Last Chance Saloon

I HAVE TWO messages for those just finalising their Carol Service. First, you haven’t got long. Second, whether the new millennium is due soon or already eleven months old, if the numbers mean anything this is a two thousandth birthday. Do your carols include something special?

For those truly desperate, by telephoning or faxing me on 0207 732 8584 you can obtain a millennium carol which fits the tune of The holly and the ivy and therefore needs little rehearsal. Old Kent Road-tested last year, it is mildly London-focused but clearly Bethlehem-based, makes some serious points, but can be fun if you have a trombonist around.

But in the confidence that most readers, clergy, choirs, music-directors and all have this event buttoned up long ago, I venture to look forwards. Somewhere, some time sooner than you think, someone is going to sit down to plan a new hymn hook.

Raising my voice above the cries of disbelief from those who imagine that we have enough to keep us going, for all theologies and none, for the next hundred years, I forecast that a committee will spot a gap, a group of friends a need, a publisher a killing, before much ordinary or any other time has passed. It has always been so. It could be you. How do you go about setting up your planning and editorial group?

There are of course fixed laws (like those of the ABC – Archimedes, Boyle and Cricket) governing how you function. These are outlined in the Bulletin of the Hymn Society No 208, July 1996. What I mean here is before you start; who do you want included? Now I am getting serious. Some say the ideal group consists of three or less. Three people produced a tune book in the 1970s, but all suffered breakdowns soon afterwards. To ask two or one to do better is cheaper, but cruel. These guidelines are not in order of importance:

1 Get a balance in the age range. Involve the twenties and thirties; avoid the temptation to pack it with over-sixties because they have the time to spare. In fact, avoid anyone with time to spare.

2 Include both male and female. Neither half should be there as a token; but single-sex committees miss out on many insights.

3 Include some ethnic minority representation. As above, no tokenism or quotas, but unless we want ‘black churches’ to go their own way, we must fight institutional racism on the hymnal committtee.

4 Find people who have pastored churches. Incumbents tend to be busy; that’s why you need them. Can some of them write as well?

5 Even if the music is handled separately (music teachers can’t do Mondays) make sure someone can sing, play, and harmonise.

6 Who will chair it? More vital than Deanery Synods! Someone passionately committed to the project, to turning up and starting on time but not to any partisan view about anything except making progress.

7 Not strictly personnel, but where will you meet? Travel time and costs are factors, but it need not be London. Don’t rule out northerners; could you meet in Birmingham, Liverpool, or York? Wherever you choose, make sure the room is big enough and has its tables, piano, window, kettle, biscuits and bin. Groups work best with flexible breaks, and with spacious working surfaces not just for piles of paper and books, but refillable supplies of food and drink.

Got that? It wasn’t like that last time? Now you know why we haven’t yet produced the perfect hymn book. In the new millennium (see above) there will be no excuse.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.