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Web Worship

Web Worship

Monday September 16

Iain McLarty travelled all over Scotland recording church musicians for a new online hymn resource. He explains why the project was needed, and how we can develop the use of music in our churches.


Congregational singing has always been at the heart of worship in the Church of Scotland.

While other denominations share a common identity through liturgies or prayer, we have always defined ourselves by what we sing. For centuries after the Reformation this was restricted to unaccompanied metrical psalms and paraphrases, but from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards there were increasing influences from a wide range of international and ecumenical sources. With the publication of the Church Hymnary 4th edition (CH4) in 2005 it was possible to see the diversity of what we now sing. It includes songs from every continent, written in many different languages, in a multitude of musical styles, and from almost every strand of world Christianity.

While many congregations have enjoyed exploring the range of new songs available to them in CH4, it is also natural that most still have many songs in the book which they have never sung. Over the last few years the Church of Scotland’s Mission and Discipleship Council received regular requests for complete recordings to help people hear songs they didn’t know. Given the time and expense involved in producing just a single album with twenty songs, the idea of producing over forty of these was an impossible task. However, we were determined to find a way to respond to this request. Ideas such as crowdsourcing a recording by asking churches to post themselves singing hymns on YouTube fell down on legal grounds. However, eventually we resolved to create a webpage with short audio samples of every song.

One of the key things which we decided right from the beginning was that the majority of the recordings should not be by professional recording artists but instead by the dedicated singers and musicians who lead the music in churches across the country every week. If someone wants to know whether a song is practical for their church band for example, then it’s much more useful to hear it played by a similar group from somewhere else in Scotland than to listen to the commercial recording by a worship leader from a megachurch in the States. Luckily we had a head start on this due to various sampler CDs which were made when CH4 was first published. Along with recordings of singing at the General Assembly and a partnership with the Wild Goose Resource Group, this provided recordings of about a quarter of the over 850 different musical items in the book.

The rest needed to be recorded specifically for this project and over a two year period I travelled the length and breadth of Scotland, visiting churches in Arbroath, Dunblane, Dunfermline, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Haddington, Largs, Longniddry, Inverness, Kingussie, and Stonehaven. Recordings were made of all sorts of different groups, solo singers, choirs, worship bands, and even a mini orchestra! For me some of the most exciting sessions were when musicians from nearby congregations came together and discovered what they had in common as well as learning songs from the other group. I was also always delighted when a group recorded a song or an alternative tune which they had never sung before and decided it was something worth getting their congregation to learn.

The website was launched at the General Assembly in May and we are gradually adding functionality to it. One of the things which gave me the energy to keep going during such a long project was hearing the different ideas people had for developing the resource beyond the basic concept. In particular we are very grateful to the Rev Dr Douglas Galbraith who used his encyclopaedic knowledge of church music to provide a note about the context of every song, and to Sanctus Media which developed the website and came up with the idea of playlists, a feature which will be launching soon and which will allow the website to be very interactive.

It’s important to say that while this project is to help people use a pre-existing publication, it is not intended to make people look backwards in their use of music. For me it is one of three things we have to be doing to develop the use of music in our churches and help it to deepen our worship:

• We have to make the best use of the resources we have available and this is where this new website can help. We can sing songs we know in new and unexpected ways, we can rediscover old songs which have been lost from our repertoire, and we can learn songs which are part of other people’s tradition but which are new to us.

• We have to sing new songs that have been written in the last few years. It is 14 years since CH4 was published and my definition of ‘contemporary music’ is that it has to have been written within the lifetime of any adult (ie within the last 18 years). By that definition almost none of the songs in CH4 are contemporary, so while they are still worth singing, we need to be supplementing them with new songs.

• We have to encourage people to write songs which speak into their local context.

I am often inspired by the reflection of the Mennonite mediator John Paul Lederach on what the creation story tells us about human nature. He says that if we are made in God’s image then the only thing we know from that story is that we are all creative and it would be wonderful to see that creativity encouraged more in songwriting.

The resource is available at music.churchofscotland.org.uk