A couple of weeks ago, I took a trip up to Keswick for a few days during the final week of the Keswick Convention. I often try to get to the event and have spent many happy hours there. When I’d only been a Christian for a few years, I found it a great encouragement and help. I suppose my first visit would have been around 1993. At that time, the Keswick hymn books had just dropped out of use and the words to hymns were printed in the centre of the programme, with books being available on request. Around 1994 or 1995, TV screens were introduced around the main tent displaying hymn words (amidst much complaining) and paper texts were dropped.
On my earliest visit, I guess that a large proportion of the hymns sung were still of the traditional type. Gradually, this has changed, so that now, only maybe one in every ten songs sung is a traditional hymn. Until its demise a couple of years ago, the FIEC annual conference – originally held in Caister, Norfolk, but latterly in Pwhelli, North Wales – went the same way. Over the ten years I visited that event, we went from around 90% traditional to 90% contemporary worship songs. I must say that this state of affairs really saddens me. And especially at Keswick this year, there seemed to be a sad kind of irony going on too. Let me explain.
The worship was led by Stuart Townend and the band Phatfish. On just about every piece of literature… book, CD, poster etc., wherever Townend’s name was seen, it was followed by the words ‘writer of “In Christ Alone”’ You may think there’s nothing strange in this, but I found it odd that just about everyone I spoke to about the song came out with a comment such as; ‘isn’t it wonderful to get back to a song with some proper theological content?’ I kept thinking; ‘Yes, and a modern worship song which sounds like an old, traditional hymn!’
So here’s the irony: we already had thousands of hymns just like this one, and yet Keswick, along with churches everywhere, is throwing them out in bucket-loads. It’s been said that it only takes one generation of neglect for a traditional hymn to be forgotten. I would guess that we’re neglecting 99% of our wonderful heritage of hymnody, replacing it (with odd exceptions such as the song mentioned above) with inferior music and words. And I could weep.