In 2008 I went to a ‘Free to Believe’ conference. This organisation, an ‘informal network of liberally minded Christians for an open, inclusive and thinking church’ is particularly associated with the United Reformed Church, but numbers those from many other churches among its followers (there is no ‘membership’).
The particular focus of this conference, entitled ‘Liberal Voices’ was on hymns – old and new – and I was asked to play the piano for the sessions, which were led by such prominent thinkers as Ian Bradley and Brian Wren.
I was in touch with Brian Wren before the conference, and he sent me some words which were ‘looking for a tune’ – I couldn’t resist that, so I obliged, and And can this newborn mystery was first sung, as a hymn, at the conference. Afterwards I realised that it could also be worked up into a carol for SATB: so the original hymn (titled ‘High Leigh’ – the venue where the conference took place) was published by Hope Publishing Company/Stainer and Bell in Brian Wren’s collection Love’s Open Door, and my extended carol version by Oxford University Press (in the collection Alan Bullard Carols).
The words are a thoughtful and challenging meditation on the Christ child, posing, in the first verse, the question:
And can this newborn mystery, An infant learning how to feed, Defeat the grim and chilling powers Of domination, death and sin?
And in a later verse, introducing aspects of belief:
And some will feel the Spirit’s power, And some will doubt, or cling to faith, And some will hope but never know, And some will joyfully believe.
We worship, trust, and rise to serve An infant learning how to feed.
Thus Brian Wren has encompassed the mystery of Christmas within a contemporary, questioning environment, and I hope that I have captured some of this in my musical setting.