History of Hymns: 'The Play of the Godhead'
By Andrew Jennings, Guest Contributor
“The Play of the Godhead”
by Mary Louise Bringle
Glory to God, 9
The play of the Godhead, the Trinity’s dance,
embraces the earth in a sacred romance;
with God the Creator, and Christ the true Son,
entwined with the Spirit, a web daily spun
in spangles of mystery, the great Three-in-One.*
*© 2002 GIA Publications, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
The three Persons of the Trinity — God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit — are celebrated in worship throughout the Christian world. In some denominations, the Sunday after Pentecost is dedicated to the Trinity. Christian churches baptize in the name of the Trinity, end various blessings using a Trinitarian formula, acknowledge the Trinity in singing or reciting the Doxology, and praise the Trinity in congregational song. Hymn writers have composed texts and tunes dedicated to the Trinity, praising the Trinity, and describing the persons of the Trinity. Recently, hymn writers have been exploring the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity and the interconnection between Trinitarian and creation theology.
Mary Louise Bringle (b. 1953), professor of philosophy and religious studies at Brevard College (North Carolina), was inspired to compose hymn texts after attending the Hymn Writer’s Workshop in Boston sponsored by The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 2000. She left the workshop with composer William Rowan’s (b. 1951) words of encouragement and a collection of his compositions — eighteen “hymns without words” (Bringle, 2002, p. 5). That year, she penned “The Play of the Godhead,” a Trinitarian hymn that she originally paired with Rowan’s PERICHORESIS, a tune having the same name as the theological concept that inspired Bringle’s text.
The first two lines provide the foundation for Bringle’s exploration of the Trinity: “The play of the Godhead, the Trinity’s dance, / embraces the earth in a sacred romance.” Perichoresis describes the relationship between the Persons of the Trinity, each remaining distinct but fully participating in their Being and action as one (Thiselton, 2015, p. 961). Etymologically, perichoresis means to “dance (chore) around (peri)” (Bringle, 2002, p. 128). Saint John of Damascus (ca. 655–ca. 745) used this term to describe the Trinity during the early church era. Utilizing this theological precept, Bringle describes this “dance” as emphasizing equality and interrelationship among its participants, removing the hierarchical construct often applied to the Trinity (Daw, 2016, p. 12).
Bringle paired this text with Rowan’s tune because of the minuet-like quality she found in the time signature and melodic figure, a connection to the threefold dance of the Trinity (Bringle, 2002, p. 128). This text is paired more often, however, with the tune BEDFORD PARK, composed by Robert J. Batastini (b. 1942), especially in hymnals published by GIA Publications Inc. BEDFORD PARK, also in triple meter, is a quick-paced waltz, maintaining the overall feeling of a dance. While both tunes create the desired effect, Batastini’s tune, with its slower harmonic rhythm and primarily stepwise melody, may be more accessible to congregations.
Bringle is known for drawing on the natural world and Scripture when composing her hymn texts (Stern, Canterbury Dictionary). In this hymn, the second stanza provides organic analogies for the nature of the Persons of the Trinity. Still, one must look closely to discover the biblical inspiration behind the image. At first glance, the list of natural elements seems to flow without structure; however, the images are organized in three parts. The first three are natural stages of water: mist, liquid and ice; then the two parts of the tree: the root and the shoot; finally, the fruit ripening on the tree. The first set of images reflects the God of the Old Testament, primarily found in the second chapter of Genesis and throughout the Book of Job.
The root that nurtures and the shoots that grow, symbolizing Christ as the shoot from Jesse’s stump and the root of salvation, are metaphors in Isaiah (11:10) and Romans (15:12). The Holy Spirit is present in the image of the life-giving fruit. In Genesis, the Spirit (Ruah Elohim) moves across the waters, animating humanity. Galatians 5:22-23 outlines the fruits of the Holy Spirit, gifts to those who follow the leading of the Spirit. Bringle purposefully ends the list of natural elements with a colon followed by a statement proclaiming the “great Three-in-One” is more incredible and mysterious than all of these.
The last stanza of the hymn again emphasizes the coequal parts of the Trinity, while painting a picture of creation’s reaction to the Trinity’s dance. When we find unity within ourselves in the dance, humanity can recognize the song and dance in all living things, joining together with all of creation. The text does not focus on the economic Trinity — how the Trinity interacts with creation — but, rather, on an immanent Trinity, a self-referent Trinity (Daw, 2016, p. 12). Because we are made in God’s image, humanity may recognize the community in the Persons of the Trinity. This is an example of how humans create community with each other and the rest of creation. The text breaks down hierarchy and separation in creation by describing the Trinity’s embrace of the entire earth. All of creation joins in unity.
The Roman Catholic Church and many other Christian traditions are finding inspiration in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home. Pope Francis points to the relationship present in the persons of the Trinity as a model for humanity’s relationship with creation, a relationship of caring and stewardship:
Creatures tend toward God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend toward other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships. … The human person grows more, matures more, and is sanctified more to the extent that they enter into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others, and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted on them when they were created. (Francis, VII, 240.)
Bringle’s theology of the Trinity makes this an ideal hymn, both for the celebration and praise of the Trinity during the liturgy and as a hymn that can lead a congregation to contemplate relationships with each other and our bonds with creation, encouraging us to act in places where injustice is prevalent in our world today.
This hymn first appeared in Mary Louise Bringle’s initial collection, Joy and Wonder, Love and Longing: 75 Hymn Texts (Chicago, 2002), followed by Gather Comprehensive, Second Edition (2004), and in six additional Catholic and Protestant denominational publishers. “Celebren la danza de la Trinidad,” a Spanish translation by Georgiana Pando-Connelly (b. 1942), was included in Oramos Cantando/We Pray in Song (2013).
Mary Louise. Bringle, Joy and Wonder, Love and Longing (Chicago, GIA Publications Inc., 2002).
Carl P. Daw Jr., Glory to God: A Companion (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2016).
Pope Francis. Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 2015): https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html (accessed February 7, 2023).
Anthony C. Thiselton, “Perichoresis,” The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2015).
Chelsea Stern, “Mary Louise Bringle,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/m/mary-louise-bringle (accessed January 10, 2023).
Andrew Jennings is the director of liturgy and music for the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ, North American Province, based at their motherhouse in Donaldson, Indiana. Andrew holds a Bachelor of Arts in music (organ performance) from Indiana University Southeast and a Master of Sacred Music (choral conducting) from the University of Notre Dame. Currently, he is a candidate in the Doctor of Pastoral Music degree program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, where he studied hymnology with Dr. C. Michael Hawn.