The soundtrack of my life
NORTHAMPTON, England — “Sing and make music from your heart…
EDINBURGH, Scotland — Although Jerry Rushford insists he “can’t sing a lick,” the last verse of one of his favorite songs, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” may explain his relationship to the spiritual power of hymns — and his life’s work.
“Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”
No one knows and loves hymns and their history more than the slight man whose career in Christian higher education began as a basketball coach at Michigan Christian College (now Rochester University).
The 20th Hymns and Heritage tour marked Rushford’s final tour, ending with a handoff to D.J. Bulls, worship minister for the Glenwood Church of Christ in Tyler, Texas. Bulls served as the primary worship leader for the 2023 tour. He’ll direct it beginning in 2025.
The handoff included a handmade communion tray crafted for Rushford years ago for use on the trip. The former director of the Pepperdine University Bible lectures and curator of the Rushford Center for Research on Churches of Christ and the Restoration Movement said the set was a prized and sentimental possession but one made specifically for use on the tour, and he wanted Bulls to continue that tradition.
Sentiment and tradition define the tour — that and hymns. Lots and lots of hymns.
“It’s not lost on me the size of this man’s shoes — it will always be Jerry’s tour,” Bulls told the 38 members of the 2023 trip when they gathered for a final hour of reminiscing before departing London May 27.
“I’m just stewarding it for a while,” Bulls said.
In contrast to 80-year-old Rushford, Bulls, 41, is a sizable presence with a voice to match who is known throughout Churches of Christ as a worship leader and teacher/coach of worship leaders.
What the two have in common is a deep love of hymns and their role in the worship of Churches of Christ. Rushford has taught and published about hymns for decades. Bulls completed his doctorate at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in church music/worship with an emphasis in hymnology in 2022.
The primary purpose of the Hymns and Heritage sojourn is to educate Christians about the history of the hymns that helped shape their worship tradition by visiting and singing in the venues of those who wrote them.
Related: The soundtrack of my life
Along the way, the group visits lots of old churches, the gravesites of many of the great hymn writers and homes of literary giants, ranging from Jane Austen to William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott.
And then there are the stories — for almost every hymn and hymn writer, Rushford shared a story, speaking with the intimacy of an old friend about the poets and musicians from centuries past whose names — in tiny type atop the hymnal pages — often go unnoticed by worshipers.
For the travelers, who in 2023 represented seven states stretching from Florida to the Pacific Northwest, the singing itself and spending time with Christians at several U.K. congregations may have provided the most meaningful memories. Those visits began at the Bedminster Church of Christ in Bristol, a congregation that’s been part of the last 10 of Rushford’s 20 tours.
“We love having you,” preacher Jason Snethen told his American visitors.
Snethen looks like the quintessential jolly Englishman, but he’s actually from Oklahoma and wore a Texas Lone Star apron as he served lunch.
He first came to Bedminster in 1998 as a student from Oklahoma Christian University to help run a summer Bible camp. They asked him to come back for two years. He’s been there ever since, now married to an English woman and the father of three.
“When we first moved here, it was an aging congregation of about 35 — and only about 20 who worshiped regularly,” Snethen recalled.
Today about 100 members represent 14 nationalities from every continent but Antarctica. While Snethen served the chicken and vegetables, Deanne Aarons, a Jamaica native who’s been at Bedminster for more than a decade, stood at the stove in the church kitchen frying festivals — a Jamaican fried bread — for the American guests.
Snethen said Churches of Christ in the United Kingdom “tend to be growing — we’re bucking the trend.”
The building, on a busy street in Bristol, has grown cramped for the congregation, which hopes to buy or trade for a larger space in the coming months.
The minister described Bedminster as “a family church that interacts with each other and raises each other like family.”
The oldest sister is 92, and the youngest an infant, which he said is “very unusual in the U.K.”
“It makes for a noisy church on Sunday. But a church that worships without any babies is too quiet.”
But the two congregations differ in style and history.
Wall End sits high above a one-lane road that winds through impossibly green hills almost to the sea. In the graveyard behind the church lies William McDougall, who baptized more than 100 people before his death in 1882, just six years after the church was built.
Part of the instrumental thread of the Stone-Campbell movement in Great Britain, members at Wall End shared worship duties with their visitors, with some songs led from the burgundy hymnals carried from stop to stop and others from the green “Christian Hymnary” stowed in the simple bench pews.
