Heaven – a Fine City

WHETHER DUSTY BLACK or shiny red, you will not find Fred in Crockford: see last month. The Rev Dr Fred Pratt Green was a Methodist. He would hardly admit to the charge of being either strictly Evangelical or definitively Catholic, so you may wonder why I celebrate him here in a journal for Anglicans who are one or both. Let me explain.

Considering how late the Church of England was in recognising hymns within liturgy, we have made a fairly good fist of catching up. Time was when hymns were sniffily dismissed as the bellowing of dissenting ranters down the road. The Wesleys did much for a change of heart; the Victorians saw it through. Some change it was.

One hymnal popular among evangelical nonconformists emerged from a circle notoriously hostile to Anglicanism. If anything, the intervening quarter century has made them fiercer still. Sometimes they have a point. But look more closely at this book; better still, glance at the meticulously researched pages of its official ‘Companion’, and our perspective is adjusted. When we see who actually wrote, edited, composed and arranged all these hymns, we can hardly move without bumping into curates, vicars, rural deans, canons, archdeacons, bishops, cathedral organists, choirs, precentors and what not. We glide smoothly from parish church to abbey in dignified Anglican procession.

It is a frequent joy to worship with the contemporary dissenting underclass, to hear our beloved C of E kicked around with much glee during a fiery sermon (some twit-bishop has let the side down), and sing from the collected works of Newton, Cowper, Heber, Keble, Baker, Ellerton, Dudley-Smith et al. They average about two hymns from any four. Come out from among them and be ye separate; but make sure ye bring their hymn books with you!

But I was speaking of Fred. If hymn-writing Anglicans have served the whole church in the 20th century as in the 19th, 1 wish to pay tribute in the other direction. At last the Wesleyans have an author who is not a Wesley! Last autumn this silver-haired little man, after nearly ninety-seven years among the Church militant here in earth, left behind his fellow pensioners at Norwich to join the larger company of heaven where, they say, the singing is even better. He once preached to two thousand every Sunday, starting on hymns only in retirement. Thus far he is recognised more in America than here. A Hymn Society stalwart, he never made a penny from it, since the Pratt Green Trust devotes all the hymn-income to appropriate causes. A growing hymn-library at Durham University is one enduring legacy.

Another is the Queen’s Silver Jubilee hymn. Free churchman though he was, his moment of national limelight came at that supremely establishment event in 1977, when his own text was preferred to that of an ailing Poet Laureate and officially adopted: ‘It is God who holds the nations in the hollow of his hand’.

That may come in handy again. A favourite of mine is another with specific origins (Julian of Norwich) soon adapted for wider use: ‘Rejoice in God’s saints’ is one of FPG’s dozen in ‘Common Praise’, the latest A and M. Another is his own first choice: ‘An upper room did my Lord prepare’. However could the New English Hymnal miss them both?

Meanwhile another royal occasion fast approaches. Fred will not be around to help Her Majesty out in 2002. I wonder who is busy writing the words we shall sing then? Meanwhile, Fred’s Memorial Service (no incense): Wesley’s Chapel, City Road, London: 2.0 pm, Saturday June 9. Anglicans welcome.

Christopher Idle works in the diocese of Southwark.