Highways and byways of Hymns

Of Perils and Personalities

BUT just suppose all hymns were ‘anon’? We continue our theme of anonymity, held over from November for the unavoidability of Christmas – which has produced its own fair crop of merciful or teasing ‘Anons’ to accompany certain poor shepherds (unknown but not unsung), and a notorious but nameless innkeeper. In some hymn books they (the hymns) very nearly were anon; tracking them down by initials or indexes was not always easy. Suppose that no text were to be chosen on the strength of its author’s name alone, or rejected for the same reason? There are dissenting committees who reject without debate any hymns known to be written by Roman Catholic, liberal, or charismatic fellow-Christians. Let alone Unitarians, Post-Millennialists, or those who use the Good News Bible. There are those on the other side who audibly sniff at anything emanating from the Free Church subculture. Even the charismatics seem to have their no-go areas, though these are easier to spot; their own favourites look different on the page, or screen, even before the band strikes up. This could spell the end of the personality-cult found in some sections of the hymn-singing world. Some biographical details in the hymn-companions major on the spouse, four adorable children and the family dog; others prefer to note whose lectures the writer attended (or not) during an unavoidably brief stay at college; others are more impressed by the prizes won on their way up the greasy hymn-pole. Runners-up in the 1949 Texas Inspirational Songwriter of the Year are more or less sure of their place in the Hall of Hymnological Fame, an entry in the Fort Worth Gold Star Museum of Melody, or Life Membership of the Distinguished Daughters of Dallas. No smiling, please; you should see the real thing. Anonymity would, among other things, spell the end of all that. It clearly has to be a rule in hymn competitions. But even the word ‘competition’ has its dangers, like those ghastly ‘Preacher of the Year’ pantomimes. At least here the North Americans get it right; they arrange not contests but ‘Hymn Searches’. And they don’t mean ‘Where on earth is that hymn about hobgoblins and foul fiends?’; they really do look for new ones.

And by the way – a very Happy New Year! It may have struck some readers that this small corner of your monthly paper has so far avoided comment on some of the great issues of our time, such as the war-crazed fanatics and terrorists of various nations whom I shall not name. One reason is that this page gets itself together miles in advance, and is in no position to pronounce on news that may change the world even as you are reading it. But it should not be thought that hymns, by comparison, are among the trivia; those famous Titanic deck-chairs. Three reasons why not? One: the Psalms provide at least the verbal music to accompany death and destruction, exodus, exile and near-extinction; equally, victory and resurrection itself. Yes, we ‘will’ sing the Lord’s song in some strange lands, since (we now realize) they are all his anyway; no land is strange to God. Two: some of the noble and white-robed army of martyrs from Revelation 7 onwards have scarcely stopped singing from their instant translation from the flames of persecution to the joys of paradise. For most of us, that time has not yet come; but let’s have something worth singing when it does. And three, on the worst night in the history of the world, our Lord Jesus sang a hymn.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.