Hymns of praise then let us sing

‘EASTERS I HAVE KNOWN’ would fill a book; I hope they would for you. Childhood or youthful discoveries of great words and music; early Communion at Maidenhead before the Aldermaston March resumed its own anthems of hope and judgement. Sunrise services in Limehouse or Spitalfields encountering snow or sun, invariably eggs and toast. The race around Suffolk villages, remembering the right books for the right church. But this is a hymn-focused column, and brings us up to last year. In March we left you just before Sunday dawned, somewhere in Oxfordshire.

The village street is gridlocked with four-wheeled Christianity. Ancient bells ring out across the jumbled rooftops, sparkling river and fields beyond. We arrive on foot with five minutes to spare and hardly find a seat; already we are asked to share our service sheets. ‘Do you mind squeezing in with the youth club?’ enquires a sidesman.

The youth club comprises two males, one of 95 (we discover later), the other a mere 80-something. Real youth are nearer the back, from Elizabeth (4 weeks) upwards. A drawback in having printed sheets, rather than hymn boards or announcements, is that we don’t quite find the page in time. ‘Number 77′, the vicar helpfully interjects as he sweeps past our pew, singing ‘Jesus Christ is risen today – Alleluia!’

We are launched. Extra treats include the responsive Psalm, handbell ringers, thanksgiving with a couple married here exactly fifty years ago, ‘The Peace’ exchanged warmly but not interminably, and (over coffee and cake) a presentation to the departing organist. The communion takes a while but no-one minds. Two more hymns suffice; ‘Thine be the glory’ and ‘Love’s redeeming work is done’.

Should we repeat the longish walk that evening? The nearest church has no 6.30 (shame, boo, etc) but tipping the balance in favour is that printed sheet displaying not only ‘The strife is o’er’ and ‘The day of resurrection’ but,‘Ye choirs of new Jerusalem’. I would walk miles for that final coda, ‘Alleluia – Amen!’ Hymnals stopping short of it should be fined.

The sermons keep just within orthodox bounds. To adapt a phrase, ‘If Christ be not risen, then our preaching is in vain and so are our hymns.’ The apostle did not fear they might be; he knew they were not.

What happened to ‘Jesus lives’? Next Sunday we are back in Southwark Diocese. On Tuesday, almost by accident, we land ‘Low in the grave he lay’, one of the few hymns where even the Baptists sing softly where they should. This is chosen by another member in his eighties. By way of contrast, Keeley is eighteen this week and goes for Havergal’s ‘Take my life’.

But then, the Sunday after Easter! Back at St Luke’s for a feast which includes Winkworth’s ‘Christ the Lord is risen again’, Kelly’s ‘The Lord is risen indeed’, and the two crackers which top the whole thing off nicely. How can anyone get through Easter without ‘Come ye faithful, raise the strain’, Pharaoh, Jacob, Red Sea, Jerusalem and all? And the glory of it all, ‘This joyful Eastertide’.

I was at the crematorium in Holy Week. I am there again on Thursday. A stalwart of the Hymn Society has also died; so, more suddenly, has our Deanery Synod’s Lay Chairman. The royal family and much of the nation is mourning the Queen Mother. But get this: ‘Death’s flood has lost its chill, since Jesus crossed the river.’ Alleluia!

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.