Thursday, 1 March 2012

It takes over 30 hours to get through the New English Hymnal

To be exact, it takes 30.5 hours to sing every verse of every one of the 542 hymns it contains. Our church choir - aided by many members of the congregation, visiting choirs, and a host of strangers - did it last weekend, starting at midday on Friday and ending by repeating the two most popular hymns shortly before 7PM on Saturday.

The exercise was designed to raise money for a new organ (approximate cost: £500,000, with quite a bit of building work thrown in). The hymnathon (which was last done 25 years ago) is expected to raise £37,000, mainly from individuals sponsoring their favourite hymns (several of my wife’s many brothers and sisters were extremely generous).

Half a mill sounds like a lot for an organ, but as you’d expect of an Anglo-Catholic church in the heart of the Arts & Crafts suburb of Bedford Park (the first Garden Suburb in the world), St Michael’s and All Angels is full of art and poetry and, above all, music: barely a week goes by without a concert of some kind. It deserves a decent organ. Period. (By the way, the picture of me at the top of this blog was taken in front of the church.) 

I popped in on my way back from lunch in town on Friday, expecting to stay for ten minutes (I was knackered). In the event I was there for two hours. The church was abuzz, the atmosphere was splendid, and I just didn’t want to leave. Besides, it’s not often that you get the chance to sing without embarrassment for that long.

I returned on Saturday for another couple of hours (many Stakhanovites had been up all night) and was lucky enough to be there for the “National” section of the hymnbook, which includes “And did those feet in ancient time” and the National Anthem (Nos. 488 and 489). My chin was aquiver after those two (“Jerusalem” – England’s true anthem – always has this effect on me). I’d just managed to pull myself together when No. 492, “O God of earth and altar”, started up, and the mixture of a rich English folk tune and a stirring poem by Chesterton pushed me right over the edge. I had to leave to preserve my dignity.

The genius of English hymns is that most of the melodies are so straightforward and easy to sing that they can be mastered on the hoof. Yes, there are quite a few mundane ones, bereft of musical interest, and many of the sentiments are either icky or banal (or just plain weird) – but many of the tunes are either rollickingly lusty or delicately lovely. All Anglicans (and many British Roman Catholics) owe a huge debt to Ralph Vaughan Williams who was the musical editor of  The English Hymnal, published in 1906. He threw out lots of dreary old tunes, composed many of his own, and introduced lots of hauntingly beautiful folk melodies.

Among the great man’s original compositions are “Come down, O Love divine” and the stirring “ For all the saints”. But my favourite VW hymns are two that use traditional folk tunes - the aforementioned “O God of earth and altar” (the version here isn't great, but it’s the best I can find on YouTube) and “I heard the voice of Jesus say” (the version below is quite beautiful) which the keen-eared among you will recognise as the tune Vaughan Williams used for Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus (which I wrote about here). 

The message expressed in these two hymns may be universal to Christians everywhere – but the music tells you you’re worshipping in the national church of England.

The Church of England may give the impression of being a rapidly-shrinking institution run by silly, woolly-headed liberals who seem to view Jesus as a sort of divine Citizen’s Advice Bureau manager whose message was that we’d all be happy if only we all had the same income and were just a bit, well, nicer to each other. But I can report that the CofE is alive and well and in rude health at St Michael’s, busily building a lively, traditional Christian community, saving souls, helping the truly needy... and all the while singing God’s praises using the world’s greatest song-book. 

You can read all about the event (including a list of the hymns which received the most subscriptions) here.

I'll leave the last word to our splendid vicar, Fr. Kevin Morris (who would have even the most convinced Dawkinsians among you doubting yourselves) :

"We are absolutely delighted with the way the Hymnathon went. It was far more moving and involving than I ever expected. There was a contagious sense of joy - people loved singing, they loved being there, they loved the hospitality. Many people popped in for a few minutes and stayed for hours - and some came from a long way away. And I never thought we'd reach our financial target for the weekend, let alone exceed it!"


  1. This is a really excellent post. Like much of the heritage of the C of E, the choral tradition and the hymnal are national treasures and very English. If both are less popular than 50 years ago, the Church itself must take some of the blame.

    At my second daughter's christening, a sort of three in one do with two other families, the newly arrived vicar chose a song called "I'll never forget" which had a schmaltzy tune and lines about the smell of bacon in the frying pan. The organ was replaced with a piano, guitars and tambourines and the choir moved parish. In other parts of the country, vicars who seem not to realise that Barchester Towers was meant to be satirical have deliberately stripped out the choir and the hymnal from the service and abandoned Choral Evensong. You're lucky that you have a good vicar rather than a Slope and it's probably no accident that your church is thriving. If there is a next time, please can you give your readers advance notice. I would have greatly enjoyed it and bunged a few quid on the plate too.

    And it was good of you to illustrate the beautiful Vaughan Williams hymn with a picture of a tree that did not have John and Yoko sitting under it.

  2. "God is a concept by which we measure our own pain" - if there's siller or more pretentious line in Rock music, I've yet to hear it.

    I think the church should take all the blame, actually. An appraisal of the continuing success of the monarchy reveals that when they try to jazz it up and make it more "relevant" its fortunes dip - keeping it the same so that the public has something recognisable and reassuring to return to after the Murdoch press or the BBC has ordered it to throw one of its communal hissy fits works a treat.

    What strikes me about the guitar and tambourine-toting wing of the C of E is how fantastically self-obsessed they are. I'm sure they know, in their heart of hearts, that no one wants their silly innovations, but they introduce them anyway, because it makes them feel all cutting-edge and liberal. Anglo-Catholics not only seem far more focussed on their congregations, but seem to instinctively understand that a great tradition has been handed down to them and that their job is to nurture it and pass it on.

    I promise to give advance notice next time. Luckily, you can sing all the hymns in the comfort of your own home and still contribute by following this link: