For more than three decades, hymn writer Shirley Erena Murray of New Zealand has been a breath of fresh air for contemporary church music composers and others seeking meticulously crafted and gospel-grounded expressions of faith reflecting the realities of our here and now. Worldwide and ecumenically, her work is included in over 140 hymnbooks and collections, including the United Church of Canada’s Voices United and More Voices.
For me, she was a kindred spirit, dear friend and collaborator for 30 years. When she died on Jan. 25, it created an ache in my heart which I likened to the loss of a beloved family member.
I chose not to fill this space with a listing of Shirley’s achievements and awards. All of that is just a click away. Links to a handful of informative sites and her memorial service are listed at the end of this article.
Instead, I’m sharing a tiny sample of Shirley’s thoughts on hymns, which were recorded in multiple days of previously unreleased video interviews in the Murrays’ living room. In 2014, my spouse Christina and I spent three weeks in the Raumati Beach area of New Zealand’s north island, Shirley and John Murray’s retirement home. The purpose of the trip was to capture and preserve images and conversations of this hymn-writer-friend on her own turf.
Shirley and John Murray were a team in every sense of the word. John, who died in February 2017, was an ordained minister of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. He was directly responsible for encouraging Shirley to begin writing poetry for song. That nudge was a direct result of John’s inability to find appropriate post-sermon hymns using conventional resources.
Shirley’s self-acknowledged mentor was hymn writer Brian Wren. Her first reaction to his hymns was that they were “both personal and political,” and she found it enormously appealing that his creativity went beyond conventional wisdom. From the moment she first experienced the clarity of his writing, she recalled thinking, “I’d like to be like that!”
She had a particular interest in creating new Christmas carols. “Carols have kept puzzling me, annoying me,” she said. She felt that the incarnation story needed to be taken far more seriously than many of what she referred to as “jolly songs of the season” do. With tongue only partially in cheek, John added that, because Christmas in New Zealand occurs as a midsummer holiday, it was also important to develop “snow-free carols.”
One carol which we wrote together is called “Troublesome Carol.” It is about the childhood of Jesus, which Shirley believed “was surely like that of every other kid,” but also recognizes the annoyance which Jesus became to the system.
Following days of individual recorded conversations with Shirley and John in their home, we spent a day recording dialogues between the two of them about the future of hymn singing. As founder of The New Zealand Hymnbook Trust, which became the initial motivation for an explosive outpouring of creativity for Shirley, John had much to offer. He saw a positive future for the singing of hymns, “provided we respond in evolution to new forms and new engagements with our daily life.”
Shirley acknowledged a desire to explore beyond traditional hymn forms and spoke of the importance of a variety of forms for congregational song. When talking about rhythm, she said, “How do we encourage a community to do naturally what some of us don’t do very naturally — that is, sing in syncopation and let our bodies loose?”
At the end of many hours of interviews, Shirley and John’s kindred spiritedness, mutual respect and love for each other bubbled up through a delightful closing bit of banter. John remarked, “We have to learn how music lifts our hearts and points the way.” Looking to Shirley, he said, “As a preacher, of course, I’m saying you’re more important than I am.” To which Shirley replied with an impish grin, looking directly into the camera: “Oh yes, hymns have always been far more important than sermons!”
As friend and collaborator, I mourn her passing. However, I also give thanks and celebrate the fact that my life was blessed by her presence in it. More importantly, I am convinced that Shirley’s voice will continue to be a gift to the wider church — and beyond.
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