Highways and Byways of Hymns

A bit of hush

ARE there any times when we do not, should not and cannot sing hymns? Christians usually disregard that exiled harpist who found difficulty singing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Strangers and pilgrims we all may be; sing we usually do.

Silent fears

Thomas Day of the USA called one of his books Why Catholics can’t sing – Romans, that is. It all goes back to Ireland, he explained, when they feared for their safety if they made a noise. Non-RCs in many countries know that feeling. During China’s cultural revolution even praying had to be done with open eyes as the two or three walked together with contrived nonchalance through the park. Hymns were out of the question, but not out of mind or memory.

Silent on principle

Good Protestants will decline to join in hymns which smack of popery. Good Christians will not sing to honour some multi-faith monstrosity wheeled in under the banner of peace or community relations. Odd lines from elsewhere stick in the gullet, from ‘my own worthlessness’ and ‘And our lives will be all sunshine’ to ‘God is our father and mother.’ A text claiming this earth as the body of God encountered some mute resistance at a recent conference.

Other silences are more puzzling. Why should the processional at a parish church near us consist of a bravely singing congregation and a devoutly silent group of perambulating crucifer, servers, acolytes, incense-bearers, clergy and others? It is different in the parish next door where they believe much the same. Why at St Paul’s Cathedral on Maundy Thursday did rows of colourfully high-minded clerics stay resolutely tight-lipped during, of all hymns, ‘Name of all majesty’? Seems pretty orthodox to me, but the brethren and fathers gave an impression of solidarity in abstention rather than devotion.

Be still and know

There is a time for considered, meditative silence. At two extremes the hymns of Catholic Faber and Quaker Whittier recommend it. The Psalms of David and the Apocalypse of John also leave space for a spot of quiet; ‘Shut up, and know that I am God’ is one way of putting Psalm 46:10. More poetically, Charles Wesley pondered ‘all the silent heaven of love’. Among texts with built-in quietness, ‘Silent night’ can claim to be the best known; ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’, the best. But Isaac Watts dared to end a congregational hymn: ‘God is in heaven, and men below;/ be short our tunes, our words be few:/ a sacred reverence checks our songs,/ and praise sits silent on our tongues.’

This month I take the liberty of adding a postscript. Have you noticed the intense media speculation, from tabloid to broadsheet to ecclesiastical gossip-rag, on the choice of the next person to be elected Honorary President of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland? The successful applicant is promised a tied house in Lambeth in return for some part-time work at Canterbury and occasional overseas trips. In the lists of the qualifications, opinions and sins of the leading contenders (from which category none made it last time) I have yet to see what any of them think of the war against terrorism, or the hymns appropriate, for example, for the Second Sunday after Trinity. A hidden clue; one of the bearded wonders, in a blatant early bid for victory, has actually addressed the Hymn Society’s summer conference. If we enlarge, the whole process will be invalidated; we therefore return to our theme and vow of sacred silence.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.