Hymn writer stresses the power of words

People underestimate the influence that lyrics have on their theology, according to Shirley Erena Murray.

“Hymns are massively important because they stay in the memory.”

The Kapiti-based hymn writer says ministers need to remember that the words of songs and hymns are remembered long after the words of spoken messages have faded.

“Words carried by music are more important that any sermon they will ever write.”

Shirley’s words are sung every week in churches around the country. She’s behind hymns such as “Upside Down Christmas” and “Our life has its Seasons”, as well as a hymn for Anzac Day.

Born in Invercargill in 1931, Shirley has received numerous awards during her writing career, including this year being made a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. In 2001 she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to community hymn writing; the first person to be honoured in this way. In December Shirley will be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Otago.

Shirley continues an active writing schedule, having just completed a hymn for the American Guild of Organists to be performed at their 10-year meeting in Washington Cathedral.

It’s difficult to say how long it takes to write a hymn, Shirley says. “Once you have a good first line or phrase, that’s very helpful.”

After completing her text, Shirley sends it to a composer, who puts it to music.

She works with up to 40 composers, including well-known Dunedin musician Colin Gibson and Waikanae-based Gillian Bray.

While some composers get the sense immediately, she says, others do not and she doesn’t always like the result. “But overall I’m happy with the variety of interpretations.”
Shirley says she never listens to Hillsong-style praise and worship, “because it’s not saying anything to me”.

“‘I love Jesus and Jesus loves me’ – we’ve got to move beyond that.”

Church music needs to relate to our lives and concerns, she says. “We need ‘comfort hymns’ but you can’t let that dominate. I need to be taken out of myself and into the world.”
Shirley’s texts have appeared in more than 140 collections worldwide and been translated into numerous languages. Her work is particularly popular in the United States and Canada.

Her work finds broad use in the US, from Mennonite communities to Catholics and progressive congregations. One hymn, “Come and find the Quiet Centre”, which was written for an Association of Presbyterian Women conference held in Tawa, was listed in the previous US president’s chaplain’s office devotions.

Many of her hymns reflect environmental concerns. “I have a sad feeling that we’ve never got past ‘all things bright and beautiful’. We need to take on what it means to care for Creation rather than admire it.”

Peace is another key theme. “To me that’s the real heart of what Jesus came to demonstrate.”

Out of everything she has written, the Anzac hymn has attracted the most feedback, because of a verse that honours the bravery of conscientious objectors. The New Zealand Defence Force and the RSA have furnished critical comments, as have some random encounters, including an upset woman on a train. The hymn has been used twice at Anzac day commemorations in Gallipoli and Chunuk Bair.

Shirley describes hymn writing as “a very public thing”. “It’s very exposing being part of a congregation singing your hymns.”

Many of Shirley’s hymns were tested on the congregation at St Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington, where her husband the Very Rev John Murray was minister from 1975-1993.

She says she grew out of self consciousness early on, because St Andrew’s was “very used to accepting new music”.

Aspiring hymn writers need to immerse themselves in the hymns already written, Shirley says. “You have to know the treasures from the past that are still being sung; and then ask ‘what is not being said that I need to write about?’”

Hymns that are repetitious or don’t resonate with the people of their time will not endure, she says.

“You have to express things succinctly and clearly, with beauty.”

Her latest hymn is always her favourite, she says, though “there are some that I hope have proved more useful”. These include the carol “Star Child”, “Where Mountains Rise to Open Skies” and the Anzac hymn.

Shirley says the new ecumenical hymnbook “Hope is our Song”, launched at the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust’s 2009 conference, marks New Zealand as “an outstanding hymn-writing nation”. At the conference, the executive director of the Hymn Society in the US and Canada, Professor Deborah Carlton Loftis, will formally present Shirley with the award of Fellow.

By Amanda Wells

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