A Repeat too Far?

YOU TAKE YOUR SEAT for a notable civic occasion. You are not surprised to find on your programme some familiar lines beginning God save our gracious queen. At the expected moment the band strikes up and the company rises to its feet.

Then comes a surprise. The music of The Irish Washerwoman rings round the assembled crowd. You realise with a shock that the words can actually be fitted to the tune, give or take a syllable or two and the odd line or phrase repeated. Your neighbours seem to know how it works and give a good lead; you sing the whole thing through quite fast about five and half times, with lots of clapping, and the music conies to a breathless and hilarious end followed by further applause.

So far as I know, this has not actually happened yet. But as ever, the church is one jump ahead of popular taste. So you may have encountered something similar with the greatest of metrical doxologies, Thomas Ken’s Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. The words are more likely to be on the screen, though they have been around in Spring Harvest songbooks for some time, touchingly attributed to Andy and Dave. For me, Isaac and Tom seem the likelier lyricists; Watts and Ken, that is, although we have bits of this and that to help things along, many quavers and much syncopation. ‘?Steady rock feel’ it says here, copyright 1993, repeats positively required.

It was while we were beginning again for the fifth time at a recent service that I asked myself guiltily why I wasn’t enjoying this much; why, in fact~ I had stopped singing four bars earlier. Was it an age difference, a cultural gap, a denominational chasm between me and the rest? The notice-board outside said ‘Church of England’; I love the rousing repeats of When the saints go marching in; but am I really getting past it?

I shall write to New Directions; someone there will know. But some thoughts so far. When the words have been crafted with masterly skill and Biblical reverence (yes, and joy!) they generally make their point the first time. The Lord’s Prayer or The Grace come to mind; so does God be in my head and the Collect for Purity. Is Spring Harvest a throwback to an earlier theory that God might forgive you after all if you say your prayers over and over again enough times?

Of course Bishop Ken’s lines may be sung as a round or Canon; somehow that seems different. Even Happy Birthday to You might lose its charm if sung four times at 80 mph to the same person at the same party. There comes a point, and a style and speed, where each repeat seems to diminish rather than enhance what we are singing; where we are not actually glorying the Persons of the Holy Trinity at all, and where the words of a teenager at a Bristol Pentecostal Church in 1965 come so vividly to mind. She was what we would now call the Sunday evening worship leader, and she enquired of her assembled flock, ‘Now, the most important thing is, Are we all enjoying ourselves?’?

I hereby testify that in this year of our Lord 2000 the answer is sometimes No. My analogies may all be full of holes; but when the subject matter is so much more majestic, mysterious and holy than our birthdays or even our gracious queen, I hope that someone out there will understand. Or what will the harvest be?

PS: The Irish Washerwoman is not a bad tune.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.