Karl Barth’s lectures on dogmatics given in Basle in 1946 used to begin with a psalm or a hymn. Mine last month in Belfast did not. The reason is worth exploring.
Initially, the connection between hymn singing and teaching theology/biblical studies does not seem close. They are different activities. However, Barth was not alone in putting them in conjunction. Jesus, after the discourses in the upper room – the most theological teaching in the gospels – sang a psalm with his disciples at the end before they left.
Our lack of connection between the two, hymn-singing and teaching theology, is due to a certain recent movement of each away from the other. Theology has become more and more an academic exercise and, to the extent that it conforms to the objectivity of enlightenment university academia, struggles to find a place for sung belief. Hymn-singing has become less of a rehearsing of the great theological themes and, as Ward says, more of a transactional event between the singer and God. Thus these two activities have drifted apart.
However, there is no good reason why they should inhabit separate boxes. Sometimes we talk in self-satisfied tones of moving from the chapel to the lecture theatre and back but that un-necessarily separates the two activities. Integration is not furthered by having separate rooms for worship and theology. Anselm’s useful definition of theology that it is “faith seeking understanding” seems to me as not any more useful than to see theology as “worship seeking understanding”.
And now to the practical bit! What if the teacher doesn’t have a musical voice? What if the students are reluctant? I guess if you decide not to sing a worship hymn as a part of your theologising with your students, you have the right. But then you will have to find another way of impressing on them (and reminding you of) the intimate connection between theology/biblical studies and worship, or you do them a dis-service.
Perhaps it would just be simpler to sing.