Highways and Byways of Hymns

Long live the Queen!

This unlikely headline appeared nearly seventeen years ago in the Church of England Newspaper, parent paper of this journal. As its then editor pointed out, this was a significant line from a modestly Trinitarian item soon to appear in a new hymnal, starting ‘God save our gracious Queen’ but taking a less usual route from then on.

As it was August, all the media were having fun with the leaked item. ‘Hands off our anthem!’ screamed other headlines. One brave journalist took soundings outside Buckingham Palace, and found sightseers whose patriotic outrage at the new words was exceeded only by their giggling inability to recite many of the old ones. What is it doing in this column? In other words, is it a hymn? You worry about such questions only when you start planning another hymn book. All you need to decide is where to put it (among the rest, under ‘National’, or inside the back cover?), how many verses (from one to five) and which version.

It used to he sung much more than it is now; also much less, and before 1745, not at all. Isaac Watts, Shakespeare, Milton, and Henry VIII muddled along without it. For the Wesleys it was just another newfangled worship-song. If you sing it today you are probably at Wembley; if you’re in church, you may be holding a service sheet, not a hymn book. But someone had to deal with the printer; how did they know what to print?

Hymns Ancient and Modern took the plunge in its ill-fated 1904 edition, and subsequently stuck with three traditional verses. But ‘Confound their politicks, Frustrate their knavish tricks’ was too much for Percy Dearmer, and the 1906 English Hymnal stole a march by dropping verse two and introducing the Hickson version (3 more stanzas), ‘God bless our native land’. With Songs of Praise came the ‘Official Peace Version’, with a quizzical half-apology; did all this stir up a hornet’s nest like that of 1982? The New English Hymnal compromised by printing two traditional verses with Hickson’s third, ‘Not on this land alone’. All these treat it as a hymn, tucked in alongside verses for St Nicholas, vows to my country, and England’s mountains green. The 1965 Anglican Hymn Book was less certain, launching it on the cover; by 1978 it had hopped inside, knavish tricks and all, as No. 664.

Free churches have generally been more cautious; after all, it does sound faintly establishment, and the whole thing started in Drury Lane anyway. Mission Praise prints two verses, the URC, one. Methodists, Wesleyan loyalties notwithstanding, will have none of it.

Grace Hymns begins its middle stanza ‘Through every changing scene, O Lord, preserve our Queen’ (is nothing sacred?) while Baptist Praise and Worship starts traditionally, closes with Hickson, and borrows verse 2 from that most patriotic of all collections. What is that? Why, Hymns for Today’s Church, of course! No hymnal I know has more verses of true patriotism; buy now while stocks last! The case against the traditional text seems strong, but has never bothered the British. Prince Charles and devolution between them might have delivered some fatal blows; the Falklands and gold medals help to revive it. By the new millennium another force has galloped to the rescue, guaranteeing our little song another fifty years’ passionate support. I mean the new European anthem.

Beethoven’s music appears in many books with varied words, from Psalm 98 to Christmas, the Gloria and beyond. But it may be some time before ‘God save the Euro’ finds a place in a hymn book.

Christopher Idle is a member of Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.