Anglican Patrimony

Christopher Trundle on the distinctly Catholic and liturgical content of The English Hymnal

Where there is congregational singing it is important that familiar melodies should be employed, or at least those which have stood the test of time: therefore the ‘specially composed tune’ – that bane of many a hymnal – has been avoided as far as possible’ (Ralph Vaughan Williams, the Musical Preface to The English Hymnal).

It is almost hard to believe that these words were written as long ago as 1906 to accompany the first edition of The English Hymnal, of which Vaughan Williams was the musical editor. In darker moments I am tempted to think that little has changed since then, but we must remind ourselves that the influence of this hymnal (and, to a lesser extent, that of its successor) has transformed the musical experience of Christians around the world.

Influential and controversial

When The English Hymnal was published most Anglicans – or at least those of the broadly ‘high Church’ persuasion – used Hymns Ancient and Modern, published in 1861. This, it was felt by many, particularly by AngloCatholics, did not go far enough in facilitating Catholic musical worship in accordance with the Anglican liturgical tradition, and included rather too much ‘sentimental’ Evangelical music. The general preface to The English Hymnal, however, claimed that it was ‘not a party-book, expressing this or that phase of negation or excess, but an attempt to combine in one volume the worthiest expressions of all that lies within the Christian Creed, from those ‘ancient Fathers’ who were the earliest hymn writers down to contemporary exponents’.

This statement, while not untrue, conveniently masks the distinctly Catholic and liturgical nature of the hymnal’s content. Its publication caused significant controversy, with the Archbishop of Canterbury and many other bishops calling for its suppression and making complaint in the press – I say again, little has changed. Their concern was with the emphasis on the intercession of the Saints and certain other liturgical additions which were not quite ‘strictly Prayer Book’.

And they were not wrong, for there are indeed translations of ancient Office Hymns for all seasons of the year and for all classes of saints, and liturgical material including plainsong sequences, processional hymns,
stations, introits, antiphons and litanies (including a Litany of the Blessed Sacrament) features prominently.

King of Glory, hear our voices,

Grant thy faithful rest, we pray;

We have sinned, and may not bide it, If thou mark our steps astray,

Yet we plead that saving Victim, Which for them we bring to-day.

(this verse directed to be sung ‘at Holy Communion only’)

A moral issue

Despite the distinctly Catholic theological tone, there is, however, much which comes from other traditions but which is entirely consonant with the Christian Creed, as the editors rightly stated in their preface. It is important to note the inclusion of hymns written by an American Quaker, Wesley, Milton and material from Orthodox sources.

Vaughan Williams states in his musical preface that the choice of hymnody (and tunes in particular) is ‘indeed a moral rather than a musical issue’. The opportunity hymn singing offers to Christians for both communal and personal devotional response and for teaching of the faith must not be underestimated, for singing is a spiritual and holy activity, much-loved by Anglicans; it follows, therefore, that the selection of music and words is a weighty and serious matter. The Anglican hymn tradition, so clearly demonstrated in The English Hymnal, is without doubt one of the finest treasures of our tradition and we must be careful not to lose it. ND

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