A book to remember

I WAS HONOURED. The editor of an inerrantly evangelical paper invited me to contribute to its series, ‘A Book that Changed my Life’. I reluctantly ruled out volumes on beetles, drawing, poetry or pacifism, and soon warmed to my theme on our rattling old typewriter – it was that long ago.

I was pleased, if surprised, when in a brief acknowledgement the editor praised my offering as ‘brave’. I soon discovered why. Absent from the small print of the original invitation was the subtext that the book should be The Pilgrim’s Progress or Calvin’s Institutes. Baxter, Matthew Henry, Spurgeon or Lloyd-Jones would pass; maybe a seventeenth century commentary on Obadiah or a hefty Reformation history.

My naivety reaped its reward when the editor wrote again. The Board had decreed that my choice, life-changing or not, wouldn’t quite do. Or rather, it epitomized most of what was wrong with the Church today. Or something similar. Another two sheets for the rejects box.

You are wondering which book I had so courageously described; it must be 35 years old now. The publishers daringly risked a print run of 5,000. They sold out before publication, and from then on the book was in such demand that the small printer could hardly keep pace. Volume 2 followed, and in seven years they clocked up a million, and went on selling.

Its compilers were a bunch of bright young curates and others, most of whom went on to be canons, archdeacons and bishops, with the odd MBE thrown in. Yes, friends, the Book that Changed my Life was Youth Praise, One, Two, or Combined. Two of my own texts (one good and unpopular, one bad and in great demand) reached Volume 2, and when I warmed to the new approaches to Psalmody it also featured, I was caught in the network which became ‘Jubilate Hymns’, and which has shaped so many hours since that I dare not try to count them.

It was not only the latter-day editor who despised such things. Many traditional Evangelical Anglicans did; some songs were well worth despising – until you compared them with what they replaced. Thumbing through my copies now, dog-eared and disintegrating from curacy days, I am cheered to find some genuine winners.

Number 3 is ‘Tell out, my soul’; not quite its first appearance, but the one which gave it lift-off. ‘Christ triumphant’ is here at 10; and remember ‘Thank you’ (13)? Here is David Wilson’s fine tune LITTLE HEATH, Norman Warren’s CREATOR GOD, and The Followers’ music for ‘The King of love’. Encounter in YP2 the classic ‘Lord for the years’; if we have since done better work than the Psalms which follow, at least they were on the right track. ‘A purple robe’ made its debut here; while Michael Saward’s sacramental hymns proved we were genuine Anglicans. Richard Bewes, Michael Perry and Gavin Reid added spice to the mix, while Michael Baughen wore the chef’s hat and served it all up.

Older material included rousing or gentle spirituals and finds from Europe, America and beyond; all of this pre-Kendrick. The downside, embarrassing even then, was made up of songs starting ‘Let’s face it, friends; the world is in such a mess’ or ‘Joe’s my friend and he thought I was mad’. Even as you cringe, remember that the English Hymnal had its chamber of horrors labelled ‘not for ordinary use’: ‘Hold the fort’, ‘Ninety and nine’, ‘Tell me the old, old story’.

Was this the category that appalled my nervous editor? This is my story; these were our songs; that was the book, that was. Next month: the Queen’s favourite hymns.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark