The People’s Hymn

ONE OF THE MORE foolish mistakes I made immediately before ordination was when writing an essay for assessment by an archdeacon in my first diocese. I was pontificating about canticles, and criticised one Prayer Book item which I had been singing for as long as I could remember. The Venerable gentleman expressed courteous surprise at my opinions. Since I knew far more then than I do now, I persisted in my comments, which he wisely let pass.

As Roy Hattersley says, there is no point in being sixty if you remain as arrogant as you were when you were thirty-five – or less. Sometimes the years bring greater wisdom, and I here confess my grievous fault. I have come to treasure this particular text above every other hymn; I use it in private all the more since it is so rarely available in public. It is the People’s Hymn; see last time. It begins ‘Te Deum Iaudamus’, better known as ‘We praise thee, 0 God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord’.

That is the Prayer Book version. One low point of the ASB I980-2000 is its trivial ‘Te Deum, adopted from elsewhere and starting ‘You are God and we praise you.’ Not even the new Gloria plumbs such depths. We recently enjoyed a choral and orchestral evening at All Souls’ Langham Place which included three ‘Te Deums. It was billed as ‘We praise thee, O God’. Can you imagine the event being called ‘You are God and we praise you’?

For what it was, it was brilliant. One small snag was that we weren’t allowed actually to sing. And this is the people’s hymn! ‘0 Lord, save thy people’ we cry, after encountering apostles, martyrs, prophets, and the worldwide holy church; together with them, we are also called (as in Scripture) believers, servants, and saints.

Stanford in C was not included; his last and best canticle, says Lionel Dakers: ‘one of the church’s great historic texts further enriched by the addition of music’. With those we did hear, I had a further problem. Whence all these drums and fanfares for the final line? My boyhood memory of Matins was of the basses leading us down in great solemnity to ‘let me never be confounded’. I could not have said quite what that meant, and I am still not totally certain; what was crystal clear was that this was deadly serious. ‘[here are dreadful things which sometimes need to be said and even sung.

And sing it we did. So did hundreds of thousands of others, Sunday by Sunday. Where are they all now, except in cathedrals and other choral establishments? It’s harder to keep going when Morning Prayer means fifteen minutes with the two or three. I once met a London City Missionary who testified that he was converted during the singing of ‘Te Deum. He expected us to be surprised; it did not surprise me in the least! I pray for more like him; many of its lines are highly converting material, not least when read with due emphasis at the cemetery. ‘When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death, thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.’

In a story about C S Lewis, Sheldon Vanauken tells how he and a friend sang to the streets of Oxford, ‘Thou art the king of glory, O Christ’ – one of the high points in any version. Is it too much to hope that as Ascensiontide approaches. someone will dust off those old BCPs in order to rehearse this great hymn once more’? It is the people’s hymn par excellence; it is also truly the Lord’s song.

Christopher Idle has permission to officiate in the Diocese of Southwark