“Bring Many Names”
AUTHOR: Brian Wren, 1989
COMPOSER: Carlton R. Young, 1989
SOURCE: The Faith We Sing, no. 2047
SCRIPTURE: Genesis 1:1-5; Genesis 1:1-2:4; Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 82; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Hosea 11:1-11; Matthew 21:1-11; Luke 15:1-32
TOPIC: God, God's nature, justice, creation, family
The question is often asked, "Which hymns being written today will take their place in the permanent canon of great hymnody?" They are here, they have been, and they are being written. One of these is "Bring Many Names."
Despite its title, this hymn is not about giving many or new names to God. Indeed, throughout the six stanzas of this hymn, there is only one name used -- God! Rather, this hymn is about naming the activities and attributes of God. This is clear from the use of lower case adjectives that precede the name, such as "strong mother God," "warm father God," "old aching God," "young growing God," and "great living God." The author has made use of a poetic device that allows us to understand the nature and work of the divine by naming God's nature and actions in human terms. It is easy to confuse the theological process of giving a name to God with the poetic device of naming God's activity and attributes. There is a difference between saying that God's name is Jehovah or El Shaddai and saying that God is love, a mighty fortress, or like a mother hen. This hymn does the latter and not the former. The author writes, "I wrote the text in a time when I was actively exploring an expanded imagery for the Divine."
Dr. Wren writes the following about the genesis of his text:
The hymn originally began with what is now the second stanza, the first version being completed in February 1986. In mid-1987 the opening stanza was added whilst the hymn was under consideration by the Hymnal Revision Committee of the United Methodist Church (USA). Realizing that it needed a more beginning (sic), I also knew that its form required an introductory stanza with the repeated first and last lines of the rest. I fished for an opening line that would do this and introduce the whole. "Bring Many Names" came up from the deep, and I immediately felt its rightness.
In the UMC Hymnal Revision Committee the line "strong mother God" caused controversy, and the hymn did not gain acceptance in that hymnal. It was later published in the United Methodist Supplement, The Faith We Sing (2000) and in the following other denominational hymnals: Chalice Hymnal (1995), New Century Hymnal (1995), Voices United (United Church of Canada (1996), The Book of Praise (Presbyterian Church in Canada (1997), Together In Song (Interdenominational) Australian Hymn Book II (1999), and The Church Hymnary, 4th Edition (Church of Scotland, 2005).
The fifth stanza ("Young, growing God") was revised in August 1988 after conversations with the Mennonite-Brethren Hymnal Council (USA). The original read: "Young, growing God, eager still to know,/ willing to be changed by what you've started,/ quick to be delighted,/ singing as you go etc" I stand by the theology, but believe the revision better suggests God's "youthfulness" in language of prophetic impatience.
The hymn was submitted to the Hymnal Revision Committee of the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal and at the request of the committee, was extensively reworked. The hymn was finally rejected by the committee at its final meeting in October 1988. The committee found the phrase "Strong mother God, working night and day" to be, as hymnal editor Carlton Young writes, "theologically apt for some [while] for others it was offensive and unacceptable." The hymn was included in numerous other hymnals, including The Faith We Sing.
Brian Wren: (b. June 3, 1936).
Educated at New College, Oxford (B.A. 1960), Mansfield College, Oxford (B.A., 1962), and Oxon (Ph.D., 1968), Wren was ordained in the Congregational Church in Essex, England, in 1965, which merged with the Presbyterian and Disciples' traditions to form the United Reformed Church in 1972. He has served as a local church minister (1965-70), a Consultant for Adult Education for a joint committee of the British Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church (1970-75), Coordinator of Third World First, a non-profit campaign on world poverty (1977-82), a freelance minister focusing on worship enrichment and congregational song (1983-2000), professor of worship at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, USA (2000-07). He retired in 2007. In 1991 he married The Rev. Susan Heafield, an ordained United Methodist pastor, and continues to write hymns and co-lead events with her. Wren has published hymns in all major hymnals, including fourteen in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989), three in The Faith We Sing (2000) and two hymns and seven worship items in Worship & Song (2011).
Carlton R. Young (b. April 25, 1926).
An editor, composer, teacher, consultant, and conductor, Carlton Young edited both the 1966 Methodist Hymnal and the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal. He is represented in The United Methodist Hymnal with forty-two hymns and responses as composer or arranger, as well as eleven in The Faith We Sing and five in Worship & Song. He also authored the authoritative Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal (Abingdon, 1993). He has served on the faculties and directed graduate studies in church music at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University; and Scarritt College; and is emeritus Professor of Church Music at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He is a Past-President and Fellow of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada; and the first American to be named an honorary member of The British Methodist Church Music Society. From 1966-88 he was the director of music for nine General Conferences of the former Methodist Church and The United Methodist Church. He has lectured in colleges, seminaries and churches in Zimbabwe, Great Britain, Germany, China, Taiwan, and Korea; and he remains active as writer, lecturer, composer, and editor. Some regard Dr. Young as the most significant Methodist musician since the Wesleys.
