As it happens, organists have been playing this particular game for years, dropping alternative tunes onto the unsuspecting congregation, sometimes without even the foreknowledge of the presiding minister, and occasionally without warning the choir.
It’s a wonderful way to refresh the hymn being sung, because as people try to make sure the words fit, they often focus a little more on what they’re singing. It can be a concern that the narrow range of familiar “traditional” hymns can lead to an element of Holy karaoke.
So last Sunday I gave it a go. We sang “O for a thousand tongues to sing”, a Wesley classic, to the tune Kingsfold which is more usually associated with “I heard the voice of Jesus say” and it worked. Yes, you need to fit two verses of the lyrics to one of the music because Kingsfold is twice as long as the usual tunes, but it was fully worth it.
It gave the congregation a chance to sing the same old words in a different key, scale and mode. We went from a triumphant frilly melismatic major tune to a solid syllabic melody which begins and ends in a minor key even though there are flashes of the relative major in the third line.
Wesley lyrics met Vaughan Williams music in a beautiful match.
If you’re going to be leading worship in the near future, I highly recommend you have a go and see whether you can find such a well matched pair to present in service, and give the congregation a chance to try something a little different.