The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
HISTORY OF HYMNS: ‘We Meet You’ reveals omnipresence of Christ C. Michael Hawn, Feb 8, 2012
“We Meet You, O Christ” Fred Kaan UM Hymnal, No. 257
We meet you, O Christ, in many a guise; your image we see in simple and wise. You live in a palace, exist in a shack; we see you, the gardener, a tree on your back.*
By C. Michael Hawn UMR Columnist
Frederik Hermanus Kaan (1929-2009) was born in The Netherlands. His biographer, Gillian Warson, noted: “Fred has always talked freely about how his family, an ordinary Dutch family, took a young professional Jewish woman into their home and protected her for two and a half years while their country was occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War.”
Fred Kaan, as he was known, served most of his ministry beyond his homeland. Ordained in the United Reformed Church (URC), he pastored congregations in Bristol, England and Barry, South Wales. Dr. Warson notes that, “It became Fred’s habit to write a new hymn every week. He wrote these late on Saturday nights and reproduced them in readiness for the services next morning. Early on Sunday morning, the choir master and organist, Bernard Warren, would call round to collect the text and to advise on suitable tunes, all of which were selected from Congregational Praise.”
In 1968 Kaan went to Geneva to serve as minister-secretary of the International Congregational Council. His charge was to help unite it with the Presbyterian Alliance to form the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, a body he served until 1978. Reflecting the themes of many of his hymns, his work focused on issues of human rights and ecumenical relationships. During the 10 years he served in Geneva, Kaan visited 83 countries. As noted in his obituary, “The world was his parish.”
Ultimately tiring of the worldwide venue, Kaan returned to England to serve as moderator of the West Midlands province of the URC for seven years, and then became part of a local Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and URC team ministry in Swindon.
Kaan held a Ph.D. from Geneva Theological College (1984) and wrote his dissertation on “Emerging Language in Hymnody.” While others have expressed a similar research interest, few have also been hymn writers.
Kaan published five collections of original hymns and one of Swedish translations. His texts have been translated into more than 15 different languages. He was designated a Fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada, a rare honor for a European. Dr. Warson chose Kaan’s most famous hymn, “For the Healing of the Nations” (UM Hymnal, No. 428), as the basis for the title of his biography, Healing the Nations: Fred Kaan, the Man and His Hymns (2006).
According to a letter sent to Carlton Young by Kaan, the hymn was written in 1966 for a BBC broadcast on Passion Sunday that coincided with the 25th anniversary of the destruction of the city of Plymouth in a German air raid. The program, titled The Tree Springs to Life, began with a photograph in which “a small apple tree had miraculously pushed its way through [the rubble of a bombed church] and won in blossom.”
Each stanza concludes with a reference to the “tree”—a metaphor often used for the cross. In the final stanza the tree is not an instrument of death, but “the tree springs to life and our hope is restored.”
Kaan was one of the most prophetic 20th-century hymn writers. One will find no Victorian sentimentality in these hymns—no Romantic images of Jesus. Kaan’s hymns focus on issues of human justice and world peace. His language is direct.
“We Meet You, O Christ” shows that Christ may be found in many places and in many human forms. Stanza three hears the voice of Christ in those who cry in agony, who march for freedom, and die in riots.
The eminent hymnologist, Erik Routley, often cited in these columns, described Fred Kaan as an “unclassifiable” hymn writer. Always ready to offer an opinion, Routley seems to have misjudged Kaan’s contribution to hymnody early on. As Dr. Warson notes, “Indeed, when Erik was first approached by Fred with a view to discussing some new texts, they were promptly returned with the comment that they contributed nothing new to hymnody!”
Along with British hymn writers Fred Pratt Green, Brian Wren and Timothy Dudley-Smith, Kaan is said to have provided the impetus for a “hymnic explosion” in the 1960s-1980s that reshaped our understanding of how hymns express our faith and the issues that affect us in the world. The major themes of Fred Kaan’s hymns reflected the focus of his ministry—pacifism, ecumenism, environmental concerns, unity and hope.