Highways and Byways of Hymns

Olde Tyme Music Hall

Regrettably or otherwise, my experience of Olde Tyme Music Hall is restricted to school imitations at End of Term junketings, and wittily satirical take-offs (I think that was it) for grown-up audiences. You will correct me if I have got this wrong. But I have the distinct impression of a series of corny old songs bellowed out from the front by a middling to average singer, and roared back at the stage from a mixed crowd determined, among other things and above most, to be jolly.

Fairground ditties

Occasionally, as I close my eyes in some religious conventicles, I imagine myself back in the days when Grandma was young, sucking oranges at the front of the circle and chucking the peel down on those below, whistling cheerily to her mates across the gangway. I don’t know, she never told me those bits. What prompts such extraordinary delusions? To speak plainly, ‘Tell me the old, old story’; ‘Blessed assurance’; ‘O happy day;’ ‘We’re marching to Zion’; even ‘It passeth knowledge, that dear love of thine’. With some it’s only the chorus, notably when not part of the original hymn. With all, we are transported out of the body to the steam roundabout at the fair, with the Wurlitzer organ showing off its paces at impressive speed and volume, or the stalls of that Music Hall, with Grandma’s orange-peel raining down on our heads and hymn sheets.

I have no wish to slander the wrinklies – people or hymns. Ranting is all-age. Only yesterday (as I write) we found ourselves in a Sunday morning service described as ‘informal’. The version of the Scriptures in use – at least there was one – was that good old favourite, the ‘Good News Bible’. Psalm 100, Jubilate to you, was read by way of encouragement: ‘Worship the Lord with joy; come before him with happy songs!’ So we did.

Happy Songs

I am all in favour of happy songs, notably joyful ones to the Lord. So were John Calvin and George Herbert. But somehow that little phrase does not quite reflect the wonder and glory of (shall we say?) Magnificat, Te Deum or the Doxology. I take at random the kind of thing the author of No 100 had in mind. Where the pursuit of happiness takes over from the pursuit of God, and the pursuit of noise from both, we lose the plot.

When we lived in the country the Anglicans had the villages to themselves. Dissenters from Rome to Toronto held court in the town, so their buildings were fuller and warmer than ours. But in the rural pasturelands among ancient cottages, converted barns and desirable new luxury dwellings, you might sometimes spot a suspiciously ecclesiastical shape: a deserted chapel, a former meeting house, a Wesleyan relic. One such was remembered as the spiritual home of the Ranters.

A most illustrious, delightful and godly predecessor of mine wrote about it. He was as Anglican as you can get, as wary of Romish shrines as of Ranters barns. ‘I believe this is the only house I never was in in my parish! If vehemence of diction, action, voice and singing be devotion, the Ranters beat us… I often think with pain how mistaken these poor people are who groan and sigh and roar and make longer and stronger prayers than we do. But God forgive them, and me, and bring us peace at the last!’

For their part, they clearly preferred Nonconformist ranting to Anglican muttering – if such it was in the days of Richard Cobbold, Rector of Wortham, Suffolk. But for better, for worse, through however many changes of name and style, the ranters are with us still.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.