Death of Hymn Writer Shirley Murray

From the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada

“We were saddened to learn of the death today of New Zealand hymn writer Shirley Erena Murray, FHS. She was one of the most prolific and influential hymn text writers in the English speaking world, creating texts finely attuned to the issues facing people of faith today. They have appeared in more than 100 collections worldwide and have been translated into several other languages.

She was brought up Methodist, but spent many years as a Presbyterian, serving with her husband, the Very Reverend John Stewart Murray, a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand, as he pastored St. Andrew’s on the Terrace, Wellington, where many of her hymns were first sung.

An article in The Hymn (Autumn 2009) announcing that she had been named a Fellow of the Hymn Society included this observation: “Despite her frustrations with the Church, this writer remains committed to working on its behalf, and her positive, ebullient nature dominates her work. Her hymns are ecumenical in their theology and inclusive in their expression. They embody themes of justice, peace, human rights, nurture, and the integrity of creation.”

Shirley Erena Murray MNZM (born 31 March 1931 – died 25 January 2020) is a New Zealand hymn lyrics writer. Her hymns have been translated into numerous languages and are represented in more than 140 hymn collections.

Born a Methodist in Invercargill, she earned a Master of Arts degree with honours in Classics and French from the University of Otago. She later worked as a teacher and researcher.

After marrying Presbyterian minister John Murray in 1954, she eventually moved to Wellington where John was minister for the St Andrew’s on the Terrace from 1975 to 1993. Her hymn writing started in the 1970s and often used the congregation of St Andrew’s as a testing place for the hymns. Many different composers have put music to her hymn texts.

Her hymns have been translated into several European and Asian languages and are represented in more than 140 hymn books around the world. In addition to New Zealand, they are particularly used in North America.

Among her most known hymns are “Hymn for Anzac Day”, “Where Mountains Rise to Open Skies”, “Our life has its Seasons”, “Star Child” and “Upside Down Christmas”.

Professor and hymn writer Colin Gibson, who has set music to some of her songs, described Murray’s hymns in 2009 as “distinguished by their inclusive language and their innovative use of M?ori, their bold appropriation of secular terms and their original poetic imagery drawn from nature and domestic life, but equally by the directness with which they confront contemporary issues.”

In 2001, she became a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for “services as a hymn writer”. In 2006, she became a fellow of the Royal School of Church Music. She received an honorary doctor of literature degree from the University of Otago in 2009. The same year, she was named a fellow of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

Murray lived with her husband at Raumati Beach near Wellington. The couple had three children and several grandchildren.

Her hymns and carols address a wide spectrum of themes ranging from the seasons of the Church year to human rights, care of creation, women’s concerns and above all, peace. Methodist by upbringing, and ecumenical by persuasion, she has spent most of her life as a Presbyterian. She was married to a former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of NZ, the Very Rev. John Stewart Murray, who passed away just recently (2017). She had three sons and six grandchildren.

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