Marvels of the Silver Screen

WHEN the birthday of our eldest came on a Sunday, we joined his church that morning. We did the same the last time it happened. It’s good to see how things are done down the road or across the world. In this case, the former; six years ago it was the latter. On a hot, windy day in central Tanzania, we had no problems with the hymns in the little yellow book. We knew the tunes (I don’t say that’s good, but we did) and Swahili is a phonetic language. But back in London some churches are in a post-book culture. Thanks to modern technology and a mystery grant, everything from the notices to paintings by Italian masters to the Incredible Hulk (sermon on the Transfiguration) was digitally projected.

Join us in the second row for the third hymn. Stanza one swims beautifully into sight: ’Eternal God, your love’s tremendous glory…’ That’s a great beginning, and rang a distant bell. I should have remembered where, but we simply sang it. I wondered about line 4, ‘Of love evolving love from time and space’, but just had to trust the writer and follow our leader.

Off zooms verse one; in swoops verse 2: ‘Eternal Son of God, uniquely precious…’ This is lovely. We can’t relate it to the first four lines, which have gone, but here’s what I believe: ‘In you, deserted, scorned and crucified,/ God’s love has fathomed sin and death’s deep darkness,/ and flawed humanity is glorified.’ This is what I call a hymn. Verse 2 is dead; long live verse 3: ‘Eternal Spirit, with us like a mother…’ The switch is flicked two seconds late; the words arrive fractionally after the music. We have to think fast; two instant reactions. First, so this is a Trinitarian hymn – but who was to know? Second, ‘like a mother’? I can probably live with that, and sing it, so long as nobody’s pulling a fast one, perish the thought. Fast? We’re already on line 3: ‘…to follow Christ our brother/ as full-grown children, confident and sure.’

Some of us guess that the next verse will sum up the first three: ‘Love’s trinity, self-perfect, self-sustaining…’ But in an all-age, many cultures, mixed ability, New Testament-like church, how many spot even this simply-crafted sample of writing? Never mind, we sing on, ‘You give yourself in boundless joy, creating/ one vast increasing harmony of praise.’ An uplifting conclusion as we prepare to resume our seats for the Scripture reading.

But no – we haven’t finished! Some Trinitarian hymns (‘Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us’) have three verses, some (‘Thou whose almighty word’) have 4; this one, we find, has 5. ‘We ask you now, complete your image in us…’ Of course, the Transfiguration! Even a great doxology is incomplete until we are caught up in it and changed by it. But we didn’t see it coming, and if more than one verse at a time had been visible, the print would have been too small for row six. So we had the doubtful privilege of a double ending, and when we did finally sit down we still had no idea who wrote it. We weren’t sure it was over even then.

I looked him up afterwards at home. I might have guessed or remembered: Alan Gaunt, 1985. But his name, too, had been wiped out by the magic new machine. So I still prefer to sing from a hymn book.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.