Highways and Byways of Hymns
So what do Bradley, Bray, Robb, Spurr and Watson have in common? One clue: no, this was not an England forward line from the nineteen-fifties; Bray never made it. But all these famous five are Doctors and some are Professors, with much writing to their credit, of varying value. For example, "Creeds, Councils and Christ" (IVP) - get it; "The Penguin Book of Hymns" - don't.
All five have minimal experience of pastoring inner-city churches; just enough, perhaps, to put them on a short-list for an archbishop's job next time round. More to the point, all have sounded off their horror at "Hymns for Today's Church" (Hodder, 2nd Edition 1987).
The week that I read one such onslaught, three more things happened. An urgent phone call from a Cambridge church: "Help! We want to use this hymn on Sunday, but as it stands it's incomprehensible. We can't find a modern version anywhere; can you try one?" After all, they are only undergraduates.
Then the leader of our church home-group, computer expert and former footballer, asked a question. We used to choose two or three songs before our Bible-study, from a book I hesitate to name but it wasn't HTC. For love's sake I would join in bravely with the favourite jingles, but for once I jumped in early with a request for Jesus shall reign. Afterwards: "Here, Chris, what does this bit mean - 'And all the sons of want are blessed'?"
People with an academic education often fail to grasp that what makes perfect sense to them remains totally obscure to others. If Eddie talked computer-speak to me, I would be in a similar fog. The line that threw him is hardly the most difficult in the book, but many editors since 1719 have tried to make it more user-friendly by gentle revision. And more recently, more inclusive.
Then the third event; the latest volume arrives from America, where hymnals are as plentiful as the sand upon the sea-shore. Simply browsing through, I was struck again by the strange familiarity of phrases, lines, whole verses. How so? Because we had drafted them years ago for HTC, and others were entering into our labours. Or rather, slipping them in without acknowledgement.
I don't share the view that fifty million Americans can't be wrong. But the fact that so many editors have adopted our revisions does at least suggest that we put our finger on some problems with older language. Unlike some of our critics, we don't want all these oldies to fade into oblivion or gather dust in libraries. And it is ludicrous to suggest that before Jubilate Hymns came along, everyone sang the hymns as they had been written; editors always edit.
More recently, a post-script to my three moments of truth: a fairly high-powered conference for all shades from RCs to Unitarians. We discuss hymns. One thing they all agree on; don't vandalise the beautiful old language. "Mind you", says one, "there's a line I can never sing...."; others agree, adding their own favourite disasters, and the floodgates open. When they have all had their say, I respond: "I reckon you're just a bunch of modernising revisers!"
The five names I began with have one more thing in common. You may work it out from my final, unrelated story. The school attended by our sons published an annual collection of creative writing by the pupils. One of our offspring, then a sixth-former, commented to a master on what he saw as the poor quality of one year's selection.
The teacher looked suitably ashamed and thoughtful. Thumbing through the booklet as if vainly searching for an elusive page, he turned to our son. "Just remind me, Idle," he said, "where exactly is the piece you wrote?"
Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church, Old
Kent Road in the diocese of Southwark.
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