What’s the best hymn? A polarizing question, to be sure, and one that the parish of St. Nicholas, Birch Cliff set out to answer last summer. After 11 weeks and 11 rounds of voting, “Be Thou My Vision” emerged victorious in the St. Nick’s “Favourite Hymn” bracket challenge, beating out “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”
The bracket challenge was conceived of by the Rev. Andrew MacDonald, the incumbent of St. Nicholas, as a way for the parish to have fun together during the summer. After running a simple one-question-a-week survey during June, he started thinking about other ways to engage parishioners using online platforms.
“It kind of gave way to this idea. I thought, wouldn’t a hymn challenge be fun to do through the summer, just a way to pass the weeks by,” he says. “Anglicans have such a strong musical tradition, but we also have such strong feelings about music, because music for many, many Anglicans is at the heart of our faith.”
His first task was picking 64 hymns – a number that seemed small enough to be manageable but large enough to include a variety of styles – and pairing them up against each other. Each week, participants would be sent a number of pairings to pick between, with winners facing each other in subsequent rounds.
He says he wanted to make sure the bracket challenge reflected the breadth of hymns beloved by Anglicans. “Picking the hymns was really a challenge, because we all know that there are far more than 64 great classic and traditional and modern Anglican hymns,” he says. “We have a very rich musical tradition, and there were very fine hymns that we had to cut out.”
He also put some thought into how he paired the hymns, since only one winner would move on from each pairing, and he wanted each hymn to have a fair shot at success. “I tried to pair them up in as logical a way as possible,” he says. “I would put plainsong ones together, I put the two Taizé ones together, I put those epic Victorian hymns together.”
The bracket challenge launched on July 2 with an email containing a link to that week’s matchups. Mr. MacDonald created the surveys using Google Forms, the same platform he’d used for his earlier parish surveys. “It’s a free platform, which automatically made it attractive, but it’s also a fairly easy-to-use platform,” he says.
Given the number of hymns involved, each choice also included a link to a YouTube video. “Not everyone knows every hymn, so one of the things I did was spend quite a bit of time on YouTube looking for good, authentic recordings that would give people the sense of what the hymns were.”
As voting got underway, votes soon started to arrive from more than just parishioners of St. Nicholas. While Mr. MacDonald hadn’t necessarily expected a wide interest in the bracket challenge, sharing the surveys online generated some enthusiasm from the wider diocese and further afield.
“There were people who were sharing it on social media and getting their friends to sign up and take part in it. And I had people who were lobbying for particular hymns and that sort of thing,” he says. “We had voters from every province and several places in the U.K. and the United States as well.”
More than 300 people signed up to receive the weekly emails, and there were 250 votes cast on average each week. A member of St. Nicholas also phoned several parishioners who don’t use email and recorded their votes.
Mr. MacDonald says he enjoyed seeing the results come in, with a few pairings too close to call right up to the deadline. “There were some hymns that I was surprised made it as long as they did, and there were some that I was really surprised didn’t win, particularly in the first round,” he says. “But such is life. We’re Anglicans, and we have strong opinions about music, and that’s what’s going to happen.”
As participants started to have conversations about the matchups, both in person and online, Mr. MacDonald was fascinated to hear some of the methods and rationales for choosing particular hymns. Some chose the hymn that was most fun to sing, one church chorister evaluated the alto lines, and many felt compelled to choose hymns that had been sung at a family member’s wedding or funeral.
“I always think of Dead Poets Society and the idea of a ‘Pritchard Scale’ of what’s a good hymn, but it’s not that. It’s about our personal connections that we have with this music, because they connect to us in a very deep way and how we express our faith,” he says.
Though declining to state a preference for the hymn he wishes had won, he says he thought the final four hymns – “Be Thou My Vision,” “Holy, Holy, Holy,” “Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven” and “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” – were all worthy of the title.
Given the enthusiasm from participants, Mr. MacDonald says he was already thinking about future hymn bracket challenges before the first winner was declared. The parish is planning an Advent-Christmas-Epiphany edition, which will start on Nov. 26 and finish in early January. People started signing up for those emails in September, already expressing their love for “Silent Night” or “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”
Beyond that, he says he’s also thinking about choosing a new group of 64 hymns for a bracket challenge next summer. “There were enough write-in ballots of hymns that didn’t make it into the first 64, so we might do a ‘Version Two: The Ones We Missed’ challenge next summer,” he says. “We’re going to see what the interest is in that idea. I think the interest will be strong.”
Anyone who’s interested in the Christmas hymn bracket challenge can join the email list at www.stnicholasbirchcliff.com.