THERE IS NO such thing as pure text. Such an observation is pre-ancient rather than post-modern. But it certainly matters to hymns.

A hymn in a book has a different feel to it from one on a screen or blank wall. Many Christians under thirty have never sung hymns from a book. Some have never sung hymns, period, but that is not my point. Even if your hymnal (or songnal) is of the phone-book variety (A to Z), the text will have a number. Today it will include many more extras unknown to my grandparents. They knew that the hymns were arranged in some kind of order, like the Psalms, and that details were available if required. In the music edition on the piano at home, for instance.

Things have changed. Together with the words of the hymn we can now read the writer’s name, sometimes in full; when they were born and (where applicable) died. Then, who owns the copyright and where they live, sometimes with phone number. (E-mail, no doubt, is on the way – together with the implied threat of fearful retribution if you copy without asking.) Penal and legal concepts may have vanished from the hymns; they are still meat and drink to their publishers. It is worse on the screen when the verses are in black handwriting, occasionally with correct spelling (sheet 2 of 4), followed by the Christian Copyright Licensing number and further information in bright red and green, little of which can charitably be regarded as enhancing devotion. I expect it’s required by Brussels, Frankfurt, or Eastbourne.

Years ago the clergy (in the widest sense) of a certain London Deanery would speed off for some days in the purer air of a fenland Diocesan Centre. The usual teaching input for this annual feast of fun demanded that we embraced a Gospel of freedom; stop clinging to churchy rules and worldly securities, start incarnating kingdom values for the poor, powerless and oppressed. Then everyone would double-lock their rooms, check their car-alarms and credit-cards, and (after Compline from which the Father and the Son had been excused in the interest of inclusiveness) sail out en masse to the nearest pub. The only ones left behind were the non-alcoholic evangelicals and the sisterly members of a religious order. We got on fine.

I find a similar dislocation of message in the freshness of a certain kind of hymn, and the fetters of the legal paragraphs which follow it.

Lord, we are free;
no more the rules which Pharisees and Scribes invent;
no more the temples and the schools,
welcome, the desert and the tent!

Let love be monarch, sovereign, free,
where laws no longer chain us in;
our only life be liberty,
conformity the only sin.

Copyright 1999 Hermann Z Winkeldorf Jnr, Hallelujah Second Coming Music, 4321 Main Street West Brighton and Hove Albion, for countries outside Monaco and Antarctica.

To copy this illegally is an offence under European Fishing Regulations and carries the death penalty in the former Zaire.

All rights reserved.

Thus do the rules speak louder than the rhymes. But when the hymn is good, the shame is all the greater. If you possess a fine painting, you will probably take some care over the frame. A shabby or gaudy surround, a fussy or offensive one or none at all, will affect the way you and your guests see the picture. Not to mention whereabouts in the house you hang it. It seems so obvious. One day we may wake up to the need to present our hymns in an equally appropriate way. If they deserve it.

Christopher Idle belongs to Christ Church Old Kent Road in the diocese of Southwark.