A Millennium Moratorium?

THE HISTORY OF moratoria, if that is the word, is not encouraging. Whether in evangelism, whaling, or bombs, the proposed cease-fires are not widely observed. That will not stop me calling this month for a moratorium on the writing of new hymns.

Shock, horror, I hear you exclaim. Others will say ‘Moratorium? You mean, crematorium!’ I recently found myself carrying a box-load of a certain hymnbook to the car-boot of the person who had led the meeting. ‘Did you want these in the skip?’ I asked, meaningfully. He didn’t laugh.

But nor do I, when people say ‘Are you still writing hymns?’ Do they really want to know, or are they simply stuck for conversation? Rather like ‘Is the back still playing up?’ or, ‘Bit of rain on the way?’ Others have the same problem; we want to say ‘Are you still singing them?’. What often comes out is, ‘No, I’m trying to give it up’.

But seriously, what are we going to do about the hymn-mountain with which our churches are entering a new millennium? – that word again! Should we draw a line under the whole twentieth century? But drawing a line under something generally means that we hope the shameful things we have done will soon be forgotten. Precisely.

What prompts such negative thoughts on a fine June morning? Last month I had cause to study a 1990 book ‘Psalms for Today’. Much of the music and many of the words are good. Some texts do not stick closely to the Psalms they are based on; but here are some fine verses, even poetry, in singable metre and decent rhyme. Anglican, United Reformed, and Roman Catholic authors all make their mark.

So why does nobody sing them? Partly because we don’t sing Psalms much anyway – see this column, passim. But the book came out, sold out, dropped out, and was overtaken by the next collection of songs that your church absolutely must have. What PCC treasurer will back a call for a separate book of Psalms for the congregation?

But I would love to sing many of these, not just at the piano at home, but secretly among the faithful, and in the congregation. For that, I need a bit of space – from the flood of new material pouring from our publishers in a never-ending stream. Once it was righteousness, now it’s songs; the prophet Amos preferred the former.

The trouble with a moratorium is that it looks like a re-run of the couple who built their new house on the edge of the common, and then spearheaded the village campaign against further encroachment on the countryside. We just made it; up goes the drawbridge. And new young hymn-writers need encouraging, not exterminating. Where are they all?

What have Rock of ages, There is a green hill, and When I survey got in common? Subject-matter, yes. They are also, all of them, the work of writers in their early thirties. So are Hark, the herald angels sing, O little town of Bethlehem, and Once in royal David’s city. I cannot be serious about that moratorium. Who knows what winners will stride out ahead of the also-rans a hundred years from now?

Meanwhile, stranger than fiction, you can actually borrow ‘Psalms for Today’ from Greenwich Public Library. It’s that place again, just in time for the You-Know-What. No-one has suggested putting one through every door in S.E. London, but at least when it comes to Psalms in Libraries, Greenwich is several jumps ahead of the Old Kent Road.

Christopher Idle belongs to Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.