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‘NZ hymn writers world class’ – visiting scholar

By Paul Titus

A rich body of locally-written hymns that reflect the concerns and experiences of New Zealanders is a resource to be treasured and one that is of increasing interest to congregations overseas.

This is the view of American professor of church music Dr Deborah Carlton Loftis, who carried out a research here late last year. Deborah teaches hymnology at the independent Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, Virginia.

“On a previous visit to New Zealand I met some of your hymn writers – Shirley Murray, Colin Gibson and Bill Wallace. On this trip I am visiting congregations to see how they make use of the new hymns that are being produced here.

“I continue to be impressed with the quality of the poetic texts, depth of meaning, and vivid picture of New Zealand present in these hymns. They are very different than hymns written in the US, even those without Maori words and fern trees in them.”

Deborah says the number and quality of hymns produced here is remarkable given the small number of percentage of Kiwis who attend church. Most are written by Protestant hymn writers, who come from liberal, Pakeha, middle class backgrounds.

She identifies three main types of NZ hymns:

1) Seasonal hymns that match the Christian calendar with the seasons of the southern hemisphere. These are primarily hymns with summer themes for Christmas and autumnal themes for Easter.

2) Hymns that evoke the landscape of Aotearoa New Zealand. Images of the koru, fern trees, the Dolphin Christ, the sea, the mountains convey a very vivid picture of this land.

3) Hymns that focus on how to live the Gospel now. These songs have themes of peace, justice, and inclusiveness. Among the hymns in this category she includes ‘Touch the Earth Lightly’ by Shirley Murray and ‘A Place at the Table’ by Colin Gibson.

“These hymns are being adopted primarily by Pakeha Methodist and Presbyterian congregations. Some Anglican and some Baptist congregations are using them. Catholics I spoke with in Auckland were struggling to figure how to fit them into their liturgy. “Pacific congregations do not use them. Rather they sing hymns based on scriptures or well-loved hymns from previous generations,” Deborah says.

She cites Rev Rob Ferguson, who argues the contemporary rise in local hymn writing began in the 1970s and paralleled the experience this country was going through as it began to give up its colonial past.

“People began to grapple with what it meant to be New Zealanders and honouring it. They were finding their own voice in world matters and it wasn’t European or American. They were discovering their own culture and society. There was a desire to contextualise all this in worship.”

Despite the South Pacific content of Kiwi hymns, Deborah says they are developing a following overseas. They speak to many American congregations and their texts are helpful in their worship.

In general terms Deborah says all ministers find there is some degree of difficulty in teaching new hymns to their congregations. It requires persistence and repetition to get new hymns added to a repertoire.

“Some congregations are more resistant to new hymns, and some expect to sing new stuff. It helps to introduce new hymns a little at a time. It can also help to play a new hymn through the first time without singing it.

“It is the tune rather the words that is the difficult thing to learn. Congregations learn tunes that are accessible more quickly. If a hymn has a beautiful pairing of new words with a tune that works, it will be accepted readily.”

Deborah praises the work the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust has done in promoting and disseminating home-grown hymns. She says the body of hymnity it publishes are church treasures. They can be used for singing or prayer or read at home for inspiration.