Highways and byways of hymns

Peace and the Palace

It has come to our attention that a significant percentage of those who read this column – say nought point two – are fellow members with its author of the APF, or Anglican Pacifist Fellowship. A certain proportion of Christians are Anglican; some Anglicans are also Evangelicals, Catholics or both; a fragment of this slice of the cake is also Pacifist; and a further segment of that is keenly interested in hymns. See what I mean; the Gospel distilled to its purest, most authentic form.

Which means that you who are still reading this month’s offering will by now be wondering, as is your habit, what your Vicar is doing about Remembrance Sunday; or, if you are the Vicar, what you will do about it. Some of our more drum-happy churches still speak in terms of sacrifice and even sing O valiant hearts. Last year I attended our parish church, where we did not sing it but heard instead of the futility of war. Dare we speak or sing of its wickedness?

I do not think, as I once did, that the day should be abandoned; rather, that much in it is redeemable. The names on the war memorial may still be remembered, like the victims of the Falklands or Gulf Wars. Or the 1914–18 deserters? I write here not so much about sermons, silences or prayers, but of hymns. What can we sing that is not hopelessly shallow compared with the suffering both endured and inflicted by the combatants, conscripts and volunteers whom the poppies commemorate and whose survivors are still marginally helped by their sales?

On the face of it, O God, our help in ages past is a fine pacifist hymn; but the grandson of Admiral

Watts can hardly have thus meant it. All my hope on God is founded is nearer the mark; we sang last

November, ‘Sword and crown betray his trust’, but who grasps its implications as they sing? Charles

Wesley wrote some anti-war poetry as eloquent as any, but however we interpret the lines of Messiah,

Prince of Peace, they come across as preaching, not devotion. John never put them in a hymn book.

Fred Kaan cannot be dismissed as an impractical romantic: three grandparents died under the Nazis, and his parents sheltered a Jewish woman in their Netherlands home for two years. His mother was saved by the Red Cross from starvation in 1945. His God, as with silent hearts we bring to mind was commissioned by Coventry Cathedral, has been widely sung since Remembrance Sunday 1989, and goes to the SUPREME SACRIFICE tune. It takes us beyond patriotism into costly peace. For something even more challenging, APF will send you Sue Gilmurray’s ‘Finest Hour’ CD.

But talking of patriotism: anyone fancy writing a sketch on the Royal Family choosing hymns for next June? The Golden Jubilee service at St Paul’s has, I gather, been virtually settled; Her Majesty gave a list of her favourites (hymns, not royals) to the Dean and Chapter. When Queen Victoria had her great Diamond Jubilee at the Abbey, at least one hymn was less than 30 years old. Canon John Ellerton had recently died, but The day thou gavest swept all before it at many national events in 1897. 1 wonder how many late-2Oth century hymns will feature next year? Don’t hold your breath – except for the long notes.

In the summer I had hoped to ask for suggestions and to indicate where to send them, but unless you have the ear of the Sovereign, I fear it is too late. Would her choices be better than Charles’? What about a fresh look at the National Anthem?

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.