Saturday, 15 February 2014

St Michael and All Angels is holding a mini-hymnathon on Friday 28th February – here’s my Top Ten

St Michael & All Angels 2012 Hymnathon

We've raised a lot of money towards the £500,000+ cost of our church's splendid new Swiss-built pipe organ (which included extensive remodelling of the church to create  two new parish rooms – we’re busy and we need the space), but we’ve still got a way to go. That’s one of the reasons we’re holding a mini-version of the 2012 hymnathon, which raised over £50,000 (see the video above), and which I wrote about at the time here.

This time, we’ll be performing the Top 50 hymns voted for by anyone willing to pledge money to ensure that their favourite makes it onto the list. The singalong will take a mere three hours (compared to the more than 30 the full hymnathon lasted). You can read all about the new event here – do feel free to pledge money and, of course, to come along and sing your heart out if you should feel the urge. Even non-church goers will be astonished at how many of the tunes are familiar to them. (According to our vicar, a large gaggle of young folk shuffled into the church after chucking-out time at the  pub across the road during the 2012 hymnathon, and he thought, “Oh, here we go”. But after sitting and watching for a few minutes, one of them approached him and asked where they could find the words. He dished out some hymn books and explained how how to locate the right hymn: they stayed for over an hour, and were no trouble at all.)

The hymns currently in the Top 50 can be found here.

When I first started regularly attending church about 20 years’ ago, I was one of those types who embarrassedly mouth the words while trying to emit as little noise as possible. Nowadays, having discovered I can just about carry a tune, and having become adept at switching octaves to cover up the fact that my singing range is severely limited, I happily belt 'em out (after one hymn at a Christmas service, the stranger beside me thanked me for singing loudly enough for him to follow my lead – I felt rather pleased with myself, although, on reflection, he might have been subtly complaining about me bellowing into his ear).

Here are my personal top ten hymns. There isn’t a theme: these are just the ones that make my heart lift when the organist plays the introduction. Some of them always bring tears to my eyes, to the extent that I can’t actually sing them all the way through. Several of them are based on folk songs, largely thanks to Vaughan Williams, who was responsible for introducing many traditional melodies as co-editor of the 1906 English Hymnal (he was an agnostic, by the way – a nice, typically Anglican touch) .

1. I heard the voice of Jesus say

This won’t make it onto the hymnathon list, but it’s my all-time favourite hymn, largely because of the words, but also due to the glorious modal folk melody, which happened to be Vaughan Williams’s favourite: when he first heard it as a child, he felt he had known the tune all his life. There’s something earthy and elemental and timeless and utterly English about it. It formed the basis of Vaughan Williams’ sublimely beautiful composition, Five Variants of 'Dives and Lazarus', which I wrote about here.

The same tune has been used for a North American hymn, “O sing a song of Bethlehem”. (One thing that struck me while searching for these songs on YouTube is how many of the videos featured American choirs and congregations. Makes you think - or, at least, it should.)

2. Jerusalem the golden

The words are from a long satirical poem by a 12th Century monk, and the music by the 19th Century composer Alexander Ewing, originally for another hymn altogether.

3. And did those feet in ancient time
England’s national anthem. Gets me every time:

4. Eternal Father, strong to save
The Naval Hymn – “for those in peril on the sea”.

5. I vow to thee my country
The Reverend Gordon Giles described the words as “almost obscene” and recommended they be rewritten for modern congregations. He, of course, is a progressivist blister.

6. I danced in the morning
The tune is from the American Shaker song “Simple Gifts”, while the words were written by the Englishman Sydney Carter in 1963. There’s something about the disconnect between the subject matter and the jauntiness of the melody that makes me blub. I really don’t know why.

7. He who would valiant be
It’s just so stirring!

8. Abide with me
Probably hearing it sung at all those FA Cup finals – and at my father’s funeral - has made this a favourite. Another one I can’t ever get to the end of.

9. O sacred head, sore wounded
The most beautiful melody from Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the most beautiful and most affecting of all sacred musical works.

10. Be thou, my vision, O Lord of my heart
Utterly lovely 8th Century Celtic hymn:

If you're free on Friday the 28th February, do come along. I guarantee you'll be surprised by how much fun it is.


  1. Number 4 is about small fishing boats battling the overpowering might of the sea not huge and impervious troop carriers! - Or maybe that's just because I was born in Cornwall where this was a regular addition to prayers on RNLI day and everyone knew a fisherman.

  2. I think we're both right, wislon. I refer you to that compendium of wisdom, Wikipedia, which is never wrong: " is known by many names, variously referred to as the Hymn of Her Majesty's Armed Forces, the Royal Navy Hymn, the United States Navy Hymn (or just The Navy Hymn), and sometimes by the last line of its first verse, "For Those in Peril on the Sea." The hymn has a long tradition in civilian maritime contexts as well, being regularly invoked by ship's chaplains and sung during services on ocean crossings."

    I'll go so far as to admit that I should have called it "The Royal Navy Hymn".

  3. Ok Mr G!
    What I should've started with was......" to me this hymn always conjours up...." etc. I will be more precise next time!

  4. How I wish we could be with you on the 28th! We have played all our top ten this evening. Thanks.

    1. I almost hate to tell you that it was a wonderful event - £6,500 raised. It lasted over three and a half hours, Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer was a rousing Top of the Pops, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one who sang himself/herself hoarse!