Christchurch-based Anglican Marnie Barrell received an MNZM this January that recognises her 40 years of dedication to church music, music education and hymnwriting in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Marnie, who today is a lay preacher and musician at St Mark’s Opawa in Christchurch, a professional piano teacher and hymnwriter, began writing hymns in the 1980s.
To date Marnie has 30 published hymns, mostly within the NZ Hymnbook Trust’s six well-known volumes that include Alleluia Aotearoa and Carol our Christmas, as well as being published on US hymnary site Oremus and in a number of other international hymnaries.
Marnie Barrell’s hymns use contemporary words to grapple with spiritual themes and mark the seasons of the Christian year, often using traditional hymn tunes, which endears them to worship leaders across denominations. But whether it’s music old or new, Marnie looks for refreshing new ways to express our relationship with the divine.
“I still love all the traditional hymns, or say the ancient texts like the Lenten Prose, which link us to a living tradition. But I have this gulf in my mind between their words and the words we might actually use ourselves when we approach God from our hearts.”
“I want hymns to have rich allusions, to be true to scriptural imagery, and reasonably theologically mainstream and thoughtful, but in a way that resonates with what we believe and care about now. I look for new metaphors to extend our imagination about the faith.”
While many of Marnie’s hymns arise from her theological reflections on Christian experience, she has also composed hymns on commission for schools, faith-based NGOs, churches and events.
One of Marnie’s nominators for the MNZM was Rev Heather Robinson, a Canadian Anglican priest in the Diocese of British Columbia who cherishes the modernity of Marnie’s songs, which she says avoid the pitfalls of older hymns’ frequently sexist or racist tones. But even better, Marnie’s words affirm what she has come to know herself.
“Marnie’s hymns speak to the current struggle of the modern Christian, and I found that some of the verses she penned could have been written about my own journey.”
“This was especially true of the 2017 hymn she wrote in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women in New Zealand,
‘Praise God for Faithful Women’.”
Also backing Marnie’s nomination, former Dean of Christchurch Rev Lawrence Kimberley highlighted how during the time Marnie was hymnwriting in Auckland, she brought her own experiences of the heights and depths of being human into her work.
“She knows what it is to be a mother. She experienced life threatening illness and had gone through the journey of treatment and recovery. I have no doubt that this has contributed to the depth of poetry we find in her hymns; but what is even more profound is that they are so uplifting, even when they were written when Marnie was experiencing the toughness of life.”
Although a keen hymn singer since her childhood, Marnie had never thought to write new hymns. Then one day in the 1980s she met hymnwriter Shirley Murray.
“She asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a hymn. But honestly it never occurred to me that real people wrote hymns, I must have thought they just fell out of heaven.”
Marnie’s fascination with the words and meanings of hymns was nurtured in childhood by her mother Pat Barrell, an enquiring Christian who took great interest in the words of hymns she played on the harmonium at their tiny South Canterbury Anglican Church in Pareora.
During her teens, Marnie’s musical side was nurtured by well-known Timaru personality and piano teacher Rita Minehan, whose eccentric and enthusiastic approach set the course for Marnie’s lifetime love of music, and a full set of higher diplomas to go with it.
Marnie’s church music education had a shot in the arm for three years when she and her former husband John took part in his family’s Open Brethren church, where she experienced Christianity with an intensity she hadn’t known before – and Christians who sang their songs like the world was about to end.
“They cared about it with every fibre of their being, it absolutely mattered if you were saved or not.”
“So that’s where I learnt all the Protestant hymns: the Wesleys, the Methodist hymns, a huge range, and all sung full-throatedly.”
Later when the Brethren Church had lost its appeal, Marnie moved to St Mary’s Anglican Church in Addington, where she discovered more new things: high Anglican liturgy, Taize prayer and her first taste of progressive theology.
“I was a bit shocked at first, but this new theology was also spicy and exciting. It was a shift from the deeply earnest head stuff and the assumed view of scripture I had been hearing.”
When Marnie and John and their young daughter Genevieve moved to Auckland in 1992, she took the chance to study theology at St John’s College, which gave her a wealth of new insights for hymnwriting.
Today Marnie aims for her hymns to occupy an orthodox yet progressive theological position, and to open with a coherent point that develops theologically before ending on a note of hope.
On the day she spoke with Taonga, her three favourite hymns were as follows.
A Lenten hymn, ‘We do not hope to ease our mind’ - for its message to Western Christians living in privilege, which comes from ‘Alleluia Aotearoa’ published by the NZ Hymnbook Trust (147).
Verse one reads:
We do not hope to ease our minds
by simple answers, shifted blame,
while Christ is homeless, hungry, poor,
and we are rich who bear his name.
As long as justice is a dream
and human dignity denied,
we stand with Christ; disturb us still
till every need is satisfied.
Her second hymn choice second was a ‘positive, cheery and hearty hymn looking forward to universal salvation’, for use in ordinary time,
‘Great and deep the Spirit’s purpose,’ (Alleluia Aotearoa 55).
Then Marnie’s selection was a hymn to Mary the mother of God that celebrates her thoughtful and costly choice to say yes to God’s call – “on which all of heaven and earth depends” – ‘Hail Mary full of grace’ (Alleluia Aotearoa 58).
Since the NZ Hymnbook Trust first published new Aotearoa New Zealand hymns in 1993, New Zealand hymnwriters have built a great reputation as fresh, interesting voices in the world of Christian music, with a considerable body of hymns sung and appreciated all over the world.
The Hymnbook Trust is now looking for contributions from new generations of poets and musicians who want to give glory to God and uplift worship through writing hymns and waiata.
If you write waiata, hymns or songs and would like to submit work for consideration in a new Aotearoa-wide compilation, please make contact with Marnie Barrell on: firstname.lastname@example.org