Hymn singing – the way it used to be – has not entirely disappeared from the face of Metro Vancouver. In fact, hymn singing traditions are emerging as congenial alternatives to the contemporary worship music that prevails in many churches.
Two such examples are:
- The Sweet Hour of Prayer Hymn Festival set for this Saturday (June 14) at 7:30 pm in Evangelical Chinese Bible Church, 5110 Marine Drive in Burnaby.
- Hymn Reflections, a monthly event at Legacy Nazarene Church in Surrey, at 160th Avenue and 90th Street, opposite Elim Village. A ‘Nostalgic Evening with Jerry Nelson on Piano’ is up June 29.
These events cater to an older demographic, who remember how it used to be, when Sunday worship featured choral and congregational four-part singing out of hymn books carrying full musical scores. The instruments used were pipe or pipe-sounding organs, grand pianos, sometimes supplemented by violins, trumpets, flutes and saxophones – but no drums, guitars or cymbals.
This Saturday’s event draws much of its strength from Vancouver’s Chinese Christian community. Its sponsor is Church Music Ministry of Canada, which has been presenting such evenings twice a year for close to a decade.
It grew out of an earlier initiative by the late David Lam, former lieutenant-governor of British Columbia, who was an active Baptist layperson and philanthropist. In retirement, Lam built considerable interest in hymn-singing, mostly in the Chinese community (though he and his late wife, Dorothy, worshipped in the then-mainly-Caucasian Oakridge Baptist Church).
Church Music Ministry of Canada works in partnership with ethnically-diverse Carey Institute, an arm of Baptist-rooted Carey Theological College at UBC, in providing an expanding educational program in traditional Christian congregational music forms. For example, Carey recently put on a three-part Psalms For All Ages series.
(And over at Regent College, Bruce Hindmarsh will speak on Hymns and the Christian Spirit: A Short History of Song and Devotion, July 9.)
Sweet Hour of Prayer will be hosted by Ben Chan and Elaine Chu. The singing will be conducted by Herbert Tsang, who, among other things, is music director at Chown Memorial and Chinese United Church, which meets in a commodious sanctuary on Cambie Street in Vancouver.
Herbert is happy to affirm the quote he gave to Mennonite Brethren Herald writer Helen Rose Pauls, during a 2005 interview:
“Excellence is never an accident,” he said. “It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction, skilful execution and vision. Seeking excellence in music is the kind of attitude we need in today’s church.” He said that one choir member emailed him after a Sunday performance to say that, at 23, she had not been interested in hymns. But after that weekend she said that she understood what he meant at their first choir practice when he had told them that “hymn is hip.”
Hymn Reflections, for its part, draws its inspiration from Roy Hepworth, of Legacy Church, and Henry Ewart, who some oldtimers will remember was music director at Evangelistic Tabernacle, a large church that served from 10th Avenue and Quebec Street. (The ET building was converted into condominiums about 20 years ago; the congregation developed Cariboo Road Christian Fellowship in Burnaby.)
This reporter and his wife, Edna, being aficionados of gospel and traditional music, took in one of these Reflection evenings earlier this year. About 200 people were present – a crowd which we understand had grown from about two dozen a couple of years ago.
The hymns were sung from Legacy’s pew hymn books. Ewart, meticulous in his timing, made note of the scripture verse prefacing each hymn in the text. So, while there was no sermon, a biblical theme was developed throughout the event. Coffee and sandwiches were available after the session.
Most everyone at the event seemed 45 plus in age. The voices were strong and the harmony was good, closely following the hymn book music.
It is not likely coincidental that the venue for the event is across from Elim Village, a large Christian-rooted seniors complex. A similar event takes place frequently at Clearbrook MB Church in Abbotsford, located in the shadow of another large Christian seniors complex, Garden Park Tower on Clearbrook Road.