Highways and byways of hymns

Cowards in the Choir, or What no-one told Mrs Worthington

When he was a small boy, Noel Coward had long golden hair. He also had a sweet voice. And the third and final thing I can reveal about this era is that he left the church choir because after he had sung his solos, nobody clapped.

Imagine! Whatever church it was, they taught him more about worship than many of my fellow-evangelical music-lovers have learned in a lifetime. What a shame he made the wrong response! Psalm 47 and your new bishop apart (which are different), applause and worship do not readily mix. The only time I recall an ovation after my performance is the Infant School Assembly. Oh yes, and the Salvation Army Wednesday Afternoons. The first of these can generally be halted, even pre-empted. The Sally Ann ladies, by contrast, are absolutely unstoppable. Mind you, I wasn’t singing.

But unstoppable too are the Evangelicals on the charismatic segment of the spectrum. Run your eye over the glossy magazines in your Christian bookshop; even peer inside when no-one is looking. You don’t even have to peer when it comes to posters on the wall; their shiny colours and fiery images wave and shout at you. The visual message seems to be the message of their songs: I Am Terrific! If he could endure the music, Master Coward would be in his seventh heaven in such company.

The singers would deny all this. To be fair, there is a warmth, a liveliness, an outgoing joie de vivre with a bit of which some of our more solid Anglican events could do. But not, surely, at any price. During one peep at a highly renewed and glossy monthly I spotted a piece by one dazzling Christian star who confessed that on stage he was once rebuked by the compère (George, but not of Canterbury) for singing all about himself. So, understandably, he spreads his confession over a double page brightly decorated with photos and adverts, and shares with his fans how humble and self-effacing he has become as a result.

If you think I’m making this up, you don’t know the market. And market it sure is. But for whose benefit? I only ask, because I have lost count of the numbers of people who belong to churches like this, who wistfully tell me that they mourn the loss of the older hymns: ‘We never sing them; It’s all songs now.’ ‘So who decides?” The music group.’ Of course!

The next unspoken question is why they still go. And the answer must be that such ‘Fellowships’ are true to their names, and usually provide something so important byway of prayer, love and practical support that they can put up with a diet of non-stop junk music. Which makes you think. We may not like it much, but while music is pretty important when people are deciding church allegiances, an even stronger magnet or deterrent is love or its absence. That should not be surprising.

One well-known name in the published song world went through a devastating personal tragedy. His ‘house-church’ knew about it but did little which, I have to say, sounds unusual. The friends who stuck around when they were needed happened to be Roman Catholics. Guess where he belongs now?

Yes, he and his songs have gone to Rome, covering in one leap all the shades of style, ministry and teaching in between. Some, I am told, have gone for other reasons. The rest of us slog it out and don’t even get applauded for it What saints we all are!

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.