Highways and Byways of Hymns

QUESTION: what have these eighteen people got in common? – John Arlott, Harry Belafonte, Robert Burns, Alex Comfort, Dante, Harry Emerson Fosdick, George Fox, William Gaskell, Oscar Hammerstein, Victor Hugo, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Philip Melanchthon, John Charles Ryle, Desmond Tutu, Eric Milner White, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde? For once I omit the titles; you will know that the list includes doctors, bishops, knights and one or two pawns.

To score one point, they are all men. Next, none of their names begins with X; half a mark. For a couple more, none is in the Bible or lived before AD1250. For ten points, except to regular readers of this column because you know what it’s about, they are all hymn writers. Yes; that is, they have all written hymns; at least one each. Or, they have written words that have been versified, translated or adapted for use as hymns. Or, their words thus employed or revised have been included in a book with enough others which are generally recognized as hymns for the whole book to be classified as a hymn-book. Which makes them, within the meaning of the act, hymn writers, QED. All this comes from doing some groundwork for next year’s edition of the CD-ROM HymnQuest; further details from Stainer and Bell of Finchley. I have to declare an interest: they pay me. One fascinating job is producing short biographies of all those whose names appear, however briefly, in the author indexes of any extant books of hymns. Hence the unexpected names, and I haven’t even started on Shakespeare, Spenser, Dryden, Wordsworth, Shelley(!), or the magnificent Julia Ward Howe. Some, you may have noticed, are no longer with us. Others most clearly are. With a small group it is embarrassingly hard to tell: ‘Part of the host have crossed the flood, and part are crossing now.’ With the saints at rest I have no problem; I am a mere chronicler. Some have real difficulties of guilt-by-association, and we understand that. Would you want to sing a hymn by Adolf Hitler? The trouble is, once you start, where do you stop? Would you sing something by a notorious adulterer, serial bigamist and convicted 1st degree Grade A murderer? If not, better keep your mouth shut during the Psalms. (Is that why some do that now?) Some avoid hymns by deceased Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Charismatics, Quakers, Unitarians or all five. Thank you, Lord, that this is not my immediate headache. But the living writers; they are a mixed bunch too. I chase them by letter, with sae, for some other work which is also spread over the small bedroom and landing. Some send full autobiographies by return, in which haystack I fish around for the needle I need. Some readily answer my basic questions; wonderful! Others reply with a curtness verging on the offensive (I hear the odd rude word in the middle distance); still others, not at all. Some are so humble that they cannot imagine anyone would want to know anything about poor little them. I try to help them take the long view; in a hundred years’ time, this will be dynamite for someone’s sermon, Songs of Praise, or PhD. And how subtly humility is worn as a cloak for pride! But they generally won’t wear that one. If any readers have provided the necessary, thank you! The moral of this is that it still takes all sorts to make a hymnbook. But that’s the Kingdom of God for you.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.