On some hymns, the red-haired organist played, paying close attention to Bulls’ cues as he led. Other hymns were sung a cappella.
Stanley Park, the 83-year-old elder, presided and, before Rushford’s sermon, served at a Lord’s table set with a silver pitcher and two chalices. Bread was passed in silver trays lined with crocheted doilies.
Back on the coach, Rushford had told his group that before the pandemic the congregation was a “one cup” church but accommodated guests with little cups in wooden trays like his. During the pandemic, its members began using the single-serve cups and have not gone back.
Park, who’s been at Wall End since 1957, is a small man with a shock of snow-white hair and clear blue eyes who speaks rapidly and carries himself with assurance and familiarity. He said a smaller “old paths” church across the moors once worshiped a cappella but stopped meeting a number of years ago after its last elder died. And though Wall End is financially sound, it only has about 20 members — “if we can get everyone here on the same day,” Park added.
Rushford’s tours have come to Wall End 11 times since they began, and a few former members came for worship and lunch.
“It’s been a big boost to us. It’s more or less the highlight of our year. … Meeting Christians like yourself, it fits the place.”
“It’s been a big boost to us,” Park said softly. “It’s more or less the highlight of our year. … Meeting Christians like yourself, it fits the place.”
As the coach departed, the elder joined the rest of his congregation at the stone wall above the highway to wave towels and handkerchiefs in a farewell salute to their old friend and his travel companions.
In 40 years, Rushford has made friends and contacts among British, Irish and Scottish Churches of Christ (one earlier tour began in Ireland). In a dozen or more places, the vicars, wardens and other ministers of Methodist, Baptist, Anglican and Free Scottish congregations came out to meet the group.
All but one of the churches visited remain active houses of worship, some for more than 1,600 years. In ancient Saxon churches and Gothic cathedrals, clergy and members from a broad swath of the Christian world shared a hymnal to sing along as the informal choir worked its way through 306 hymns in 13 days.
Back in Bristol, the travelers had gathered in John Wesley’s New Room, the oldest Methodist church in the world, where they sang a long list from among Charles Wesley’s 6,000 hymns concluding with “Jesus, Lover of My Soul.”
Bonnie Miller of the Westside Church of Christ in Beaverton, Ore., logged each hymn sung at every stop — as well as which stories were shared where and the daily limericks created by tour members and read each morning — as the coach pulled out. She also counted heads on the bus and pointed out directions as the group disembarked.
A Christian author and speaker in her own right, Miller has been on the tour six times, first in 2009 as a gift from the congregation where she’d been on staff for 25 years, then again in 2013 and every trip since working as Rushford’s assistant.
In Edinburgh, Rushford arranged to borrow the sanctuary of the St. Andrews and St. George’s West Church of Scotland next door to the hotel where the group was staying. Members of three congregations from the Edinburgh area joined the group to sing for two hours, including Helen Kerr, a member at the 45-member Hyvots Bank Church of Christ, which was begun in the 1950s, though Churches of Christ in Scotland have been around since the 1840s.
Members from Newtongrange Church of Christ in Midlothian, just 8 miles south of Edinburgh, and the Kirkcaldy congregation in Fife, about 45 miles north and across the bay, also came for song and fellowship. In all, about 20 congregations exist in Scotland, most with 35-50 members, though Kerr says the directory that maintains those numbers is somewhat out of date.
Kerr and her husband, Colin, are part of a 12-member singing group with members from several congregations called Solace that has performed together for 25 years at church and children’s charity events and annual get-togethers for congregations from Ireland and Scotland.
The last day of Rushford’s last tour was full of contrasts: a Saxon church built in A.D. 680, a visit to the vestry where Phillip Doddridge wrote “Oh Happy Day,“ and a final lunch with the Northampton Church of Christ, which would be architecturally at home in any American suburb. Lunch featured homemade Indian samosas and English tea and cakes.
Appropriately, the group closed its time there singing a more contemporary blessing to the English Christians who served them, “We Love you with the love of the Lord … we see in you the glory of our king.”
Twelve miles away in Olney, the group made a final stop at the church where John Newton, who wrote “Amazing Grace,” once served and at the home of his friend and sometime collaborator William Cowper — the author of hundreds of hymns, including “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” Cowper’s words, like Rushford’s stories, personify the power of hymns:
“Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
GOD is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.”
CHERYL MANN BACON is a Christian Chronicle contributing editor who served for 20 years as chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University. Contact [email protected].
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