Marnie Barrell

Marnie Barrell

I was born in New Zealand in 1952, and have lived here all my life. At present I live in Auckland, with my husband John Early and our 10-year-old daughter. I'm a piano teacher. We attend St Barnabas Anglican church, where I'm the musical director and occasional preacher/liturgical assistant.

I've always loved hymns, both words and music. It seems to me that the content of our faith comes at least as much from the hymns as from the preaching and scripture readings in our worship. There's something about rhyme and expressive words combined with music that makes a strong impression on us. It's important to me that what we sing is well and intelligibly expressed, and relevant to the concerns of our lives. To me, a good hymn is one worth filing in our memories for later recollection as worship and thanksgiving, a source of spiritual encouragement and a vehicle for our own prayer - as hymns have been used for centuries.

In 1986 I met New Zealand hymnwriter Shirley Murray, who encouraged me to try writing hymns. It turned out to be something I could do easily and with great interest and enjoyment, and people seemed to appreciate the results. My texts have been published in the three hymnbooks produced so far by the New Zealand Hymnbook Trust.

There's been a great deal of new hymnwriting done in the last 20 years or so all round the world, prompted by similar concerns that much of our beloved hymn literature is impossibly dated by now and can only be sung as a kind of "period piece". To me, the point of a hymn is to express in song a sincere and heartfelt response to the gospel. It distresses me to have to sing texts that flatly contradict the sermon or prayers, or that are impossibly distant from the experience, tastes and beliefs of the people I worship with. It's not only traditional hymns; much of the more recent popular chorus style of Christian music doesn't ring true for me, and it grows stale very quickly.

I like to write new texts for the well-loved hymn tunes, so that people can use them immediately and easily without the effort of learning lots of new music. If a scriptural theme or story doesn't suggest a still-singable hymn, I write something I'd like to sing in response to that subject. However, I do think it's important to keep the beloved older hymns in at least occasional use, along with hymns from other cultures. It's good to acknowledge that we're only one small part of the church and that our faith is still the Christian faith common to all times and places, even if we express it in our own way.

I don't generally just paraphrase scripture to set it to music. Often I call on several passages to illustrate one main idea I'm writing about, using a phrase here, an image there. I also make use of non-scriptural material, such as the baptismal and eucharistic liturgies, traditional prayers and devotions, sermons I've heard or books I've read. I completed a degree in theology recently, and it's given me a lifetime's worth of ideas for writing. I particularly appreciate the insights of feminist theology. I don't consciously try to be a New Zealand writer, but when I read hymns from elsewhere I'm increasingly aware of a certain characteristic New Zealandish slant about my way of seeing things.

Website compiled by Steve Benner, 1999-2001.