which were apparently based on first or second century hymns, of course. Eleanor Kreider has actually written a couple of books about worship, and how to ‘put it together’; she is keen to see us drawing on diverse traditions so that we compile rich, colourful worship experiences.  And anyway, they included this Taize chant in the mix.

I’d never heard of Taize. I knew nothing. But this was something different for me: the novelty, perhaps, of singing in Latin, but the ‘release’ of it, too – singing a simple encouragement/truth/ affirmation/acclamation (Trust in the Lord who is good – Alleluia) repetitiously, quietly, insistently without histrionics. Even then I’d read enough Merton and Nouwen to be familiar with the idea of prayer ‘descending from the mouth to the heart’ and I felt that this kind of chant was another way to help this happen.

I was well aware, too, I think, that some of my fellow believers would roll their eyes at this kind of thing and consider that it was just a way for Christians to do a bit of suspect mind-emptying, a bit of transcendental ‘om’ing, for the sheer brainless trendiness of it. But oh no no no, it felt far more substantial a form of worship-vehicle than that. So I persisted and explored.

I was very excited to get my first Taize cassette tape (containing this song, in fact) from the Catholic bookshop in Cardiff. My developmentally challenged friend Dean Anthony Paul Lloyd was with me, and, looking back – I feel sorry for him having to listen to repetitious Latin chants all the way home in the car. In fact, while we’re at it, I really need to issue a broader apology – to Sue, to the kids, to anyone who shared a car with me in the heady days of that new enthusiasm. What for me was a moving worship experience might well have seemed an interminably monotonous piece of pseudo-religiosity to them, and in no sense appropriate driving music! OK now and sadly only now, I’m aware of how insensitive and selfish I was – sorry guys, and tell your psychoanalysts I’m sorry too.

One revelation, for me, of the recordings on the cassette, was the way that a short chant like this could live and breathe and sustain itself for (eg) ten minutes or more, through a series of ‘constructed progressions’. It was not formulaic, and differed from song to song, but it could go something like this – first few times unaccompanied four part harmonies (this sustained throughout), next couple with a bit of quiet organ, a couple with other instruments quietly bringing in a counter-melody; next time with stronger voice; then with a solo violin over the top; the next with an added flute highlighting the counter melody; then softer voices; then back to whispered unaccompanied…and suddenly you’ve sung it sixteen or seventeen times. You get the picture – there’s a certain conscious choreography effecting  a cumulative intensity and – perhaps surprisingly to us Wesleyan hymnsingers – a depth of appreciation and awareness, that makes each chant more than mere ‘vain repetition’.

These days, Taize songs have ‘taken their rightful place’ in the canon of modern worship resources. Many churches have monthly ‘Taize services’ (and since we’re on the subject I’ll say a thank you to Rebecca HC who led some while they were with us) – in acknowledgement, perhaps, of the need to worship, sometimes, without the encumbrance of too much wordiness… Thank you Lord for Jacques Berthier, and for Taize and its witness and ministry. And, o my poor little song-obsessed soul ‘Trust in the Lord – who is good’. This is such a lovely song to sing…join me now..Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus… Alleluia!

37. I’D LIKE TO SIT YOU DOWN – The Fisherfolk

Well, yes, Fisherfolk, but also in a special way Patricia Allen of the Fisherfolk. There are two possible approaches here: I could start by writing about Pat Allen, but this feels like holy ground, and I need to tread carefully and thoughtfully.

So let’s start anecdotally, with my first – miraculous? life-changing? – flesh and blood encounters with the Community of Celebration. It was the summer holiday in between leaving my two year job with the civil service and starting PGCE Teachers’ Training, 1976, and I decided to travel around Scotland for three weeks on a ‘Freedom of Scotland’ Rail Card. There were several exciting, beautiful, funny and interesting parts to this journey – but, arriving at Edinburgh, I encountered for the first time the amazing Festival, and decided I could spare the city a few days , at least! Even then (!) the variety and breadth of Festival and Fringe events were overwhelming – my first Chekhov – RSC’s ‘The Three Sisters’ (with Ian McKellan, I recall!) , part of the ‘official festival’, blew me away. In amongst all the posters on the Golden Mile, I chanced upon one (or more?) for ‘The Fisherfolk’ – featuring in a variety of events  – a cafe/bar concert of songs; a Eucharistic celebration featuring one of Betty Pulkingham’s Eucharistic settings; and…a brand new musical entitled ‘Ah! There’s the Celebration!’

