A and M: Archetypal and Millennial?

THIS COLUMN cannot keep track of every new hymn book, nor judiciously assess them all for its readership. Because each church is different, there is no such thing as a right hymnal or best buy. But we cannot ignore the arrival this summer of the brightest and best ‘Ancient and Modem’ for fifty years, perhaps a hundred. Its mould-breaking title is Common Praise A&M; ironically, most New Directions readers may find it insufficiently catholic, and the rest judge it not evangelical enough. This may persuade the proprietors that they have pitched it about right.

To declare my interest: I remember the old blue A&M Standard, and used it regularly as recently as five years ago, in the blessedly traditional county of Suffolk. My youth was nurtured by the 1950 reddish A&M Revised; I actually remember singing No.51 for the very first time with excited wonder at St Mark’s Bromley. (Does anyone remember Sydney Smith at the organ? A wiser man than his more famous namesake.)

I was refreshed with some new directions taken by 100 Hymns for Today (red, white and blue, 1969), and delighted by some discoveries in More Hymns for Today (yellow, white and green) eleven years on. The ensuing stop-gap amalgam A&M New Standard failed to rouse enthusiasm but went on selling. Worship Songs A&M was happily something else again, but not a church hymn book. Like WSAM, Common Praise includes some of my texts, and I drafted its Biblical index. Now you know, please make allowances.

Every edition had its winners. One of the 1950 successes was Alington’s splendid Ye that know the Lord is gracious. The whole enterprise going back a further ninety years has a seemingly endless string of favourites to its credit. A&M first introduced The King of love my shepherd is and Lord, thy word abideth. Even more telling was its flair for finding the ‘natural’ tunes for Abide with me; Holy, holy, holy; Eternal Father strong to save; O God, our help in ages past – even All glory, laud and honour! They all seem so obvious; someone had to think of them first.

To read the history is to wonder again what is new under the sun; ‘doggerel’, ‘miserable’, ‘meaningless’, snarled one correspondent; ‘careless rhymes’, ‘poverty of thought’, snapped another. Far more critics scarcely noticed the book’s arrival. Writers as distinguished as Ellerton and Neale were always willing to have their own texts altered if that would make them more useful. But in those days the words were often written by country clergy, the tunes composed by urban musicians. Copyright, they assumed, didn’t apply to hymns. Essentially this was a tract promoting what was Ancient, often translated from Latin; Moderns were included to sell the book. Hymns, said Bishop Walsham How, must be lovable – not a bad word for some of his own.

It is strange to find, in 1861, so little Watts or Wesley, and only five in the Communion section. Or that the price of 4d (2 1/2 p.) was thought a bit steep for a words edition; poorer churches ‘would never buy it’. Or that the editors consulted several bishops on points of theology or style. The Archbishop of Canterbury (Benson) carefully checked the proof in 1889. Give us a hand, George!

The 1904 edition was judged a failure; something similar may be said of the 1983 version. But that is a relative term; any book selling hundreds of millions must have got something right. A hundred years from now, perhaps this column will highlight some gems from the 2000 book. Watch this space.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.