Without God and without hope?
One small indicator of the enduring power of hymns is the use made of them for both comic parody and serious imitation. In the first category come Lewis Carroll who did it on purpose, or the football crowds who hardly recognize the sources of their impromptu anthems. Christmas will soon bring its annual crop of parodied carols in the smart journals of the chattering classes.
In the second group came the rousing refrains of the Socialist Sunday Schools. And in that same tradition I have discovered Funerals without God. Watch out for Baptisms without Jesus (or have I missed it?); but the funeral book is a collection of ideas, themes and verses which perfectly illustrate some familiar Biblical texts. Psalm 14 and 1 Corinthians 15 come to the Christian mind.
It rests on at least three indispensable articles of non-faith which, to say the least, are unproven and require a certain gullibility from the atheist mindset. One is that death is the end of everything; nothing lies beyond. Two, that death is a friend and there is nothing to fear. Three, that (therefore) we shall never see our loved ones again.
‘As our society increasingly abandons religion', says the wishful introduction, clearly penned by someone who has not visited a High Street bookshop recently… and it might have continued: ‘We feel obliged and qualified to provide it with a religion of our own.' So the book is suffused with phrases and ideas taken from the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and of course the hymn book. The music of SS Wesley's AURELIA or WH Monk's EVENTIDE is commandeered for use, for why (they ask) should God have all the best tunes? ‘Time bears us all away', it tells us in a pale imitation of ‘O God, our help in ages past', boasting that the compilers are reclaiming much secular music which the Church has unfairly appropriated.
For the authors to cry ‘foul', when they have just been dusting down the verse of Christina Rossetti, noted for its materialist stance, is a bit rich. And the book itself was located in a Christian chapel of an institution wholly inspired and founded by committed and orthodox believers, Anglican at that.
The unanswered question is why such a group of pagans needs to sing at all in the light, or dark, of such bleak convictions. Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings; maybe the atheist too? Perhaps such publishers as these have unwittingly let in to their rather closed and barren world some living seeds of hope.
Unsurprisingly, this publication fails to feature in Canon Alan Luff's recent and masterly 28-page booklet A Hymn Book Survey 1993–2003. The seventy or so books referred to include academic and reference works, biography, single-author collections, supplements and full-scale hymnals. The author also discusses copyright, ‘worship songs', ‘west gallery music' (aka ‘country psalmody'), international trends, CD-ROMs, and the size, arrangement and titles of hymn- books. He is generous to the feminizers, but reserves some strong language for… well, read it for yourself.
How do I obtain such a vital work? Simple; join the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland today. You don't have to be an expert; just an enthusiast. The survey, the third of its kind, is the Society's latest ‘Occasional Paper'.
What else is new in print? See you next month, same time, same place, for more. With God and with hymns, we have hope.
Christopher Idle has just retired from the Diocese of Southwark.
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