History of Hymns: “The Summons”

by C. Michael Hawn

"The Summons"
John Bell
The Faith We Sing, No. 2130

John Bell

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?*

One of the most important intentional communities of the 20th and 21st centuries is Scotland’s Iona Community. 

Founded on the remote Island of Iona in far western Scotland, the community traces its inspiration back to the 6th century, when St. Columba found his way from Ireland and established an outpost from which he evangelized all of Scotland. Eventually, he spread a Celtic form of Christianity that still resonates strongly today. 

George MacLeod (1895-1991), an iconoclastic spirit, left a popular parish in Glasgow and established the Community in the 1930s to train ministers in engaging the poor working-class people of Glasgow and also in working alongside artisans to rebuild the abandoned Benedictine Abbey on the Island of Iona. 

John Bell (b. 1949) grew up in Kilmarnock, a rural town south of Glasgow. He received degrees in arts and theology from the University in Glasgow. He was ordained by the Church of Scotland in 1978 and appointed youth coordinator for the Presbytery of Glasgow. 

In 1980 he was admitted to membership of the Iona Community, having applied not primarily because it was a place of liturgical innovation but because it was “a place where the potentials of the socially marginalized as well as the socially successful would be attested.” 

Since then he has become the international troubadour of the Community, guiding its publications in worship and music, preaching at conferences around the world and composing many songs that enumerate the themes of the Community. 

“Will you come and follow me” (called “The Summons” in The Faith We Sing) is perhaps the most famous of Mr. Bell’s hymns. The hymn appeared initially in the first collection of music produced by the Wild Goose Worship Group, Heaven Shall Not Wait: Songs of Creation, the Incarnation, and the Life of Jesus (1987). The song asks a series of 13 questions, perhaps a record in the annals of hymnody. 

Characteristic of Mr. Bell’s style, the text is prophetic, using many words not usually found in traditional hymns. “The Summons” of Christ is to a radical Christianity. We are challenged to “leave yourself behind” and to “risk the hostile stare” (stanza two), “set the prisoner free” and “kiss the leper clean” (stanza three), and “use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around” (stanza four). 

The tune is a traditional Scottish ballad entitled KELVINGROVE, named after a section of Glasgow. Mr. Bell often uses traditional melodies from Ireland, Scotland and England for his hymns. These tried and true tunes make the songs not only singable, but often provide a Celtic flavor that is popular today. 

For Mr. Bell, the purpose for singing is to engage people in a fuller participation in the congregation’s song, stretch their faith and encourage them to live in a manner that reflects justice.

© 1987 The Iona Community (Scotland), admin. by GIA Publications, Inc. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology.

Categories: History of Hymns

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