So indeed and of course, I soaked up whatever of these events I could – discovering in the process that, news to me, the Community of Celebration had relocated to Scotland, a little island called Cumbrae, just off the West Coast. The musical, held in a church  just off ‘the Mile’, featured some great songs built around the concept of a ‘family’( ie a community of Christian believers) refusing to conform to life-as-a-game-of-monopoly, subverting it by resisting opportunities to act acquisitively or competitively, instead offering sharing and kindness. Memorably the Games-master ‘Dev’ (played by David Gustafson) shouts in frustration ‘Jesus Christ! Read them the rules!’ at which point Mikel Kennedy – present throughout the action , with his guitar, as Jesus-on-a-stepladder, begins to recite some of the Sermon on the Mount. If I’ve made it sound crass or comical, it wasn’t. It was, in fact, powerful stuff. Pat Allen (and Martha Barker)’s song ‘I’d Like to Sit You Down’ beautifully exemplifies this non-competitive subversively compassionate behaviour. It’s both a reflection of Christ’s compassion for the world and a manifesto for the servant heart of a Christlike church – ‘Your feet are so weary/ From walking through problems much too big for you/ I’d like to sit you down/ Gently wrap a towel around/ And bathe your feet with my tears..’This song, like so many of Pat Allen’s, is a unique hybrid – part Broadway musical song in structure, part holy anthem. Nothing derivative or formulaic or stereotypical about this kind of Christian song; and I was deeply moved. Later in my journey I  chased up the Community to their home, centred around the Cathedral of the Isles on the Island of Cumbrae, got to meet Bill Farra, spent a night there, and was hooked for life. The following year I spent a whole week there.

Pat Allen, Pat Allen… Even on a purely vocal level there was something special there. While she seems to have been around quite close to the start of the music ministry (check out the late sixties’ ‘Keyhole’ albums, from the Houston coffeehouse ministry) her voice seems to have been used fairly sparingly – one of the earliest I recall is Betty Pullkingham’s ‘Bless thou the Lord’ psalm setting, where Pat sings the verses; then there’s her chillingly incisive rendition of the traditional ‘Mary had a Baby’ on a rather more choral album. It was a voice that uniquely melded both purity and warmth.

Her compositions, though, as I’ve said, were unusually theatrical – the still haunting composition ‘They have no Wine’ was probably our first taste of this, on the ‘On Tiptoe’ album. Then ‘The Carpenter’s Song’ (also featured in that same Fringe Musical in 1976) – a boldly human love song to the God-man Jesus. But she also had a deft touch with psalms – her setting/interpretation of ‘The Snare is Broken’ and her achingly beautiful setting of Daniel Berrigan’s rewriting of Psalm 131 – ‘May I to my Lord Hasten..’. All gorgeous.

If I ‘met’ her on my two visits to the community at Cumbrae, I never got a chance to chat. I do recall, however, a luminously peaceful smile; I also recall her giving someone a friendly back massage during one of the community meetings.. In the regular newsletters I began to receive from the Community in the late seventies, early eighties, it became clear that Pat was obeying a perceived call to a more solitary, contemplative life – within the community (I believe some kind of hut was discovered and employed within Cathedral grounds, where Pat could entertain visitors who came for prayer,  counsel, spiritual direction.) Sometime later I read she’d felt a call to live in Israel. Later still that she’d joined a Catholic Order of sisters there, and, just a couple of years ago, that she’d died there.

The existing Community of Celebration (with help, I suspect, from those many who’d left, been dispersed to other fruitful lives, but who cared, and wanted to honour how Pat has touched their lives) had the good sense to release a posthumous collection of her songs, and truth be told, I treasure this CD above most in my voluminous collection. And alongside the many new-to-me treasures unearthed, and amongst the old songs, this one, (co-written I believe with Martha Keyes-Barker) shines brightly as a statement of her own giving heart; and as a clear, quirkily unique colourful testimony to the Father’s goodness, the sacrificial grace of the Son, the mysterious and life-giving energy of the Spirit.