‘Hymns drop off top 10 funeral music choices in favour of Ed Sheeran’ screams the title of an article in the Guardian reporting data from a Co-op Funeralcare survey. The article says:
Hymns such as ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ and ‘Abide with me’ – previously strong contenders in the funeral chart – have been elbowed aside as Sheeran and Westlife are catapulted to the top.
Those regularly taking funerals will have seen this coming for a long time, but the survey, which has been conducted biennially since 2002, is an important marker. The Top 10 may not reflect everybody’s choice of funeral music, but there is no denying the popularity of the songs within it. It is a barometer which focuses minds on how effectively the Church is fulfilling its calling to engage with culture, especially the culture beyond the church doors. This question is all the more pressing when taking into account the fact that less people are turning to the Church for baptisms, weddings and funerals, all of which have traditionally been ways that churches have kept in touch with cultural streams deep within society. In 2017, Church of England ministers conducted 6,000 less funerals than in 2016, continuing a decline that has been happening over a number of years. So,what is the significance of this changing of musical preferences at funerals? Furthermore, what are the lessons from this and how can the Church respond? We begin by considering the significance of the changing musical preferences.
First, although the Guardian article reports the facts accurately, a misleading title obscures something important. The sentence ‘Hymns drop off top 10 funeral music choices in favour of Ed Sheeran’ makes an unfavourable comparison between the singing of ‘hymns’ with Ed Sheeran’s music. Such a comparison takes no account of the fact that many funeral congregations do not sing hymns because they do not know them and are not accustomed to singing them. It is understandable that in the middle of grief, mourners would prefer to listen to Ed Sheeran with his moving song, ‘Supermarket flowers’, written after the death of his grandmother, rather than embark on the painful struggle to sing a hymn which people cannot sing and do not know. Hymns do not speak to people as they used to because many are not familiar with them. To the vast majority of the population hymns are alien.
Secondly, a number of the songs do have a theology and spirituality which are speaking to mourners in the middle of their grief. Let’s look at three. Returning to ‘Supermarket flowers’ (number 6 in the list), the song paints the singer’s grief and how much he misses his ‘mum’ (whom he substitutes for his grandmother) and then come the words, ‘So I’ll sing Hallelujah…Spread your wings as you go/And when God takes you back we’ll say Hallelujah/You’re home.’ Going ‘home’ to be with God after death is a commonly held Christian belief. ‘Spread your wings’ implies new life and new beginnings which lie at the heart of the Easter message.
Another (number 8) in the top 10 is Westlife’s, ‘You raise me up,’ which has found its way into some churches as a worship song and is an example of how popular songs can move between church and society. The song was originally written as an instrumental piece by Norwegian composer Rolf Løvland and the lyrics written by Irish songwriter Brendan Graham. It was first performed by Løvland at his mother’s funeral where he noted, ‘There’s something about the song that people are embracing – which becomes emotionally strong.’ Firstly, the emotional scenery is painted, ‘When I am down, and, oh, my soul, so weary/When troubles come, and my heart burdened be…’ Then comes a shout of triumph:
You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains
You raise me up to walk on stormy seas
I am strong when I am on your shoulders
You raise me up to more than I can be.
It is not clear to whom the ‘you’ referred when it was first written, but the quality of good song-writing is that the singer/listener can interpret it themselves and for the Christian the possibility that it could refer to God hardly needs pointing out. So here is another popular song with a clear theology and spirituality.
The third song for consideration is Bette Midler’s ‘Wind beneath my wings’ (number 4). Written in 1982, the song shot to fame in 1988 when Midler sang it as the theme song to the film ‘Beaches.’ The film charts the story of two women whose tumultuous friendship lasts 30 years. ‘Wind beneath my wings’ is sung, in the background, after one of the friends dies. The song reflects the dynamics of the two friends with the surviving friend (played by Bette Midler) recognising that she had been self-centred in her relationship and regretting that she had neglected her friend:
So I was the one with all the glory
You were the one with all the strength….
I can fly higher than an eagle
For you are the wind beneath my wings.
This song does not point to God in the same way as the previous songs, but picks up the grief and guilt felt by the bereaved friend/partner: grief because of her loss; guilt because she believed she flourished at the expense of her friend’s flourishing. Many will identify with these sentiments. Such guilt, eloquently expressed in this song, is not uncommon in bereavement.
As already indicated, when these songs are chosen at funerals instead of the hymns and worship songs, it is because traditional congregational song is not known by the bereaved or, even if it is, then the words and music do not speak to them. What can the Church learn from this?
First, viewed together, the Top 10 choices for funeral music and the reduction in the number of funerals conducted by Christian ministers are reminders that the Church is less effective in speaking into culture. In general, church attendance is declining. The Church is undertaking some good initiatives to increase its membership, but, apart from some creative work being done by the Mission Theology Advisory Group. I am unaware of national church initiatives engaging with culture.
Secondly, the Church needs to look carefully at the songs people are requesting at weddings and funerals to discover what they say about God, the world and humanity. The songs would be an excellent basis for study groups in churches, drawing out from people why they are so popular and what they say about belief. What is the theology and spirituality beneath these songs? How do they relate to the Christian tradition? All the examples I have given in this blog can be found in writings from the Christian tradition.
Thirdly, where are the hymns and hymn-writers who compose hymns that people wish to sing both inside and outside Church? We have some fine contemporary hymn-writers who write fine contemporary hymns, but the reality is that we now have more hymns which are being sung by fewer people.
Finally, I would like to suggest one way forward. Throughout its long history, hymn singing has had its peaks and troughs. At one low point, it was young people who helped rescue it and place it on a stronger footing. In the eighteenth century there were a number of charity schools and institutions. At such institutions as the Foundling Hospital (founded 1738), the Lock Hospital (1756) and the House of Refuge for Female Orphans (1758), residents had special hymn books published for them and singing became a recognised feature within their walls. In addition, the charity children formed choirs in a number of parish churches. Fundraising services led by the mass voices from these institutions became common and welcome features of eighteenth century Church life. The first united service of this kind was held at St. Andrew’s, Holborn, in 1794 and from 1782 until 1877 these gatherings were held in St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was over this period that hymn-singing, already embraced by many Christian denominations, became accepted and embedded within the CofE and wider society.
Today, there are many church schools throughout England. The Church of England alone has approximately one million children attending her schools. Throughout my ministry I have visited and led assemblies in many schools in different parts of the country and I believe that schools are crying out for some coherence, support and encouragement in their hymn/worship-song singing. The Church of England’s Board of Education would be best placed to initiate further investigation into a project which could renew the singing of congregational song in schools and in wider society. Singing in schools can have wider ramifications. Research has shown a link between the songs learnt in schools and the songs requested, years later, for weddings. The Church may, again, find a way to engage more deeply with culture and our young people may be our rescuers.
Over this Easter period, the Christian faith is celebrating that death is a stepping stone to life. The Top 10 Funeral Songs could lead the Church to new life.
Last image: Foundling Hospital, London, from Wellcome Images