Highways and byways of Hymns

From the top line

The varied ways of announcing hymns range from an extended lecture on their authorship, history, meaning and omitted verses, to leaving it all to the organ since we can read the words on the sheet or the number on the board. There are points for and against most approaches; this is not the place for further legislation.

Though, having just written that, I can foresee some future liturgical body, lost for suitable employment, beavering away on our behalf and at our expense on sets of rules for announcing hymns. ‘On Saints’ days in ordinary Time at the Principal Service when the Bishop is not present, this form must always be used in the Parish Church unless the day falls on a Wednesday in a leap year…’

No, let us enjoy our freedom here. Most ministers (I use the word advisedly) who announce hymns at all give the opening words, if only to provide a few seconds for finding the place and to check that we are all expecting the same hymn. Many of us have tripped up here: ‘Er, sorry, that should be 442, not 244.’ Sounds too much like football? No 180, announced with enthusiasm, may unwittingly echo the darts commentator. Many numbers double as the score of some classic cricket innings.

Some first lines are better than others. Some are small disasters, where only foresight can save you: ‘Jesus lives no longer now’ is among them. ‘Art thou weary, art thou languid’ and ‘Not all the blood of beasts’ improve as they proceed; even ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ is not very clever if you think about it.

To say that Wesley had some good first lines is like praising Shakespeare for his sense of drama. But let’s give recent authors their due. True, some hymns slide steadily downhill all the way from a promising original start; but generally, cautiously, we can say that a hymn writer who begins well has something worth saying in the middle. The end is something else again; see Wesley, again. But some first lines whet the appetite and do not disappoint later.

O thou my soul, forget no more. Well done the Baptists of 1962 (and a few books since) for introducing Joshua Marshman’s translation from the Hindu convert Krishna Pal. If it recalls Psalm 103, it is also distinctive of its Indian origins.

By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered. Who, after singing this, can be content with mindless repetition of imitative ‘worship songs’? There is a place for introducing hymns, and the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Nazi captors is worth telling our grandchildren. We have mainly the late Fred Pratt green to thank for paraphrasing this realistic hymn, which looks evil in the face before asserting its final defeat.

All heaven waits with bated breath for saints on earth to pray. As a hymn on prayer this Kendrick piece is not in the Cowper/Newton league; but it carries its own conviction. Strangely, in all the churches handing out Mission Praise at the door, I don’t remember singing this one.

Stay with us, God, as longed for peace eludes us. And O, for even a hundred tongues who would choose Alan Gaunt’s wrestling with ill health, grief and fear rather than the soporific stroking required by ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’.

Born of Adam, torn from Eden. Hilary Jolly won the St Paul’s Millennium Hymn competition. This isn’t the winner, but if you had come across it earlier, her first prize would not have been too great a shock. Newman apart, there’s not too much in the locker about Adam.

I could go on; but now I’ve started, so can you.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark