Jan Berry had never thought of herself as a hymn writer. As a writer of prayers she had contributed to numerous published anthologies and, as a minister and academic, she had written about liturgy and ritual. Only very occasionally had she turned to hymns to express her belief and to reflect Christian experience.
But then came the ‘hymns for healing’ project.
In 2009, Jan became Director of the Centre for the study of Theology and Health at Holy Rood House in Thirsk. Holy Rood describes itself as “a centre, a home and a community… a charity with a gentle Christian ethos, providing safer space for those of us who are finding life unsafe”. Jan says that, as a centre that offers therapy and counselling to those who feel vulnerable and broken, Holy Rood is a place where the ministry of healing is central.
But what kind of healing? Jan began thinking widely about our understanding of healing and, encouraged by Andrew Pratt, himself a prolific hymn writer and her colleague in the Partnership for Theological Education in Manchester, she established a three-year project that would explore the hymns we sing in relation to the idea of healing.
“I wanted to think about healing in a very holistic sense”, Jan says. “Not in the sense of ‘if you pray hard enough, God will make you better’ but about healing in other ways such as care in the community.”
In Thirsk, Jan gathered together groups three or four times a year for discussions and creative workshops. Experienced hymn makers joined them, both writers and musicians, and they would focus on certain topics and guide the creation of new hymns, tunes, chants and other resources for singing in worship.
Why did Jan feel that there was a need to add to the wealth of hymns already available in Singing the Faith and the hundreds of other published hymn books and collections, many of which sing of God’s ability to heal us?
Because, she says, much of what we sing about healing assumes a straightforward exchange between God and those who feel a need for healing. In faith we ask for healing and God delivers the goods. We assume what Jan calls “an interventionist God and a very direct model of healing”. However, Jan says that, in the experience of many, this isn’t how it is.
“What we found as we talked was that a lot of people when in distress or facing bereavement turn to hymns. They find comfort in hymns – the familiarity of their words and tunes speaks to them. At the same time, there is very little material that responds to the fact that many of us do not experience healing in that direct ‘I am cured’ way. For many, healing is about a sense of presence; it is gradual. And there may be no sense of resolution.”
The hymn writer John Bell spoke to one Thirsk gathering of “our need to bring hymns round to a note of hope and resolution. He said that sometimes we have to stay in the depths and acknowledge them. It was very challenging.”
John Bell’s own response to the death of a child, We cannot care for you the way we wanted (StF 740), is a good example of this approach. So is Andrew Pratt’s Tectonic plates beneath the ocean’s surface. “The whole idea of disability and natural disasters”, Jan muses, “where it does not look as if there is any healing at all… How do we speak about healing in these situations?” As Tim Hughes acknowledges (StF 632), many of us have “had questions without answers”.
It is a theme echoed in Jan’s own hymn, Deep in the darkness a starlight is gleaming (StF 625). Even though the journey she describes here is sustained by Christian hope, nevertheless at the end of the hymn the journey through dark times is still continuing: we have not yet reached “the brightness of day”.
The ‘healing and hymns’ project has resulted in the creation of some 50 or more new hymns and worship resources, which tackle the topic of healing from a number of angles.
“The majority of hymns in our books were written before new medical technologies had developed. There’s a need to take on board new developments in medicine, technology and our knowledge of genetics. And there’s the healing of relationships and the healing of the earth…”: In her “Hymn for earth’s healing”, written originally for use at the Greenbelt festival, Jan writes:
We weep for an earth that’s in need of God’s healing,
the oceans that roar and the rivers that cry,
we search for solutions, and shout out our questions,
to God who commands us to look to the sky.
Jan Berry’s experience has been that our published and authorised hymn books, however, recent, are never the last word in what hymns have to offer on this or any other subject. She herself reckons that she has brought about 30 hymns to final form (some of them published in the United Reformed Church publication Naming God) and, where time and opportunity allow and inspire, there will be more. To draw on words from her own hymn “for Holy Rood House” (2009), Jan is a writer who sings “of a hope that is flourishing in us, / shaping our lives into all they might be”.