Stanza 1: "Bring Many Names" does not deny the timeless, eternal nature of God; rather, it helps us to understand and affirm the mystery and complexity of that nature by recognizing and naming it within identifiable and knowable human experiences. It helps us to understand God's eternal and unchanging nature within the context of our finite and highly changing human nature.
Stanza 2: "Strong mother God" reminds us of our own human mother who often would work night and day, planning and preparing meals, laboring at innumerable tasks around the house and home, often in addition to earning a second income at work outside the home. We may not be able to grasp the true strength and power and creativity of the God who worked and planned "the wonders of creation," but perhaps we can get a glimpse from our own human mothers.
Stanza 3: Perhaps we can understand something of God in stanza three as we recognize in our own human father the characteristics of love and warmth as he embraces his child, sharing in our human struggles and failings, caring for us, forgiving and reconciling us.
Stanza 4: Obviously God does not age or ache; God is indeed timeless and eternal. However, God does share in and is present with us as we grow to old age, wise with experience and able to see old evils in new disguises, and happy with each new experience and surprise of life. Stanza four reads "old, aching God," not because God physically aches or ages, but because God is present with us in our own struggles of aging.
Stanza 5: God is certainly not young and growing, but this is a stage of human growth and development. And one of the characteristics of youth is its eagerness to take strong stands against falsehood, unkindness, and injustice. As young people grow and mature, perhaps this eagerness is made more acute by recognizing it as a result of the divine spark within us.
Stanza 6: The final stanza recognizes that throughout all stages of our lives, God has been there, the "great, living God, never fully known." Despite the intimate presence of God in all of human experiences, there is still part of God that remains beyond human knowing -- this is the God "closer yet than breathing" but "far beyond our seeing." This is the God who, in the words of this hymn as well as "O God, Our Help In Ages Past," is our "everlasting home," to which we will one day return.
Dr. Young writes of his tune:
My Broadway-style tune is named WESTCHASE, after our former residence in Nashville, TN. I composed it in about an hour, using Erik Routley's model of each stanzas 1-5 ending on the dominant, suggesting more of the story will follow.
I did not intend the hymn should be sung straight-through without pause, but faith stories about "strong mother God," "warm father God," "old aching God," "young growing God," may be shared after singing these stanzas. Performance suggestions: The group sings stanzas 1 and 6, soloists or a small group sing stanzas 2-5, with the larger group singing the phrase beginning, "Hail and Hosanna."
As a composer/conductor I'm seldom if ever moved/distracted by my own music. However, I confess I've never been able to get through the entire song without choking-up, as the music and lyrics prompt remembrances and images of those responsible for my upbringing—and how Deity-like these persons were, and visa-versa.
Some observations on the technique and structure of the music follow. Young's setting works so skillfully – perhaps perfectly – together with Wren's magnificent text. The second phrase's sequential treatment of the first, moved up a step, sets you up emotionally for something wonderful in anticipation of the third phrase. This three-fold sequential pattern is one of music's more effective emotional devices, used so well by Beethoven and all the masters. But Young doesn't just repeat it a step higher in his third phrase, he extends it a few beats and ends it on the dominant, conveying that there is more to come and don't spend all your emotional investment just yet.
He then moves on to the second half by imitating the opening sequential melodic/harmonic pattern. And just when you know what's about to come on "Hail and Hosanna," he instead totally surprises you by moving up (instead of down to complete the sequence) – moving up to that dissonant appoggiatura on the middle syllable of "Hosanna" that exquisitely resolves in the opposite direction on its third syllable.
Finally, notice the stepwise descending scale all the way from Hosanna to the end of the stanza, ending not on the tonic, which would have offered some emotional release and sense of finality, but on the second degree of the scale and the dominant harmony, thereby setting up the return to the tonic at the start of the next stanza. The emotional impact is that the last measure of each stanza denies emotional resolution to the harmonic conflict set up in the previous phrase, instead pushing you on to experience it all over again with each new verse. And the impact of all of that denial an re-experience is to cumulatively heap emotional expectation upon emotional expectation with each new stanza, released only with the climactic final statement of tonic harmony and tonic melody in the final measure.
Either one – Wren's text or Young's music - is demonstrably genius, but together they are nothing short of overwhelming, a marriage of text and tune that should remain in every congregation's repertoire for many years.
- Authors: "Brian Wren," Hymnopedia,
- "Brian Wren: Biographical Information" on CTSNET (pdf)
- Wren, Brian, e-mail correspondence, March 18, 2010.
- Young, Carlton, e-mail correspondence, March 17, 2010.
- Young, Carlton, Companion to The United Methodist Hymnal. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993.