History of Hymns: “God is Here”
By Catherine Nance
God is Here
by Fred Pratt Green
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 660
God is here! As we your people
Meet to offer praise and prayer,
May we find in fuller measure
What it is in Christ we share.
Here, as in the world around us,
All our varied skills and arts
Wait the coming of the Spirit
Into open minds and hearts.*
*© 1979 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
In 1978, Russell Schulz-Widmar, who at the time served at University United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas, requested that Rev. Fred Pratt Green write a hymn text to be sung at a festival on worship, music, and the arts, in which the church would dedicate chancel furniture and rededicate themselves to God.1 An interesting additional request was made of Rev. Pratt Green, including the information in the following correspondence from Schulz-Widmar:
We would prefer a metre of 126.96.36.199.D since we could then use your text to introduce the tune ABBOT’S LEIGH to our congregation. (Letter from Russell Schulz-Widmar to Fred Pratt Green, December 1977)2
Born in England and ordained a Methodist minister, Rev. Pratt Green wrote numerous plays and hymns. His hymns reflect his rejection of fundamentalism and show his concern with social issues. They also include many works that were written to supply obvious liturgical needs of the modern church, speaking to topics or appropriate for events for which there were few traditional hymns available. As well as writing his own hymns, Green produced translations, notably translating one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s late poems as the hymn, "By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered."
Rev. Pratt Green’s scrapbooks and hymnbook collections are now held in the Pratt Green Collection at Durham University. A collection of related materials at the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University consists of scrapbooks maintained by Fred Pratt Green from approximately 1971 to 1988. The scrapbooks contain drafts of hymns, photographs, correspondence, bulletins, and programs from services that used his hymns, announcements, newspaper and journal clippings, and handwritten notations by Green describing when a hymn was written and reprinted and why, and for whom the piece was written.
This magnificent text represents Rev. Pratt Green’s amazing ability to work within some stringent guidelines: 1) emphasize worship arts 2) dedicate new chancel accoutrements 3) engage the congregation in a renewal of their mission as God’s people through Jesus Christ and 4) construct the text to a particular hymn tune unfamiliar to that church. This is quite a tall order for even the likes of a hymn writer and poet already well established for his great abilities.
Because of its meter, this hymn could be sung to a variety of tunes (it is the same meter as the tunes HYFRYDOL, AUSTRIA, and BEACH SPRING, to name just a few). However, ABBOT’S LEIGH, written in 1941 by Cyril V. Taylor, although famous in England, was probably not as well known in the U.S. and specifically not known to the church for whom the hymn was written. The birth of the hymn tune, as described by the composer, arose from the desire to create an 87.87.D tune as an alternative to the German hymn tune AUSTRIA, which was not favored during World War II. This tune, then, became a voice for two particularly special hymns, “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” and “Praise the Lord! Ye Heavens, Adore Him,” during a painful time in history.
ABBOT’S LEIGH was and likely is much less familiar than many other hymn tunes with the same meter. With generous, acrobatic interval leaps and two surprise accidentals within the melody, it is a more challenging melody for the average congregant to readily learn.
The United Methodist Hymnal committee for the 1989 hymnal (as other denominations’ hymn committees), in response to the range of the tune, and the interval of a 9th, lowered the key of the hymn tune from D major to C major, thus taking a risk of dulling the brightness represented by the original key. Suggestions for compensating for the key change’s negative aspects are found in the Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal, along with a clear directive to maintain a stately, not waltz tempo.3 Despite this challenge, the text painting, particularly the first three notes/words of each stanza are authoritative in nature, outlining the tonic chord in descending order. On the last note of this opening chord, the tonic, lands a most important word with each and every stanza: “God is HERE” (st. 1), “Here are SYMBOLS” (st. 2), “Here our CHILDREN” (st. 3), “Lord of ALL” (st. 4).
Certainly, the text stands on its own and could be used with any of the corresponding-metered hymn tunes available, but considering the nature of the birth of the text, ABBOT’S LEIGH merits trying with a congregation at least once or twice.
Concerning the text of the hymn, right away in the first three words of the hymn, "God Is Here," we acknowledge something that so often we forget—God is here in worship and calls us first. We thank God for the gifts in the church, through Christ, and remember together that we bring thanks to God for the “varied skills and arts” as we invoke the “coming of the Spirit” into “open minds and hearts.” Note the poet, in stanza 1, succeeds in acknowledging the Trinitarian God, as well as ending the stanza referencing our United Methodist ethos with the words, “open minds and hearts.” In stanza 2, by way of reminding us of the outward symbols of our “need of grace,” Rev. Pratt Green manages to incorporate a list of those symbols in a natural, unforced way, then moves into the preaching and hearing of the Word, emphasizing its importance to each individual. In stanza 3, the inclusive word, “children,” reflects the importance of hospitality in a biblical sense, the common Table, and the need to extend this hospitality into daily life. The text of Stanza 4 acknowledges the timelessness of “change and doubt” with faithfulness to the gospel as assurance. With a brief reference to the special day for which the text was written that does not over-personalize the event, Rev. Pratt Green proclaims the essence of our faith in the last words, “We believe!”
1 “God Is Here,” Hymnary.org (n.d.), http://www.hymnary.org/text/god_is_here_as_we_your_people.
2 Carlton R. Young, Companion to the United Methodist Hymnal (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 365.
3 Ibid., 365–366.
About this week’s guest writer:
Catherine Nance is Director of Music Ministries at St. John’s United Methodist Church, Aiken, S.C. and is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Worship Ministries degree program at the Robert Webber Institute for Worship Studies.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts. For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.