History of Hymns: Pentecost hymn honors presence of Holy Spirit "working in our world"
“There’s a Spirit in the Air”
The UM Hymnal, No. 192
There’s a Spirit in the air,
telling Christians everywhere:
Praise the love that Christ revealed,
living, working, in our world. *
“There’s a Spirit in the Air” first appeared in the British hymnal Praise for Today (1974). It was also introduced in Faith Looking Forward: the Hymns and Songs of Brian Wren (1983).
This hymn is considered as one of the simplest and finest of the later 20th-century hymn texts appropriate for the celebration of Pentecost. According to Dr. Wren, this hymn was written during the time he served the Hockley & Hawkwell Congregational Church in Essex, England (1965-1970), to celebrate the Holy Spirit “working in our world.”
It uses vivid imagery to capture a sense of Pentecost through phrases like “Spirit in the air.” Other phrases such as “find your tongue,” “change our ways” and “tell the world,” call all Christians to a concern for social justice, to feed the hungry, or to house the homeless as a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in the midst of the world.
Still the Spirit leads the flight,
seeing wrong and setting right,
God in Christ has come to stay.
Live tomorrow’s life today.
Through this hymn, Dr. Wren also implicitly shows his strong support for a feminist theology. “Holy Spirit” comes from the Greek word pneuma, which means “breath” or “wind”—feminine terms in Scripture. Dr. Wren is a strong advocate for the use of the inclusive language in composing his texts, expressing this perspective throughout this hymn and, indeed, in all of his hymns.
The hymn has an unusual feature of two alternating refrains:
• Refrain 1—“Praise the love that Christ revealed, living, working in our world.”
• Refrain 2—“God in Christ has come to stay. Live tomorrow’s life today.”
The alternating repetition of two choruses used by Dr. Wren is a device borrowed from the famous 18th-century hymn writer Isaac Watts in his hymn “Give to Our God Immortal Praise.”
The UM Hymnal (1989) uses the tune ORIENTIS PARTIBUS which was derived from a French Medieval tune with a harmonization by Richard Redhead (1820-1901). This tune is also used for the hymn, “The Friendly Beasts,” a Christmas carol for children.
Dr. Wren (b. 1936) is an internationally published hymn poet whose work has appeared in many different hymnals from almost all denominations and traditions in the English-speaking world. An ordained minister in Britain’s United Reformed Church, he holds B.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Oxford University and an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Ind.
Dr. Wren lives with his “partner in marriage and ministry,” the Rev. Susan Heafield, a United Methodist pastor and composer. Together they have published two song collections, We Can Be Messengers and Tell the Good News.
He retired in 2007 from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., where he was the first holder of the John and Miriam Conant Professorship in Worship.
A Fellow of the Hymn Society in the U.S. and Canada, Dr. Wren is the author of Praying Twice: the Music and Words of Congregational Song (2000), What Language Shall I Borrow? (1995), Piece Together Praise: A Theological Journey (2003), an anthology of his hymn poems, and six words-and-music hymn collections.