Anna Briggs is a challenging, prize-winning hymn writer with a capacity for making us look at God and ourselves in fresh ways. Part 1 of StF+’s look at some of her work explains how she began to write hymns in the first place.
The American pastor and preacher A.W. Tozer once wrote that “Christians do not tell lies, they just go to church and sing them”.
Anna Briggs would understand Tozer’s implicit challenge to all who write hymns as well as those who sing them. She argues that when we fall back into familiar phrases (clichés, perhaps) we are not being honest about the daily realities of Christian faith and experience. Honesty is a mark of her own hymn texts. In hymns such as We lay our broken world in sorrow at your feet (StF 718) she consciously seeks to “avoid being hymnic”. The art of hymn writing, she says, “is to use your own language poetically”. This In clear, fresh language, Anna helps us to sing about our vulnerability, physicality and uncertainty.
Anna, originally from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, has lived in Canada, where she studied at the Toronto School of Theology, and also spent many years living in Liverpool. A long-time member of the Iona Community, Anna wrote her first hymn while planning a worship service to take place in Iona Abbey. She had been inspired by a Welsh hymn tune, Sarah, sung by a visiting Welsh group – but felt less comfortable with the words, “all about the blood of the lamb”. There was (and is) a culture of writing hymns in the Iona Community (Singing the Faith contributors John Bell, Graham Maule, Kathy Galloway and Douglas Galbraith are all members of the community, as was the late Leith Fisher). “If there isn’t a hymn for the moment,” says Anna, “you write one – or two!” The hymn she wrote on this occasion was “We lay our broken world”.
Over the years, the directness and capacity for fresh imagery already evident in that hymn, has produced many more texts that could be better known, including her prize winning Hymn for the Church commissioned by the Anglican Church of Canada. Here she images the persons of the Trinity, which Christians address in order to help them understand the nature and facets of God, in sometimes surprising ways: as writer, Author and Word; as filler, Baker and Bread; as lover, Healer and Healed. Of the Church itself she concludes:
One voice alone is ragged,
Together we are strong;
We praise your name, who breathe us,
The Singer and the Song.