MORNING GLORY, STARLIT SKY
The opening line is fine enough, yet gives no hint of the wonder to come. If once more we review our century to see what hymns we treasure, this by W H Vanstone would be in my top ten. Not for the first time, I offer a delayed tribute to a notable pastor, writer and scholar While hardly unknown before, William Vanstone’s name became widely recognised with the 1977 publication of his pan-autobiographical ‘Love’s Endeavour, Love’s Expense’.
If the book itself became a landmark for countless studies, seminars, and sermons, the final page was (from a hymn-lover’s viewpoint) its crowning glory. Morning glory, in fact; so began the poem which perfectly crystallises the book’s pastoral and incarnational theology. What a way to write a hymn! And how satisfying to sing, if we know it was not a commission dashed off in ten minutes, but came to fruition from reflection on long experience.
At the time, from any random collection of a hundred new texts, this one simply stood out. That was certainly true in ‘More Hymns for Today’ – not that this second ‘A & M’ supplement was at all random. It shone then and it shines now; such is the flood of more predictable verse which overflows today’s bookshelves. ‘Drained is love in making full, bound in setting others free. . ‘, no, I will not reproduce it all, for reasons of space, copyright, and textual uncertainty. Here the familiar question ‘Which version?’ is not merely an editorial headache, it is a hymnological tragedy,
Turn back to the final page of the book. Vanstone wrote about leaves in springtime, tremendous seas, towering words; if you know the hymn, that may surprise you. These phrases and others were changed, with due authority, for the 7-stanza poem to appear as a 6-verse hymn, Mane crucially, the original has ‘Therefore He Who Thee reveals / Hangs, O Father, on that Tree. . .’ – Twenty two years ago some hymnwriters were still using Prayer Book pronouns and Victorian Capital Letters.
Not long afterwards the revision was printed, happily entering the mainstream via its green and yellow supplement, and from there into A & M New Standard (1983). In March this year, Canon Vanstone died, aged 75. Discerning editors want to include his hymn in future books, But his literary executors are allowing only the original, complete with thee/thou, and minus the other changes which helped to make it a small masterpiece. Result? Although the later text is in wide use, many new books will not carry the words at all. Modern editors may be happy with archaisms from 1777, but not from 1977. They will not choose the superseded text
A slightly different process also eliminates another hymn from many books; one that is better known but hardly so well written. I mean the Billy Graham and Mission Praise favourite How greet thou art. Yes, there are people who would like to drag this into the 21st century; the available revision does not read ‘How great you are’. Stuart K Hine’s executors, who hold the copyright of the English paraphrase, came to the brink of allowing an alternative, but drew back. Whatever you think of that, the effect will be to marginalise the very hymn they are committed to commending.
How great thou art has only one tune. In contrast, Morning glory is, or was, open to others. It was launched to Gibbons’ SONG 13, with a harmless alternative. But once you hear Barry Rose’s Morning Glory (Worship Songs A & M) you will probably be content. Until your books fall apart, or someone has a change of heart.
Christopher Idle belongs to Christ Church, Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark. He has recently resumed editorship of the quarterly ‘News of Hymnody’.