History of Hymns: “In the Singing”
In the Singing
by Shirley Erena Murray;
The Faith We Sing, No. 2255
In the singing, in the silence,
in the hands expectant, open,
in the blessing, in the breaking,
in the Presence at this table,
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
be the wine of grace:
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
be the bread of peace.*
See the full hymn on Hope Hymns Online.
*Text © 1996 Hope Publishing Company, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
Whatever the number of sacraments to be had, there is no denying the importance of the Eucharist in the history of Christianity. From intense theological debate to its presence in Scripture to its eclectic portrayal in art, the Communion rite is a central expression of Christian faith. It stands to reason that the body of hymnody contains innumerable examples of theological engagement with Holy Communion. Within this repertoire lives a particular group that highlights for the worshiper the intense transformative experience that is taking place. Hymns such as “Now the Silence” (The United Methodist Hymnal, 619) by Jaroslav Vajda (1969) are more concerned with the empirical experience and are rife with descriptions of the process of ritual. These texts attempt to lay bare the questions, inviting us to think. As Susan Palo Cherwien explains: “A story once explained is a story rarely considered again. That which we think we understand, we rarely again contemplate. Including God” (Cherwien, 2017).
By this virtue, “In the Singing” by Shirley Erena Murray (b. 1931) fits into this category. It is not an especially long hymn, yet each stanza is rendered complete by the last line of the refrain, making for one long sentence. It is logical, therefore, to see the refrain as the theological interpretation of the stanza. The stanzas make little sense on their own, each a series of six moments that — to a “churched” person — could be related without too much difficulty to Communion (verse 1) and healing (verse 2). The addition of the refrain confirms the initial inclination. Indeed, these moments are each an invocation of Christ’s presence. Bound within are the four central actions of the Eucharistic rite: take (“hands expectant, open” in stanza 1), bless (“in the blessing” in stanza 1), break (“in the breaking” in stanza 1), and giving (“in the heart’s cry, in the healing” in stanza 2). It is revealed to us that Christ comes closer and closer through each successive movement. Undergirded by the subtle use of alliteration (singing/silence, blessing/breaking, heart’s/healing), Christ’s full revelation at the consumption of bread and wine is intensely powerful.
Shirley Erena Murray’s texts are known for “the directness with which they confront contemporary issues” (Canterbury Dictionary). On the surface, “In the Singing” appears to be free of any particular social concern, providing a general experience of Holy Communion. The imagery is certainly rich enough to leave it at that. Set to a simple, yet graceful tune by Carlton R. Young (b. 1926), this hymn could easily be used during the distribution of Communion, and it is a hymn that would become more and more familiar to a congregation over the course of many weeks.
There is, however, something in the text that begs further engagement. In a recent interview, Murray describes the centrality of peace, in all its manifestations, to her many hymn texts. Peace, she says, is intrinsically connected to justice, which means that we must recognize the fragility of our human experience, interconnected as it is to the world around us. Christ’s appearance as “the bread of peace” refers to more than Communion bread; it is the impetus for peace in our relationships — in this case, defined by the Eucharist. Traditionally, Communion is preceded by an exchange of peace — of reconciliation — between congregants as they prepare to enter into an intimate relationship with one another and with God through the taking of bread and wine. As a result, “In the Singing” offers us a further opportunity to ground our understanding of this hymn in additional contexts, specifically ones that relate to the intimacy of justice.
Consider the experience of Sara Miles, who describes her “radical conversion” in the 2008 book, Take This Bread (published by Ballantine Books). Raised more or less an atheist, Miles wandered in to St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco one morning, accepted a bit of bread, and later founded a food pantry for local residents. Now retired as Director of Ministry, Miles oversaw The Food Pantry, which provided some four hundred families with free groceries every Friday right in the sanctuary of the church. Where people gathered on a Sunday morning to receive bread and wine, others gathered around the same table (“in the circle of your people,” stanza 2) to be supported in their physical needs. Suddenly, “In the Singing” narrates an additional encounter with God, one in which there is laughter and silence, where hands are opened in gratitude and in expectation, where healing is wrought by a community coming together around a table. Christ appears to us as bread and wine on a Sunday morning because Christ also justly appears as bread and wine throughout the week. As we sing this hymn, we invoke this purpose, this sense of mission for ourselves, which Murray describes as “moving to where Christ consciousness as well as Christian conscience meshes with the world [we] experience in [our] own life and time” (Singing the Faith Plus).
For Further Reading:
Cherwien, Susan. Personal Correspondence. Received by Joshua Zentner-Barrett, 16 Mar. 2017.
Colin Gibson. "Shirley Erena Murray." The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed August 14, 2017, http://www.hymnology.co.uk/s/shirley-erena-murray.
Miles, Sara. Take This Bread. New York: Ballantine Books, 2008.
Wareing, Laurence. “A Jolt of Reality–The Hymns of Shirley Erena Murray,” Singing the Faith Plus, http://www.singingthefaithplus.org.uk/?p=11211
Joshua Zentner-Barrett is organist and director of music at Kanata United Church in Ottawa, Canada, and a graduate of the master of sacred music program at Perkins School of Theology.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada. For more information about The Hymn Society, visit thehymnsociety.org.