Like many others, I was delighted to learn that the University of Divinity had recognised Robin Mann’s decades of ministry as a Christian song writer by conferring on him an honorary doctorate.
Robin Mann “writes” Christian songs the way the great iconographers “write” icons. He has been doing so with unique accomplishment for fifty years.
Three things stand out to me about Robin’s art.
First, he is an elegant poet, economic in his use of words and images, and frequently surprising in what he chooses to draw the singer’s mind’s eye towards. His is very concrete imagery – objects, bodies, places, scenes, specific human interactions – drawn from Australian experience and, through his poetry, inviting the singer to know them afresh.
Secondly, his poetry consistently carries mature, informed theological insights and reflections. It is only possible for Robin to produce the sort of lyrics that he does because he is not only a poet but also a theologian in his own right, who has continued to grow as a theologian throughout his ministry.
Thirdly, Robin Mann has a singular awareness of the singing congregation. His melodies and harmonies are shaped specifically for communal singing. The songs are easy to teach and learn, and enjoyable to sing from the outset. Moreover they do not become less pleasing with familiarity. Such is the melodic strength of his songs, most of them can be successfully sung unaccompanied – for occasions when there might be no accompanist available, or when you might just be in the garden singing quietly while you work.
One of my most memorable moments with Robin Mann’s music, was assisting an Adnyamathanha elder to teach a delegation of Canadian First Nations leaders to sing For You Deep Stillness . The visitors were deeply moved and spoke for some days afterwards about the way the song helped them to enter with more awareness into the Australian land and context. Another strong memory is the excitement expressed to me by a recently-arrived Sudanese Christian refugee after singing the blessing May the Feet of God Walk With You. The images were so specific and human that it made that part of the English-language worship service the one moment that she truly connected with and was made to feel at home. It was a turning point in her life within that new community.
Robin Mann has always been a generous mentor of other song writers. I once shared with him in leading a Uniting Church national song writers’ workshop, in Canberra. In addition to his excellent keynote address on the practices of song writing, he worked personally with several of the participants to develop ideas they had for songs and continued to make himself available to the people who had met him there in the months that followed. I am aware that he has offered similar support to networks of Christian song writers in other denominations, formally and informally. Over the fifty years of his ministry in Christian music this practice has accumulated a significant legacy of teaching and mentoring.
Now that I think about it, the songs of Robin Mann have accompanied me throughout the whole of my life as a minister, teacher and academic theologian. As I have matured in faith and scholarship they have never lost their capacity to lead me deeper into reflection and worship. I still gladly sing the old songs even as I welcome each new one. As Robin has continued to compose and publish his music he has tested the growing edges of faith and theology in the Australian context, without ever losing the ecumenical core of Christian confession that makes his hymnody so widely accessible.
As I said, Robin Mann “writes” Christian songs the way the great iconographers “write” icons. And he has been doing so with unique accomplishment for fifty years. Thank you Robin. And thank you University of Divinity for acknowledging on our behalf what Robin Mann has done among us and for us for more than a generation.