The Hymnal

EASTERN Orthodox Christians curious about Anglicanism were advised by Nicholas Lossky, the Russian Orthodox theologian, to search in Anglicanism’s liturgical and devotional literature, the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal and the theological works of Anglican divines, rather than Articles or doctrinal statements described as corporate acts of the whole Church. Previous articles in this series have done this. Here we look thematically at the Hymnal as a manual of doctrine and devotion, for it is here that the laity learn their theology.

Hymns and vision

When the Arian Emperor’s persecuting soldiers surrounded his church in Milan, Bishop Ambrose (fourth century) locked himself and his people in the church and sang hymns on the Incarnation to confront this heresy’s denial of Christ’s divinity. Ambrose’s hymns articulate pure doctrine in poetry that communicates the experience out of which the doctrine has come. Hymns unconsciously engrave on our hearts such experience and doctrine, even before we understand it.

As a choirboy a hymn engraved itself onto me. `The Great God of heaven is come down to earth’ by HR Bramley summed up for me the Incarnation.

The Word in the bliss of the Godhead remains,
Yet in flesh comes to suffer the keenest of pains;
He is that he war, and forever shall be,
But becomes that he was not, for you and for me.

It set me thinking about the Incarnation by immersing me in the liturgical worship of the Church and the undivided tradition of Christian doctrine, not as mere theory but as life. Thought is not enough; if I was to understand what I was thinking, I had to believe, and faith would lead me into understanding. A wonderful moment came some years later when that penny dropped and I understood what I had always believed and thought. Flesh and blood did not reveal it `but my Father who is in heaven’. Faith and understanding have their springs in the eternal.

It is impossible to overrate the value of good hymns for private as well as public use. Next to the Bible itself, hymns have done more to influence our views and mould our theology. There is a power in them that never dies. Easily learned in the days of childhood and of youth, often repeated, seldom, if ever, forgotten; they live with us, a most precious heritage through all the changes of our earthly life.

They form a fitting and most welcome expression for every kind of deep religious feeling and speak to us of faith and hope in hours of trial and sorrow. They can stimulate our Christian efforts, remaining in us as the rich consolation of heart and mind, and as one common bond of fellowship between the living members of Christ’s mystical Body.

Anglican hymns

Today hymns are commonplace in Anglican worship, but until around 1800 the singing of hymns in the modem sense was suspect in Anglican churches. This was a backlash from the Puritan insistence that Scripture must regulate every detail of life. Congregational singing used words drawn directly from Scripture and metrical versions of the Psalms. The Congregationalist, Isaac Watts, in 1707 published the first book of non-biblical hymns and became `father of English hymnody’.

Anglican hymnals draw on Luther, on the Wesleys, on Moravian hymnology, on Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge amongst Independents, on Samuel Rutherford, Horatio Bonar and George Matheson, and on the great Orthodox and Latin hymns brought to Western Christians by Neale, Caswall and Lacey’s translations.

God the Father

A hymn is a corporate prayer offered in worship and may express praise and penitence, petition and supplication, thanksgiving and meditation. Watts saw that the chief aim of psalmody is that we should address ourselves to God by expressing our personal circumstances, so that the words in hymns should be adapted to the general state of the worshippers. In the evolution from psalmody, the hymn becomes not only a paraphrasing of the psalms but also an expression of the spirit of psalmody.

We find this in the biblical doctrine of God underlying hymns to God the Father, expressing what Anglicans believe about him. `O God of Bethel by whose hand’ is based on Genesis 28.20, 22. There are various versions of Psalm 23: `The God of love my shepherd is’, `The King of Love my shepherd is’, and `The Lord’s my shepherd I’ll not want’. `The Spacious Firmament on high’ is based on Psalm 19.1-3,

`O Worship the King’ adapts a paraphrase of Psalm 104, and `Praise my soul the King of Heaven’ is a version of Psalm 103.

`Praise to the Lord the Almighty the King of Creation’, a hymn of thanksgiving and praise from the German poet Neander is based on Psalms 103.1-6 and 150. Rinkart’s `Now thank we all our God’ is praise to God for his providence and care. ‘Ye holy angels bright’ praises God and invites the angels to assist our song, invoking the saints at rest to sound his praises and calling the saints on earth to adore the Heavenly King.

`The God of Abraham praise’ is from a paraphrase of the Jewish Creed Yigdal and `Bright the vision that delighted’ is inspired by Isaiah 6.1-3. `Nearer my God to Thee’, played by the band as the Titanic sank, is inspired by Jacob’s vision in Genesis 28.12. The popular `Immortal, invisible, God only wise’ is based on 1 Timothy 1.17.

God the Son

It was Pliny’s letter in AD 112 that first mentioned Christians singing hymns to Christ as God. St Ambrose provides the earliest Advent hymn, `Come Thou Redeemer of the earth’, originating from the Arian controversy and declaring in powerful language the virgin birth of Christ and his twofold nature. From that same time comes Prudenfius’ hymn `Of the Father’s heart begotten’ and another ancient Latin hymn translated by Caswall, that we know as `Hark a herald voice is calling’. Other Latin hymns are `O come O come Emmanuel’ that JM Neale dates to the twelfth century and `O Come all ye faithful’ (1720-50), both sound in doctrine.

