IDLE CURIOSITY: Highways and Byways of Hymns

Psalms’ length

 

"AND WHATEVER HAPPENED to the Psalms?" Dare to raise that question aloud, as I did recently at this year’s conference of Church Society, and two things will follow. The immediate effect is a murmur of warm assent around the hall; it is almost like playing for cheap laughs, so predictable is the welcome which greets your comment. Only slightly delayed is the second result; two or three people come up to you afterwards and say, "At our church we still chant the Psalms in the proper way."

 

Then you can say, with total sincerity, how delighted you are to hear it. If you are. But taking the wider picture, the Psalms are currently going through a pretty thin time. They’ll be back; but shall we live to see it?

 

In a period of what is now politely called ‘between jobs’, I was grateful for the opportunity of joining in with a wide range of different churches without actually joining any, for a time. (It’s good to be back, by the way; not so smart to church-crawl indefinitely.) The percentage of congregations which sang anything like a Psalm was tiny; let alone those where they were chosen as part of a regular rhythm or sequence, or where they were approached as anything other than just another hymn or song. Mind you, this is inner London; keep it up, Suffolk, Sussex et al.

 

Now another question: what do you think of those pieces in print where the writer says, "And just as I was writing this, guess what happened?" Don’t call out; I shall tell you anyway. Somewhere in the middle of paragraph three above, the phone rang. I tell the truth, someone wished to speak, not about double glazing, nor a funeral, nor a wrong number but the Psalms! It’s good to have one’s finger on the pulse of contemporary thought.

 

One trouble with Psalms, like prayer or the weather, is it is so easy to talk about them without saying anything. That is not the way this column works. It is a disgrace that the Psalms are treated so shabbily!

 

Take GS 1161, for instance: the Liturgical Commission’s Report on the Calendar, Lectionary and Collects, which has now passed into permissive church law (i.e. Do whatever you like about it). The great danger that worries the Commission sick, apparently, is not that the Psalms are despised, ignored, and forgotten, but that the few fragments now left to us are (guess what) too long!

 

"At the Eucharist it is often appropriate to use only six or eight verses". Or maybe cut the Gloria? As our Lord so memorably said after the Last Supper, "Let’s skip the bracketed verses, lads: I’ve got a lot on tonight."

 

Yes. In spite of all the newer versions in every conceivable style, mood, rhythm, and language: in spite of the time we spend on songs repeated four times, notices (sometimes ditto), coffee, and even silence (nothing wrong with that, OK?): in spite of the fact that Jesus loved them, knew them, quoted them, argued from them, preached them, prayed them, sang them, and died with them on his lips: in spite of all this, we are bidding fair to be the first generation of Christians for two thousand years to reckon we can get on without them. Just who do we think we are?

 

"Only six or eight verses". As Coverdale would have said, "Tush!" That indeed is a wrong number. And behold, I reach the bottom of my page and the half has not been told. Watch this space.

 

 

Christopher Idle is Associate Minister of Christ Church Old Kent Road in the Diocese of Southwark.

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