Many people struggle when a hymn text they have known for years is altered in any way. However Jubilate has always advocated that this practice can be enriching for our worship and is essential in our mission to the unchurched. Michael Saward in the preface to Hymns for Today's Church, written thirty years ago, puts forward a strong argument in favour of modernisation.

(Roger Peach, Jubilate Editorial Co-ordinator)


Hymns are the liturgy of the laity. Though it is usually the clergy who write hymns it is the laity who sing them, and some hymns have undoubtedly gone into the national bloodstreams even more deeply than liturgies and Bible translations. To revise older hymns requires some justification.

It is not always realised that many hymns have been revised in earlier hymn books and that some famous texts are significantly different from original versions. "Hark, the herald angels sing" is not what Charles Wesley wrote, and "Lo, he comes" could not be sung in contemporary churches without shock or laughter if Cennick's original words were used. Most previous hymn books have therefore quietly emended words, not always successfully, and some have concealed the process by minimal markings.

The last few years have seen a major transformation in Christian worship. Liturgies and Bibles have been as radically translated as in the sixteenth century, and only the hymns have remained in the language of previous eras. To leave them unrevised in that situation is to create a verbal and cultural gulf which cannot be to the long-term advantage of Christians at worship.

Invisible mending

The Jubilate Hymns words team has aimed at three kinds of revision. The first, and least controversial, has been the change from "thee" to "you". This has become such a liturgical commonplace that no justification seems necessary.

Second, consistency has demanded that archaic endings such as "-est" and "-eth" be replaced and, in verse, these alterations have frequently required the re-shaping of whole lines. This has been done with as much sensitivity as we can muster, taking sound-patterns into consideration wherever possible. No-one can hope to be completely successful in such an exercise, but we hope and trust that our work has been of high quality. Invisible mending is a hard skill to acquire, and we have been encouraged by the many favourable responses which have greeted sample revisions. These have been sung at a large number of conferences and in many congregations, by way of market research.

Our third aim has been the most difficult. Many hymns, especially from the nineteenth century, have reflected a style of emotive language which is not easily accepted by contemporary congregations. Such hymns are less and less used today, and we have tried to save the best of them for future generations by a judicious re-writing of the more sentimental sections. This has demanded further skills to avoid the intrusion of one century's idiomatic style into that of another.

Michael Saward
From the preface to Hymns for Today's Church Second Edition 1987