Martin Draper is inspired by a popular Welsh hymn
There is a sense in which the English Hymnal of 1906, though primarily a ‘companion’ to the Church’s ‘common prayer’, was rooted in the natural world. With its green cover and the leaves of the tree of life adorning the Cross, it contained a large section called ‘Times and Seasons’ in which were found not only hymns for morning and evening and certain days of the week but also for the four seasons of the year and for harvest. The Revised English Hymnal restores ‘Office Hymns’ for Daily Prayer, many of which are new compositions, to this enlarged section.
For much of the twentieth century, even urban congregations retained some connection with the passing seasons of the year as well as celebrating the feasts and fasts of the Church’s calendar. Since then, the decline of Sunday Evensong has meant that evening hymns such as The duteous day now closeth, which abounds in references to nature, are rarely sung, and thanksgiving for the harvest has found its justification more in donations to the local food bank (a good thing in itself) than in ‘raising the song of harvest-home’. And how many clergy, I wonder, still recite the Benedicite almost daily in Morning Prayer? Like St Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Sun, its words remind us that though the created world itself praises God, human beings have a vocation to articulate that truth in word and song.
We need to recover our sense of our connection with the natural world of which we are part. There is little point in the Church virtue-signaling our recycling credentials (do we really need all those 12-page single-use booklets containing every word of the service anyway?) if we can’t even remember to keep the Rogation Days.
The Church’s celebration of and reverence for the natural world does not stem from a concern for the preservation of the ‘planet’ nor respect for the ‘environment’. It has its origin in the fact that we believe that the natural world is a ‘creation’ and has a Creator, who is the ground of our being and the object of our worship.
But the Catholic religion is about more than creation alone. God’s work also redeems, recreates and sanctifies and the best hymns about the natural world always relate it to his work of salvation in human souls. This is, for example, almost entirely what the popular harvest hymn ‘Come ye thankful people come’ is about.
Among the new hymns in the Revised English Hymnal is a text, very popular in Wales, but little-known elsewhere, Tydi a roddaist:
O LORD, who gave the dawn its glow,
And charm to close of day,
You made all song and fragrance flow,
Gave spring its magic sway:
Deliver us lest none should praise
For glories that all earth displays.
2 O Lord, who caused the streams to sing,
Gave joy to forest trees,
You gave a song to lark on wing,
And chords to gentlest breeze:
Deliver us, lest we should see
A day without a song set free.
3 O Lord, who heard the lonely tread
On that strange path of old,
You saw the Son of Man once shed
His blood from love untold:
Deliver us, lest one age dawn
Without a cross or crown of thorn. Amen.
Welsh, T. Rowland Hughes, 1903-49
Tr Raymond Williams, 1928-90
Translation © Mrs Margaret Williams;
The first thing to notice about the text is that it is a prayer to ‘the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation’ (NEH 440). In the first four lines of the opening verse, the writer gives us a selection of poetic images to describe dawn and dusk and the sounds and smells of the natural world which are the work of God. But it concludes with a prayer for deliverance, which our world of ‘environmentalism’ surely needs, lest the praise of God for the ‘glories that all earth displays’ be unacknowledged and forgotten.
The second verse goes further. There are more poetic images in the first four lines, but the prayer for deliverance is a plea to God to sustain and save his creation. God forbid that we should wake one day to find ourselves trapped a world without the sounds and sights of his of wonderful works.
The final verse roots those wonderful works in the work of Christ and ends with the strongest prayer for deliverance of all. Let there never be a time when the Cross is forgotten and there is no Church to articulate the truth of God’s redemptive work!
English hymn books contain many Welsh tunes, largely thanks to the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams, the musical editor of the English Hymnal. But there are few Welsh texts. The Revised English Hymnal offers some new ones, two of which have been translated by Bishop Rowan Williams for the book. In addition, the original Welsh texts have also been provided for use by Welsh speaking congregations. They may be sung by bilingual congregations simultaneously – rather than by the addition of a ‘token’ Welsh verse – and their presence will encourage Welsh speakers who are members of or visitors to English-speaking congregations to sing in their preferred language.