Shirley Erena Murray is one of Singing the Faith’s ten most represented authors. She is also the only woman within that group. Neither of these facts is insignificant (her name didn’t appear at all in the 1983 UK Methodist hymn book, Hymns & Psalms). Undoubtedly more important to Shirley herself, however, would be the fact that her work represents the hymnody and voice of her homeland, New Zealand.
Born in 1931 and raised in a Methodist family, Shirley married a Presbyterian minister, John Murray (later a Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand) and some of her earliest hymns were responses to John’s need for an apt text to accompany a particular sermon or service. But the main impetus that has transformed Shirley over the years from an occasional writer of hymns into a prolific author with a distinctive voice has been her desire to express Christian faith in a contemporary way from out of her distinctively New Zealand experience.
“The reason why I began to write hymns is… connected to the ethos of being a New Zealander. We have an attitude of ‘do it yoursel’’ – a kind of pioneer spirit which is not intimated by too much tradition and actually welcomes inventiveness. It seemed to me that the hymns we sang had no resonance with the world I lived in… there was no imagery that evoked a particular environment, no landscape of thought to accommodate the southern hemisphere (think of ‘In the bleak midwinter’ in high summer, for example), no connection with the Maori culture of our society, which is officially bicultural, nothing to articulate our own hopes and visions.”*
Shirley and John were among the drivers for a New Zealand hymn book that would be indigenous, ecumenical and contemporary. The result, published in 1993, was Alleluia Aotearoa. (The Maori word Aotearoa commonly, though not exclusively, refers to the entire country of New Zealand.) Shirley was also to become involved in another product of “contextual” hymnody, the ground-breaking Asian hymnal Sound the Bamboo (2000). She was asked by her friend, the Taiwanese ethnomusicologist, Dr I-to Loh, to work on English-language versions of some of the texts that he had collected. When she finally visited Taiwan, she recalls, she was “overwhelmed by their appreciation there of what it meant to sing hymns in one’s own idiom and culture”.
But writing out of a given context is not just about reflecting a climate or landscape. It’s also about responding to the questions, issues and preoccupations of those you live and work amongst. “Because I live in a highly secular society in Aotearoa/New Zealand, I am conscious of how the stereotypes of Christianity can be cynically dismissed. I long to say that there is so much to understand and embrace in the wisdom, spiritual treasury and survival skills that Jesus has given the world.” Shirley herself has worked as a teacher of languages, researcher (including for the Labour Party in Wellington) and radio hymn programme producer. Her hymns and carols address a wide spectrum of themes ranging from the seasons of the Church year to human rights, care of creation, women’s concerns and above all, peace. “Creating justice and joy means walking into the territory of basic human rights, as Jesus did. It means being aware of our own fragility as well as our planet’s, and using technology wisely.”
“I have wanted to move to where Christ consciousness as well as Christian conscience meshes with the world I experience in my own life and time. Almost everything I have written revolves, ultimately, round the concept of ‘peace’ in all its manifestations.” See, for example, Child of joy and peace (StF 194), Spirit who broods (StF 396) and her powerful 1994 “protest against violence”, God weeps at love withheld (StF 700).
Peace, for Shirley Erena Murray, is a many faceted concept, always tied to justice. It includes being at one with our environment as well as with other people. The 1991 hymn Touch the earth lightly (StF 729) was in part a response to French nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean region and its impact on the communities in the testing areas.
In 1987, the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa/New Zealand gave Shirley a grant to publish a small book of 28 texts for use in New Zealand churches – In Every Corner Sing: new hymns to familiar tunes in inclusive language. The collection “travelled”, she says, and was taken up by the editors of the 1990 hymnal of the Presbyterian Church USA and, subsequently, by Hope Publishing who produced a larger collection of the same name with 84 texts. Other collections have followed and her work has appeared in more than 200 hymn books and other collections worldwide and been translated into several languages.
Shirley notes that a significant number of her texts have been carols – “not just snow-free ones, but new ways of looking at the Incarnation”. Even a quick glance at the first lines and titles of these carols suggests a writer who does not take the traditional words and stories of Christmas for granted – “The Christmas child is a troublesome child”, “Three Faiths Carol”, “Upside down Christmas”… Singing the Faith includes the typically challenging Child of joy and peace (StF 194), which Shirley headed “Hunger Carol”.
In recognition of her considerable services not only to the art of hymn writing but also to the culture of New Zealand, in 2001 she was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from the University of Otago in 2009 and has been made a Fellow of the RSCM (2006) and the Hymn Society of the US and Canada (2009).
Shirley has declared that she despairs of “outdated hymns and songs that are irrelevant to contemporary life and the way we live it”. Of her 2013 hymn collection, A Place at the Table, she observed: “Now that I find my life further away from the church and closer to what Jesus is actually pointing to, new elements come into play.”
(The title of that collection refers to one of Shirley’s most well-known hymns, “For everyone born, a place at the table”. After some discussion it was decided not to include this text in Singing the Faith because it was considered that the line “abuser, abused, with need to forgive” could prove difficult and extremely hurtful to anyone who had been in a situation of abuse.)
In the end, Shirley’s task, as she sees it, has been to write hymns that reflect everyday experience, locally, nationally and globally. “I appreciate and relate to precise and clean language,” she writes, “as opposed to flowery and fudgy. I am, in knitting parlance, a plain rather than purl sort of writer. I like language that gives a jolt of reality”
* Some of the material in this article has been adapted from Shirley’s contribution to Janet Wootton (ed.) This is our Song: women’s hymn-writing (2010: Epworth Press, London) pp.295-307. For more about Shirley Erena Murray, also see her 2009 interview, Hymn writer stresses the power of words.