Highways and Byways of Hymns

A Tale of Two Ditties

“Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens” – so sings Psalm 36 v.5. Notice the three four-letter words.

The day this column was born, Marjorie (my wife) came home from a Suffolk funeral. We mulled over the journey, the family, the friends, the service (“a burial is so much better than all that velvet curtain stuff’) … and of course the hymns. “I never thought” she said “that I would sing Shine, Jesus, shine at a funeral”.

But she did; here it is on the service sheet, together with To God be the glory. They chose it because our dear Janet had herself shone with the love of Jesus. The number one Christian hit of the 1990s, known by its chorus, actually starts Lord. the light of your love is shining. It sustains the “light” imagery throughout.

And curiously, those opening words remind me of a text written twenty years earlier by someone old enough to be Graham Kendrick’s father. Lord, for the years your love has kept and guided was penned by Timothy Dudley-Smith in 1967 while he was at the Church Pastoral-Aid Society, before moving to Norfolk as Archdeacon and then Bishop.

Tell me, if you like, that we can’t compare the two items. In some ways they make chalk and cheese look like identical twins. The first mainstream book to include both was “Baptist Praise and Worship”; the most recent, “BBC Songs of Praise“. But can you spot the likeness?

“Lord… your love”; each text has the same first, fifth and sixth words. Both recognise the vital word of the Lord, setting our innermost being ablaze. Both are deeply concerned for this our land; both, too, for our world and its nations. By a single allusion, both touch the source of our hope, in the cross and the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Such coincidences do not look like borrowings, though the Kendrick phrases sometimes do. This time both writers draw their vivid visual imagery from Scripture; both could be richly sprinkled with Bible references. Both employ the skill of repetition, and have been launched on their way with new music. Both tunes have been roundly condemned by some, and heartily sung by a great many more.

What about the contrasts? Lord for the years clearly prays to God the Father; Christ is in the third person. Shine, Jesus shine obviously invokes God the Son, and has the full Trinitarian breadth. Timothy’s language is we/us, while Graham combines that with I/me. Although both use a clutch of energetic verbs with God as subject, for once the earlier text is more explicit about our needs.

Technically, the 1960s hymn bears the marks of a craftsman in rhythm and metre, every line paired in precise rhyming. The song from the 1980s has one true rhyme (glory/story) among half-rhymes, assonances and rhymeless endings which look not so much liberated as careless. And I have now declared my own hand by calling one a Hymn and the other a Song.

So what’s the difference? Shine, Jesus shine comes close to some definitions of a hymn; its three stanzas are not merely repetitive. They have a regular pattern of lines and even a regular syllable count. It still looks on the page (sorry, screen) and sounds to the ear, like a song. The other one doesn’t, and fits the best definition I know. A hymn is that part of the service which is never followed by a hymn.

How far into the next Millennium will either of them last? Pass. Meanwhile, have you chosen your funeral hymns? So long as they are singable, a written preference, occasionally updated, will probably help your next-of-kin. And talking of lasting, Psalm 36 doesn’t have the final word. No.108 has “O Lord… great is your love, higher than the heavens!” And as deep as every human condition.

Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church, Old Kent Road, in the diocese of Southwark.