Round Table with Oscar
July 16, 2013

MHB bites the dust

Quietly, without a cry or even a whimper, another Christian symbol is going under. When two decades ago “Wesley Hall”, the Kingstown Methodist Primary School and “Town Hall” ended its life, there was no ceremony of thanksgiving, no funeral dirge, just a slam bam push down. After that, a bright concrete castle. The Methodist Church Community Building raised its head with pre-school, conference facilities, offices and staircase. This time, senior Christians must not allow such callous and heartless conduct to mark the death of the Methodist Hymn Book.{{more}} Yes, the MHB, the Metliss hymn book is “on” dying. Already in Barbados, two weeks ago, what we call the new Caribbean Methodist Hymn Book had its launching festival. How much do we try both to celebrate the new and appreciate the old?


Take the Old. To “appreciate” is to appraise, to as it were, put a price to the resource and its value. The “old” Methodist Hymn Book came in about six different shapes and sizes, including a Sunday School version, but that’s just the cover. What about the substance in it, what about the times and the social and religious orders it presented? Where do we start our examination? The “Sankey” hymnal and the Methodist hymn book were the chosen song books of most Protestant Christians in the 20th century, especially the mid 20th century. As for the MHB, the Spiritual Baptists captured it, other denominations used it, Anglicans were known to desire it, and Methodists devoured it. The slim hymn book and “book of offices” was known and used more than the Bible in some homes, and understandably so. For one thing, the language of the hymns was less troublesome than the 300 to 400 years old English of the Bible; for another, the “chapter” arrangement of the hymns made it easier to find the hymns that spoke to particular situations, whether of grief, sorrow over sin, temptation, empowerment or invitation to Jesus. One commentator testified that she loved the present MHB because “it had songs, spiritual food and biblical teaching suited to every life situation” she faced.

In one of his recent newspaper articles, Olson Peters wrote of the gift that Christian hymn music made to popular Caribbean music like calypso, by contributing to it elements of European melody. The hymn book has been also a teaching learning vehicle for moral education in the school system. Because the Methodist Church and its Spiritual Baptist counterpart have had their feet early planted among the Vincentian and Caribbean working people, many of whom were illiterate, hymnody brought scripture and theology within their grasp, perhaps in the same manner that some of today’s Jamaican music may transmit values and behaviours to our young generation. Christian and colonial ideology eased their ways into Caribbean consciousness on the sound track of hymns and songs. We have quite a lot to thank the Methodist Hymn Book for, and quite a bit to exorcise, even if the weaknesses it taught us came from the values it omitted and left out of our spiritual mortar mix. For you will search high and low in the MHB before you find one song with the message of the prophet Isaiah, or Amos of the Baptist or Jesus castigating the leaders of his day. Hymn No 909 is the only one that I found with this “people consciousness “of God. That kind of weakness with the MHB sheds abroad in us and in our spirituality, is an infection that pervades missionary Christianity from the North Atlantic, Europe and North America. Will a new Caribbean hymnal enlarge our spirituality and out prophetic Christian commitment and lifestyle?

As we greet what must be a past Christendom and past colonial worship and witness book from the Caribbean Methodist Church, we know it will not meet a captive people. Teachers and students in schools will not be using it for “morning praise” and “singing” as they did 60 and 100 years ago. The new book has a new mandate, and we must find new ways to deploy it. At the same time, let us appreciate what present/old Methodist Hymn Book has been and has done for us, contributing to who we are as people of faith and people of our nation. A festival of thanksgiving is due to the Wesleys, Watts’, Rosetti and others. We look forward to the announcement of a service of thanksgiving for the Methodist Hymn Book, revised in 1932, from the British Methodist Publishing House. As we announce our Caribbean Spiritual Christian Coming of Age and in Galatians 5:1 let us be aware of what we are leaving behind as we reach forward to what is ahead of us in praise, worship, witness and new creation.