IDLE CURIOSITY

THE PEOPLE'S HYMN

 

THE PRIME MINISTER has had several things on his plate since first taking office. But now he is half way through what he sees as his first term, it is time to apply the Downing Street mind to the official selection of The People's Hymn. The People have been allocated their share of most things; hymns must now have their turn.

There has already been some confusion over The People's Hymn Book. Several publications have had a stab at semi-official status, one being 'Hymns for the People', dated 1993. This was a bold attempt to introduce hymns to those Christians who would hardly know one if they found it in the vestry, by presenting standard tunes in musical arrangements guaranteed to get the dancers and clappers going. The band was more than impressive, the reviewers less than kind. Our organist likes it.

Back in the 1980s some American Lutherans went for it in Minneapolis with 'Songs of the People'. These people are allowed only 31 songs, and although they cover a breathtaking and beautiful range of international music, we are given no clue to their intended destination. A terrific book to play through at the piano, or review for 'News of Hymnody', but can we envisage the sidespersons at All Saints' handing it out at the Parish Eucharist?

Let's try the 1920s. Here is something to set Number Ten aglow: 'The People's Hymn Book', no less! It came down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square, or at least, St Martin's in the Fields. Issued in that parish in 1924, reprinted 1928, it was edited by the church's 'Hymns Committee' (how is yours doing?), with a Preface signed on St Martin's Day by the amazing H R L (Dick) Sheppard. It has a generous selection of proper poets, showing the influence of both Bridges and Dearmer. It comes out against sentimental hymns, 'party' hymns, children's hymns and bad hymns; but one distinctive feature, for its time, is the alphabetical arrangement. Subject and author indexes are given; so are 26 stanzas of Jerusalem, my happy home. 'No dampish mist is seen in thee... There lust and lucre cannot dwell'; not exactly true of London between the wars.

But it is essentially a public kind of book. The 1914-18 war was not long over, and for a future pacifist Dick Sheppard allows some surprising militarism into his editing. 26 of the 413 hymns are 'National'; was it easier then to write hymns which all could sing without embarrassment? The title was fair enough; and Mr Blair should be happy to sing 'O lead my blindness by the hand', since it was written by one of his predecessors. William Ewart Gladstone's text, from a longer original, is still in print, and for a Communion hymn to come from the Prime Minister says something about our nation, then and now.

But these are people's hymnals; is there a people's hymn? People look East; Remember all the people; Rejoice, you people, in the mounting years: all these have the P-word but none could claim special status. There is one that could; older than most, and a strong candidate from even tougher days, All people that on earth do dwell. If you ever tire of that, hear it some time at a cathedral near you. The Lord is God, and the Lord is good; the Old Hundredth has a grand history and, I forecast, a long future.

But it is not my 'People's Hymn'. As we are at the end of this month's ration, you and the PM will have to wait till next time for the New Directions nomination.

Christopher Idle serves in the People's Diocese of Southwark.

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