Highways and Byways of Hymns
On Fings being much the same as what they always used to be

SENIOR READERS of this paper and its sister journal ‘The Cricketer’ will recall a memorable headline in the latter in 1963. WHERE ARE THE BATSMEN?, it trumpeted rhetorically to an understandably concerned Members’ Enclosure. Where indeed? – since among the England squad (only we didn’t have squads then, just teams) were Barrington, Cowdrey, Dexter, Graveney, Phil May and MJK Smith, to name but six. A pretty poor lot, apparently.

If this is not your game, let us mourn some footballing artists of yesteryear. Everyone knows Stanley Matthews, but what about his team-mate Mortensen or the great Tom Finney, playing in front of the likes of Dickinson, Ramsey, and captain Billy Wright; even that sparkling goal-machine Greavsie?

What could such giants not achieve now?

Well, what did they achieve then? Answer: they lost 3-6 to Hungary or 0-1 to the USA; or both. I speak to you in parables. Hynmwriters often remain Unappreciated in their own generation, but past heroes sometimes acquire an aura which is mainly the glow of distance.

This is not a complaint. It is the way things are, in spheres as diverse as sport and Christian worship. (Where these overlap is not our present concern.) We hear that no contemporary writers get anywhere near rivalling the pioneers of the 17th century, the genius of the 18th, or the strength of the 19th. If you take a broadly average view of twentieth century hymns, that feeling is hard to deny.

There is a vast sea of the third rate and worse swirling all around us, and some clergy have an unerring knack of selecting some of the flotsam from it. But unless you are willing to spend many hours burrowing in libraries, an equally wide sampling of those earlier years is precisely what you cannot get. What we see in current books are the survivors; the Crème de la Crème; the best not only of Watts and Wesley, but of Montgomery, Newton, Doddridge, Winkworth, Neale, Alexander, and all those we still rightly honour.

Among us, I believe, are some who are worthy to stand in that company. Much of their work may hardly yet have seen the daylight. I am still hopeful that while the earth remains, the best of every generation will endure as its particular contribution to the church’s timeless songs of praise.

Some fine hymns are unrecognised at the time because they are simply not available. George Herbert knew himself a poet, but few verses appeared until after his death. Even then they were not perceived as congregational hymns, for the very good reason that his beloved Church of England knew of no such things.

In our own day the new A&M Common Praise, like its 1983 predecessor, includes six hymns by Canon J.R. Peacey, 1896-1971. Youngest of ten, bishop’s son, Cambridge first, Sussex cricketer (sport again), college Principal, university Chaplain, Rural Dean – he must count as a modern writer, since his blossoming in mainstream hymnals has been almost entirely posthumous. Go forth for God provided a title for his 18 collected texts, published twenty years after his death. Filled with the Spirit’s power is his best known, but for me Dear Lord, we long to see your face is most moving as a genuine blend of longing, uncertainty and commitment.

It could not have been written any earlier; it did not need to be. Let us think no worse of authors because we can still find them in our dusty old copies of Crockford. Next month, a word about Fred.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.