In addition to our plentiful resources of contemporary hymns and worship songs, we have a rich and varied heritage of traditional hymnody to draw on for our public worship.
The principle of modernising the language of older hymns is a sound one. Such modernisation has the potential not only to improve comprehensibility but also to reflect important changes in language usage (including inclusive language, where this is compatible with our understanding of scriptural theology). Modern language can also help to convey the important sense that God belongs to today as well as to yesterday.
Actually such modernisation has been going on since, well, pre-modern times. If it hadn’t, we would still be singing:-
Hark how all the welkin rings
Glory to the King of Kings
(Charles Wesley’s original)
Hark! the Herald Angel sings
Glory to the new-born King
(George Whitefield’s amendment)
Modernisation is not without problems, however.
For one thing, there are some ‘traditional’ hymns whose words are so familiar that it is generally experienced as something of a shock to be asked to sing modernised words. Example:
“O come, all you faithful,
joyful and triumphant!
O come now, O come now, to Bethlehem!”
In such cases, at least half the congregation will doggedly stick to the traditional words – if not from belligerence then from mere force of habit – and this does not enhance our sense of Christian togetherness.
For another thing, modernisation only occasionally improves either the theology or the poetry of a hymn. For example,
“The sun is sinking in the west”
is scarcely an improvement on,
“The darkness falls at thy behest.”
Slow to blame, and swift to bless
add anything, apart from perhaps a touch of banality, to
Slow to chide, and swift to bless
But, to a large extent, it is a matter of personal taste and of what we have become used to. And, to this extent, mature Christians should be willing to engage in a generous degree of compromise with those they might regard as ‘weaker brethren’.