Brian Wren: Retirement Tribute
Brian Wren’s retirement as Conant Professor of Worship this May and his subsequent move to Massachusetts will mark the conclusion of the day-to-day relationship between the seminary and this remarkable man, whose genius, warmth, and good humor have blessed us so richly. If the Old Testament “seven year” cycle of prosperity holds true, we have truly feasted at God’s board since Brian joined the faculty in 2000, and through his continued work in hymnody and worship, even at a distance, the banquet will continue.
Much of what the Christian world believes about congregational song and worship, from the theology behind the practice to the actual words on our lips, Brian has taught us. Some years ago, Erik Routley, the renowned hymnologist from Princeton and one of the catalysts of the “hymn explosion” of the 1970s, remarked that Brian Wren is “the most frequently sung hymn writer since Charles Wesley!” And that’s because Brian is not a rhymester, but a poet who composes from his heart.
If indeed we write most intuitively and instinctively about those people, places, and things we know most intimately, then Brian Wren and God must be the best of friends! And through Brian’s exquisite poetry, we have come to know God in ways we surely would have missed. What Brian has told us in his hymns, we already know, but his words have made God—Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit—more real, more insistent, more accepting, and more loving than we could ever have expressed in our own words.
As a hymn writer, Brian has given us what we expected—not only songs to celebrate the seasons of the church year, but also the Gospel imperative to live and serve by Christ’s example. The genuine delight of Brian’s hymns is getting what we don’t expect—the choice of a particular word, or an unusual turn of phrase—which enables us to see and hear and articulate the familiar in new and provocative ways.
The God of Genesis becomes the “Womb and Birth of time,” the “Carpenter of new creation.”
Jesus in the course of his life is at times the “Welcome Door,” the “Welcome Guest,” the “Wind of Change,” the “Worker Friend,” the “Light of Love,” the “Travel Guide,” the “Rock of Care.”
The indwelling of the Pentecostal Spirit becomes an active and not a passive presence:
Great nesting Spirit, sheltering with mighty wings your chattering, demanding brood, deep, restless love, come, stir us, show us how to fly, till, heading for tomorrow’s sky, we soar together, God-renewed.
These aren’t the commonplace images to which we are accustomed in so much of the poetry of our hymns, but carefully and skillfully crafted impressions to capture our attention and spark our imagination.
It is not only Brian’s command of language which makes him an enduring spirit among poets, but his understanding and commitment to living out his faith which sets him above the rest.
Educated at Oxford University and ordained in Britain’s United Reformed Church, Brian is steeped in the tradition of the church, and knows the importance of tradition in worship—the words, the imagery, the movement, the call and response of praise and confession and penitence and pardon, of celebration and reflection. But reaching his maturity during that twentieth century period of enlightenment and heightened awareness of social injustice, sexism, racism, economic disparity and exploitation, Brian was not content to leave his faith buried in the tradition of a former time, but was compelled to let it speak—and speak eloquently—to a changing world.
In an interview for Reformed Worship this “Poet of Faith” observed: “There is a double vocation in being a poet in the church. One vocation is to write poems of faith which people will pick up and sing and say, ‘Yes, this is exactly the way I think,’ or ‘Yes, this is what I believe, although I’ve never put it this way.’ The other vocation of the poet is to try to speak truth by stepping beyond the church’s limits of comfort and convention. I usually know when I have written a ‘bread-and-butter hymn’—a hymn that people will be able to sing and say ‘Yes.’ I also know when I’m writing over the margin, although the margin is different for different people.”
This is where Brian’s contribution to congregational song combines courage with commitment —the boldness to voice in his poetry what he believes in his soul is right and just and holy in the face of narrow margins and narrow minds. It is here that this diminutive man derives his stature among the Reformers and crusaders, and where his texts gain their true and lasting strength. (One has difficulty comprehending a heart so big and all-embracing contained in so humble a frame!)
Who else ever invited us to sing:
If your faith brings you pain, scarred and scorned
for doing right, God will dignify and bless,
saying yes, and yes, and yes.
or reminded us that God transcends the labels we may assign:
God is not a she, God is not a he,
God is not an it or a maybe.
God is a moving, loving, knowing, growing mystery.
that death inevitably comes with a blend of agony and hope:
When grief is raw, and music goes unheard,
and thought is numb, we have no polished phrases to recite. In Christ we come to hear the old familiar words:
“I am the resurrection. I am life.”
that being called “Christian” without action is not enough:
Half the world is hungry, Lord,Christian people, sleekly fed, Christian comforts can afford—
worship, faith, and heavenly bread.
Others crave for earthly food;
starving, have no strength to pray.
Glib, we sing how God is good—
we shall eat and drink today.
that even in the face of AIDS the church must show compassion:
When illness meets denial and rejection, when friends recoil,
and faces turn to stone, Christ of our Sorrows,
raise us from dejection, to travel on, assailed, but not alone.
Forgive your Church’s searing, numbing silence,
unholy huddles, muddles and delays.
Forgive our zeal to hide the fear that drives us
with harsh, unloving words, unhealing ways.
or enticed us with delicious humor:
Onward, Christian Rambos, spoiling for a fight,
wave the flag for Jesus, knowing that we’re right!
We could not have asked for the blessing of a better companion these seven rich years than Brian Wren. He may not be leaving us a better singing community —for a few of us, making a “joyful noise” is something we take literally! But we are a community singing a better song because of his presence, not only among us, but in churches around the globe who sing their praises to a loving and demanding God.
Our prayer for Brian is best expressed in his own benediction:
May the Sending One sing in you,
May the Seeking One walk with you,
May the Greeting One stand by you,
in your gladness and in your grieving.
May the Gifted One relieve you,
May the Given One retrieve you,
May the Giving One receive you,
in your falling and your restoring.
May the Binding One unite you,
May the One Belov’d invite you,
May the Loving One delight you,
Three-in-One, joy in life unending.
Quotations are from Piece Together Praise: A Theological Journey (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1996). Michael Morgan is the seminary musician, and he is organist at Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta.
|For The Record