IDLE CURIOSITY

O HAPPY ONES AND HOLY

‘Yet she on earth hath union/ with God the Three-in-One,/ and mystic, sweet communion/ with those whose rest is won…': how many of these truths, we wonder, can survive another generation of unisex language or multi-faith doctrine? When that uppish young curate Samuel Stone thought his catholic orthodoxy worth versifying in opposition to creeping liberalism, he cannot have guessed that he had just written an all-time hit.

It is the second couplet which moves me this month, when one of the less-documented of those whose rest is won used to have a day: February 24, Matthias, Apostle. As an ex-minister of an ex-St Matthias Church, an ex-parent and governor at the ex-St Matthias school, both in Poplar, one feels these things. But saints include the Samuel Stones of this world, and many more where he came from, as this column observed as recently as last October.

I am still compiling brief biographies of hymns and hymn-writers, for a CD-ROM called HymnQuest, and for a Handbook to a recent hymnal. A thousand hymns and 400 authors are, so to speak, in the can. A lot? A drop in the ocean! Anglicans have not been too ready to come up with the background data for either. The Historical Companion to Hymns Ancient and Modern is past its fortieth birthday. A landmark, a mine of information, succinct and usually trustworthy biography; more sketchy about the hymns. In 1984 Canon Cyril Taylor produced a brief update for the ‘New Standard' edition. When asked if a Companion to a more recent volume was likely, the exhausted editor-in-chief bellowed ‘No!'

The facts about the 1965 Anglican Hymn Book are on 663 handwritten pages, one per hymn in coloured inks, in four volumes which sit on the floor beside me now. Of the English Hymnal, old or new, let alone Hymns Old and New or Hymns for Today's Church, we must fish elsewhere. By contrast the Baptists, Methodists, URC, Americans, Australians and Welsh have all done better. A good job we share some of the hymns.

But this makes detective work all the more intriguing and rewarding. As I sit up here in our second smallest room, the communion of saints is an almost tangible reality. It is good to ferret out the stories of the texts, tunes and people, sometimes reaching back many centuries, who continue to enrich our Sunday mornings and evenings, our weekday festivals, our prayer meetings or special saintly jamborees. It is good, too, to thank God for earthen vessels (aka clay pots) through whom the divine light shines still; to major on the good things we have in common rather than delight in divisions or gloat over failings. My fellowship with these saints cannot replace the quiet time or daily office, but the fact that I find myself making such an observation is a clue to the devotion they inspire. So at least I find, quite unexpected and unplanned.

We started with Stone; I conclude with Baxter, that extraordinary puritan Anglican dissenter from Kidderminster whose preaching and pastoring are a glory of the seventeenth century. Over 300 years his hymns have changed somewhat; but not this, which those from sensible parishes are still able to sing: ‘In the communion of saints/ is wisdom, safety and delight;/ and when my heart declines and faints,/ it's raisèd by their heat and light.' Or to adapt another quote, we bury ourselves in a Hymn-book Companion, and rise in the glory of God.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark

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