Highways and Byways of Hymns

Of Great Smith and spotting the difference

YOU PASS REVERENTLY through the sacred portals of Church House Bookshop, Great Smith Street. You have come from the Abbey or General Synod or a Whitehall sit-in. Discreet bow to the Expository Times and News of Hymnody on your right. Brief nod to the cut-price bargains on your left. Modest genuflection to Best Sellers and Latest Titles in front of you. More considered reverence to the stacks of liturgical material behind the pillar. Then you advance silently to your personal shrine, the Hymnals. What’s new?

Well, not quite silently. You waggle a finger in your ear to check that you are not hallucinating; no, this is real. The sound system is kindly playing over the latest Golden Album from Susie Sunshine’s Gospel Dreams:

‘I do just love him so, hallelu, he’s so precious and beautiful, King of kings, Lamb on the throne, 1 feel he’s here, yeah’.

That would be no great shock in bookshops whose window display is dominated by today’s double bargain, “I found God on the Shanghai Dog Track” and ‘Six Essential Steps to Christian Masculinity’. But has the tide of worship-song finally engulfed the Anglican heartlands, as the waters cover the sea? You must write to someone? Take care.

I have been there myself, on the point of complaining; in fact, I’m in that place once again. But do I really want to be serenaded around the shelves by cathedral choirs singing O thou who camest from above or a hundred Welsh voices harmonising Jesu, Lover of my soul? Probably not. Because those great hymns, and indeed all hymns, were never meant to be used as mind-massaging, customer-controlling, sales-inducing, wallet-emptying wallpaper. But some of the songs?

To hear a real hymn, whether at church, on radio, or in Westminster, makes me want to stand up and sing with the rest. To hear the classics trivilialised into background mush is not good. It’s bad. It dawned on me that if we can’t have silence (which is apparently banned except during bingo or the football results) you may as well get the shimmering sunshine sound of Susie and friends.

So thanks to the mandarins of Great Smith Street, I have stumbled on another clue in the quest for definitions. For what (they always ask) is the difference between hymns and songs?

Easy. Hymns are what I do not wish to hear as I book-browse, wondering whether to blow the whole token on Inter-Testamental Manuscripts of the Early Macedonian Calvinists, or splash out on a new edition of Celtic Prayers for Monthly Columnists.

I am not very clear who Great Smith was. Was he for instance distantly related to Walter Chalmers of that clan? For those who know the stalwart Scot only through Immortal, invisible, God only wise, or even The Bishop’s Walk’ (1860), let me also commend Earth was wafting, spent and restless. Many hymns celebrate God’s unchanging power; not many mention the temple money-changers. Since its main story-line is the Annunciation I wonder why, by and large, Catholics have left this one to Evangelicals? Money-changers – this is where we came in. Susie can sing away the week at Westminster, but let’s keep Smith for Sunday.

PS: remember February? Between my paper and yours, cricketer Peter May was transmuted into Phil May, cartoonist. It was the former who tarnished a glittering batting career by becoming chairman of selectors. Near the end he was told, ‘Everyone is saying you’re totally out of touch’. His response: ‘Oh, I haven’t heard that one’. He could have done other jobs at Westminster.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.