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New Zealand Hymnbook Trust: Voice in the wilderness becomes home-grown success

By Paul Titus

A group no hopers who became best sellers is how founding chairperson the Very Rev John Murray describes the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust.

The driving force of the Trust is to publish contemporary Christian hymns and songs by and for New Zealanders. In the last decade it has produced two books of hymns and a book of Christmas carols as well as several recordings of those works.

The origins of the Trust lie in the 1960s when attitudes about society, politics and theology underwent a major shift. New Zealand churches were still using hymnbooks published pre-1930, John says, and there was nothing in the musical repertoire to reflect the world of social protest, ecumenical encounters, and our bicultural community.

He and some other like-minded people put a proposal to the Joint Commission on Church Union for an indigenous hymnbook as a way to promote ecumenical worship. The Commission turned them down.

John says the setback was disappointing but was an act of God because it enabled the group to be as ecumenical and contemporary as it liked without deferring constantly to structures of the churches.

Even when the NZ Hymnbook Trust was eventually established with the support of the five mainline Protestant churches – Anglican, Baptist, Associated Churches of Christ, Methodist and Presbyterian – it was able choose its own editorial board rather than take nominations from the churches.

The first project of the Trust was to compile hymns for a New Zealand supplement in a 1977 Australian hymnal – With One Voice. It then turned its attention to producing an authentic New Zealand collection, published in 1993 under the title Alleluia Aotearoa.

John says the editorial board set four criteria for the hymns to be included in Alleluia Aotearoa:

“One was they had to be ecumenical, and not follow any denominational line. This is unique to New Zealand because the main denominations in the US, England, and Australia hymnbooks produce their own hymnals.

“Second was that they had to be contemporary. We didn’t want ‘he’ used to refer to God or images of God as lord or king. We wanted a theology and an imagery that was rooted in our own environment.

“Third, they were to be home-grown, all music and words written by New Zealanders. We seldom capitulated on this point though some songs have either the music or the words written by people overseas.

“The fourth guideline was the music had to be congregational, that is aimed at people singing in Sunday morning congregations. It’s not for choirs, solo artists or Pentecostal style rock bands.”

Alleluia Aotearoa was a struggle to produce. Funded largely by a PAC grant from the Methodist Church, the NZ Hymnbook Trust published it themselves. Because they did not use a commercial publisher, however, it could be sold at a reasonable price and all profits returned to the Trust.

John says while it contains the work of a number of good writers and musicians, Alleluia Aotearoa succeeded because of the work of two particularly gifted people, his wife Shirley and Colin Gibson. “These two special people gave it a world-class quality.”

Shirley Murray says she benefited from the supportive environment at the congregation she attended, St Andrews on the Terrace, Wellington. It welcomed experiment so she could try out different approaches.

“The book was a learning process but we were able to break through barriers and people’s desires for comfort to produce some works with new words and new tunes. Some people still prefer the traditional hymns but I like to point out that every hymn was a new hymn once.

“The text is very important because if you don’t have words with integrity of theology it is pointless to write new music,” Shirley says.

After the success of its first endeavour, the Trust produced its book of NZ Christmas carols in 1996. While John wanted to call it ‘An Upside Down Christmas’, it ended up with the title Carol our Christmas.

It reflects a southern hemisphere perspective on Christmas with local images such as pohutukawa and rata blossoms and themes of birth and new beginnings generally associated with Easter in the northern hemisphere.

The third book the Trust published was another hymnal, Faith Forever Singing. Published in 2000 its theme is new hymns for a new millennium. John says the success of the first hymnal stimulated a creative pool of talent and there were many more submissions for the second book.

Along with the books, the Trust has produced three recordings of hymns, one from each of the three hymnbooks. And in conjunction with the Decade to Overcome Violence, it has produced He Came Singing Peace, a selection of its best hymns on peace and non-violence.

After leading the Trust for 30 years, John has retired from his leadership spot and his position on the editorial board. The new chairperson of the NZ Hymnbook Trust is John Thornley and the contact details are now:

The New Zealand Hymnbook Trust

P.O. Box 4142, Manawatu Mail Centre

Ph: 06 356 9681, Fax: 06 356 9687