The medieval monks composed hymns for daily worship expressing the doctrines of the Christian Year and examples of these Office hymns can be found for the daily Offices in The English Hymnal. A familiar name is Charles Coffin (1676-1749) who gave us `On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s cry’, `The Advent of our God’ and the Christmas hymn `God from on high hath heard’. Such hymns from across the centuries focus our attention on the objectivity of the mystery of the Incarnation as God’s `unspeakable gift’ and the richness of the great drama of our redemption.

Nicolai’s, `Wake O wake! With tidings thrilling’ is of a different genre. Written during a sixteenth-century plague when he had thirty funerals a day, it looks to the redemption from evil that the return of Christ will bring. So we begin to get passionate but never sentimental outpourings of love, trust and praise in a more subjective type of hymn. Pestel’s `Behold the great Creator makes’ is a proclamation of the Incarnation born of living experience. The Wesley brothers Hymns and Sacred Songs, expresses the spirit of conversion and especially in the line `Born to give them second birth’ in `Hark the Herald Angels sing’.

Essential to a good hymn, wrote Tennyson, is the commonplace and the practical. Isaac Watts identified this as the level of the plain Christian and the expression of what is common to the faith of Christendom, because the hymn is essentially for corporate worship. This we find in the great hymns of Charles Wesley, where he speaks with his own voice and expresses with a lyrical passion his own religious experience. Bishop Heber’s concern was not merely with the expression of religious feeling but also with exercising a deliberate control of expression by the canons of poetic art. Christopher Wordsworth’s hymns were to teach sound doctrine in a scriptural, dogmatic and didactic style.

While many hymns have disappeared without trace, the survivors do witness to the sublime mystery of the Incarnation. So in trawling through the expressions of this great mystery in the hymns on Our Lord’s Life and Ministry, Passion and Death, Resurrection and Ascension, Transfiguration and Second Coming, we catch the spirit of the Church’s understanding in the lives and experience of those hymn writers who have plumbed its depths.

God the Holy Spirit

The most famous hymn `Come Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’ found its way into the 1662 Ordinal and was made popular by Cosin’s translation. Dryden’s paraphrase is another version `Creator Spirit by whose aid’. The author Rabams Maurus (776-856) was a monk and it was the Office hymn for Terce on Whitsunday. In the lines `Teach us to know the Father, Son And Thee, of both, to be but one’, we are reminded of the filioque controversy in the sixth century, when in the West the Holy Ghost was declared to proceed from the Son and from the Father.

‘Come Thou Holy Paraclete’ is JM Neale’s translation of `Veni Sancte Spiritus’ or the `golden sequence’ of Stephen Langton. `O King enthroned on high’ is originally a Greek hymn from the eighth century. Robert Bridges’ `Love of the Father, love of God the Son’ is based on a Latin hymn of the twelfth century in which the love of the Father and the Son is the Holy Spirit, and derives from Aquinas. The favourite `Come down O love divine’, derived from an Italian hymn in Laudi Spirituali, a collection of Bianco Siena (1434).

From the nineteenth century comes Keble’s objective and dramatic hymn `When God of old came down from heaven’, and Auber’s intimate and personal `Our blest Redeemer ere he breathed’.

God the Holy Trinity

Ambrose’s `O Trinity of blessed light’ is the earliest hymn addressed to the Trinity and was the Office hymn on Saturday evenings after Trinity Sunday. `St Patrick’s Breastplate’ in today’s format dates from the eighth century. Two Office hymns date from the tenth century when Trinity Sunday was first observed, `Be present Holy Trinity’ and `Father most Holy, merciful and tender’. These ancient hymns associate the Trinity with light indicating that, while the being of God remains a mystery, it is a mystery of light not darkness.

Bishop Heber’s `Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty’ is the most popular Trinitarian hymn that expresses pure worship in the language of Scripture while Newman’s `Firmly I believe and truly’ is another favourite, expressing sound doctrine as the ground from which adoration and worship rise.

The Life of Grace

Of four hymns for baptism two come from German translations, `Blessed Jesu, here we stand’ from the Lutheran Benjamin Schmolock (1672-1737) and `Lord Jesus Christ, our Lord most dear’ from the Swiss monk Laufenberg (1458) which ask a blessing on the child. Baptism is the sure ground of our salvation and Dean Alford’s hymn `In token that thou shalt not fear’ underlines Hooker’s answer in his Ecclesiastical Polity to the Puritan objection of the use of the cross in baptism. JM Neale’s hymn `In Christ we share a mystic grave’ clearly expresses a doctrine of baptismal regeneration.

Eucharistic hymns of Aquinas, and Greek hymns stand alongside those of Doddridge and Charles Wesley. For our sacramental devotion there is `Of the glorious Body telling’, `The Word of God proceeding forth’, Latin hymns for Corpus Christi, and `Hail true Body born of Mary’. Here we are in the Real Presence of Christ and in `According to Thy gracious word’ we are reminded that we are making memorial, anamnesis, according to Christ’s command. Dr Bright alerts us to its sacrificial aspect in `Once only once’. `And now O Father, mindful of the love’ tells us that what Christ is doing in the heavenly places, the Church in the Eucharist is always doing here on earth.

Hymns celebrating Our Lady, saints, martyrs, and confessors remind us that the Church embraces the communion of saints in which we live with our forbears in the faith. Herbert’s hymns and those for morning and evening can provide nourishment for our personal prayer as Keble and Ken demonstrate.

Arthur Middleton is a Tutor at St Chad’s