TEN FOR THE MILLENNIUM
First, an apology. Last month this column caused some panic buying of hymn-choosing resources due to needless alarm over the millennium bug; sorry! Its true effects will be rather different from those so lightheartedly forecast in February.
The more probable scenario is this: because the computers do not recognise a change in the century, all 20th century hymns are wiped off and we are back with the Victorians. 0 joy, 0 rapture, they cry! At least, Dr Ian Bradley will so exclaim, since his 1997 book Abide with me (SCM) recommends a diet of Victoriana to keep us going without recourse to modern trivia.
Is there anything to be said for the hymns of the past hundred years? If so, now is the time to say it. I am currently involved in planning an East Anglian festival, ‘A Hundred Years of Hymns; singing to span a century’. This time I will not reveal the Top Ten, let alone run a New Directions poll to settle it for eternity. But look at some of the available riches.
Negatively, beware the ‘My old man’s a dustman’ school of sixties’ hymnody notable for concrete and council flats – trendy at the time, set in its own concrete in one standard hymn book, but rapidly dating and culturally offensive.
Positively, remember the URC. We may regret their theology or ecclesiology, but United Reformed hymns are honoured milestones on the journey. The same is true of the Romans; look for names like Caird, Gaunt and Wren (URC), Foley and Quinn (RC).
Don’t forget Anglican evangelicals. Biased I may be, but Burns, Mowbray, Perry, Seddon, Saward, Wigmore and others have made enormous contributions for nearly forty years. You are not likely to omit Timothy Dudley-Smith, but your choice need not be Tell out, my soul. It is no big deal to be told that your first hymn was the best!
Don’t forget Iona. John Bell and friends have done wonders for the marriage of folk and hymn; they resonate to an anti-establishment agenda, but like other rebels (as Fred Kaan observes) where they build their own establishment they need gentle challenge. Another Fred, Pratt Green, remains a Methodist grand-master graciously balancing orthodoxy with questioning.
Don’t forget George Timms; there are too few from his brand of catholic Anglicanism. Don’t forget Sydney Carter, nor Graham Kendrick. They may not write ‘proper hymns’, but they do better than any of their imitators. One of either in your ten will spice things up, prompt healthy debate, and show the rest in their true light.
Don’t forget Songs of Praise – the book, not the programme. Some of its I920s fireworks spluttered out, but Morning has broken (in D flat!) and Lord of all hopefulness each made their debut here. Thank you, Eleanor Fargeon and ‘Jan Struther’.
Don’t forget the other pre-moderns; Frank Houghton could write a bit; so could another international bishop, George Bell, whose Christ is the king retains its freshness. Albert Bayly, George Briggs, and Canadian Margaret Clarkson bravely spanned the gulf between ‘thou’ and ‘you’.
Don’t forget Africa, Australia or the Caribbean; look at With One Voice (Collins, 1979). Or America; Great is thy faithfulness belongs to our century! So, come to that, does How great thou art. Even Katie Barclay Wilkinson died in 1928, and Athelstan Riley only in 1945. If I speak in riddles, your hymnal’s author-index holds the clues.
Finally, don’t forget the modern north Americans. Carl Daw is a name to remember, and I still back Thomas Troeger as the writer of the century, whose recognition may take another hundred years. But whatever you select, sing to the Lord a new song! You will not lack quality material.
Christopher Idle is Assistant Minister of Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.