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Prolific hymn writer Shirley Murray wrote about modern life

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Shirley Erena Murray, MNZM:  hymn writer; b March 31, 1939; d January 25, 2020

Shirley Murray lived by the words she wrote.

Compassion, peace, justice – these were the things that guided her in life and her life’s work.

She wrote more than 380 hymns, which have been translated into several languages.

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She wrote about her beliefs and never shied away from controversy. 

Her hymn for Anzac Day, Honour the Dead, was a case in point.

She wrote it in 2005, with long-time collaborator Colin Gibson, believing that we needed our own tailor-made hymn for the occasion.

Shirley Murray was recognised in the 2001 Queens birthday honours.

Ross Giblin

Shirley Murray was recognised in the 2001 Queens birthday honours.

She said many of the hymns we sing in New Zealand are northern hemisphere-orientated. 

“Why on Anzac Day – our day – are we using music from long ago? … Why are we not singing our own stuff with our own expression of how we feel about what war is to us?”

But it was not the fact that she wrote the piece. It was the third verse that raised eyebrows.

In it she referred to conscientious objectors, written for all those who refused to fight. An act that was in itself incredibly brave.

She understood why some left out the verse, but said she thought it was “disgraceful that people won’t front up to see what real peacemaking is all about”.

“It touches a nerve with people, but I wanted to touch a nerve. Some people tell me they burst into tears singing it … But one woman stopped me at the train station saying her father fought in the war and that I should never have written it.”

Murray was born in Invercargill into a musical family in 1931 and had a Methodist upbringing.

Seeing her enthusiasm for words, a primary school teacher encouraged her to write poetry.

When he was sent off to war, he wrote her a letter from the front, which she treasured all her life, encouraging her to keep writing.

Murray's hymns were often tailor-made for a New Zealand audience.

Margaret Irvine

Murray’s hymns were often tailor-made for a New Zealand audience.

At Southland Girls’ High School she realised she was good with words, but not so good at maths. By her third year she was given time off to focus on her music writing. She eventually became head girl.

She earned a MA with honours in Classics and French from the University of Otago, and later worked as a teacher and researcher.

After marrying Presbyterian minister John Murray in 1954, she eventually moved to Wellington where John was minister at St Andrew’s on the Terrace from 1975 to 1993. They had three sons, David, Alastair and Rob.

It was when John was minister at St Andrew’s that Murray’s hymn-writing really blossomed. Both she and John wanted the congregation to sing New Zealand hymns, in inclusive, modern language and with contemporary imagery, and to get away from a diet of 300-year-old hymns.

Murray railed against irrelevant lyrics, believing we must address the issues of the day.

She once said she greatly valued words that pushed people’s thinking into the world we live in.

“I’m despairing of outdated hymns and songs that are irrelevant to contemporary life and the way we live it.

“If congregations have sung hymns … that are medieval but that are meaningful to them, that’s fine by me. I choose to write with liberal intent, persuading people to look again at what the Gospels actually say and what new truths can come out of them.”

She lived her life standing up for a better world. She protested in 1981 against the Springbok Tour and became active with Amnesty International promoting their causes. For eight years she served the Labor Party Research Unit of Parliament. 

Her involvement in these organisations enriched her writing of hymns, which feature in 145 collections worldwide.

She once said writing was an incredibly fitful part of her everyday living and doing. 

“I may see something in the newspaper, or something else I am reading, and pick up a couple of words I want to borrow.”

She was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services as a hymn writer in 2001 and in 2009 she was awarded an honorary doctorate in literature from the University of Otago.

John died in 2017 and the couple are survived by their three sons and six grandchildren.

At her funeral, collaborator Gibson, a University of Otago emeritus professor, described her hymns as being filled with truth, originality, integrity and beauty. In them, he said, the languages of science and te reo “could meet and kiss in poetry”.

Sources: Murray family, Stuff, Anne Manchester, Colin Gibson.

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