Highways and Byways of Hymns


In the unusual circumstances of that week – that night, even – and owing to factors beyond the church’s control, the music and hymns group was down to just two. “Pity we haven’t got Tim with us”, said the leader; “He usually knows what the young people like these days”.

“Not to mention John”, said the sole surviving member of the team: “I love his music. Those two new ones about the Lamb of God and the throne in heaven – superb!” “Never mind, we’ll just do our best. Incidentally, I have sat on comfier chairs than this! Now, where do we start? What’s the one that goes ‘The prisoner leaps to lose his chains’?”

“Yes, I thought of that. What can it be? Which reminds me; ‘my chains fell off’; that’s one of Lou’s favourites. I wonder what’s keeping him tonight – working late again? But if we pick either of these, our immediate congregation might think we were trying to be funny.”

“Which we would be.” “Exactly.”

“OK, then. There must be loads of good ones based on Philippians 2; they would be bang on target for relevance.” “Good thinking. The only snag is, no-one has written them yet!”

The leader, Paul, shifted uneasily. Where was that draught coming from? He had the odd feeling that they were being overheard. How do you get a room to yourself in this building? He must speak to the guv’nor in the morning. He glanced at his watch; getting on for midnight.

The discussion moved on. “How about My Father, for another night of quiet sleep and rest?” “That’s not quite us”, came the reply; “not our style. Besides, didn’t we have it last week?” You never could tell when this man was joking.

“We don’t want to start singing things that nobody knows. On the other hand, what an opportunity to teach some new ones! Let’s go for it!” “Yes, it may never come again. There’s always hope. We could give them something to remember us by – and our slightly colourful visit.”

“But then, we have to face it, no P.A., no proper instruments, not much by way of a crowd…is it better not to sing at all?” The leader gaped “What are you talking about?” he demanded. “Are you one of those who only sign when they’re winning? Or haven’t you reached Ephesians 5 yet?”

“That’s what I thought you’d say. Well, here’s one choice from me. It won’t cause an earthquake, but it might shake one or two of them. Spot on for the occasion, I’d say…” He lowered his voice; the older man smiled.

So it was that It came upon a midnight clear rang out then and there, timed to the minute. Cooped up in their cell, Paul and his friend Silas let rip at full volume. And then, very suddenly….But soon the whole of Philippi heard about it, and then, the rest of the world.

Cut…Thanks to Luke and others, we have heard the story too. But if choosing hymns need not be a desperately solemn business (though it is an important one), what you sing in prison can be vital. Some numbers are not encouraged. For many Christian brothers and sisters, to sing at all could mean a longer sentence, more brutality, or death.

Yet it has often been the remembered rhymes and rhythms of hymns which have sustained a persecuted church, deprived as it sometimes is of Bibles and Prayer Books. Let alone the music, music stands, microphones, speakers, backing group, o.h.p., licensing scheme… (fade).

Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church, Old Kent Road