An Anglican gap?

‘The Voice That Breathed O’er Eden’, by John Keble, was published posthumously; wisely, one now feels. John Samuel Bewley ‘Fight the good fight’ Monsell also wrote ‘The Passing Bell’ but died from an accident at St Nicholas’ Guildford, where he was Rector, during restoration work on the roof. The tune LONDON NEW, as used with ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ is not sung today in anything like its original form.

Tate and Brady’s version of Psalm 34, ‘As pants the hart’, also had ‘pants’ in line 3; a pair of pants, in fact. John Mason Neale claims a Greek original for ‘Christian, dost thou see them’, but nobody has ever found it; was he kidding?

How do we know this? For a start, from the Historical Companion to Hymns Ancient and Modern, still available from the Canterbury Press at a mere £20.00 after its first appearance in 1962. That was ten years after PG Wodehouse’s ‘Pigs have wings’, which (as revealed here in June) alludes to the five hymns mentioned above, though it is not itself alluded to in the Companion. Why bring all this up now? I am glad you asked. For the past forty years, in spite of a volley of gleaming Church of England hymn-books hitting the pews at a great rate, none of them has produced an accompanying Companion or Handbook of any sort. True, A&M did its best in 1984 with Cyril Taylor’s Hymns for Today Discussed. This helpfully fills us in on hymns in the two 100-hymn Supplements, but compared with the magisterial 1962 work it is sketchy in the extreme. Even 1962 does not tell us everything. It is well-set out, more reliable than most, and excellent on biographical detail while avoiding the tabloid sensationalism of the Favourite Hymn Stories. And it doesn’t easily fall apart. No such handbook is or was envisaged for the 1965 Anglican Hymn Book, the 1986 New English Hymnal, the 2000 Common Praise (A&M) or the Complete Anglican Hymns Old and New. For some, one factor may have been the advancing years of their editors. The vast amount of often thankless toil involved in compiling a major hymnal, invariably running years behind schedule, is not such as to inspire our senior citizens to cry gleefully, ‘Hey, what shall we compile next?’ Now that determination has shown what it can do in the face of despair (as George Eliot nearly said about her novels), they think it’s all over.

Nonconformists have done better; as I tap out this month’s half-page, I can stretch out a fraternally grateful hand to books by Baptists, Methodists, URC-ists, and Salvationists, not to mention Americans, Australians and the Welsh. It is one of our Antipodean friends who comments (ruefully in his case) that the time to start your Companion is when you start your hymn book, rather than waiting until the latter is published.

With all this, who needs the CofE version? Many hymns, notably in the 40 years since A&M’s landmark edition, have a notably Anglican flavour, and may not be well-documented (if at all) by others. And if we are to be educated in what we sing and why, let us use the opportunities of Choir Festivals, Songs of Praise, Hymn evenings and such like to get beyond the story of ‘Amazing Grace’ or ‘Silent Night’ and bring ourselves at least into the twentieth century. Our grandchildren may then have cause to be grateful for the twenty-first.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.