Idle Curiosity

Highways and byways of hymns

Guess Which?

IT was the night before the wedding of our third son. From around these islands, the family gathered in Glasgow; the bride-to-be was Indo-Scottish. That day we had eaten sparingly. Mussolini's was not our first choice among downtown restaurants but held the advantage over the rest in being open. We have no complaints about Glasgow per se.

But the music was loud, the lighting subdued, the waiter reserved, the menu handwritten in some unfamiliar European language. On this my case rests.

The upshot was that while my relatives received their succulent, steaming plates of delicious food, my own share (to the universal mirth of my nearest and dearest) was what looked like two small sandwiches. To be fair, the family were generous in topping this up. Stay with me a moment as we move south.

You can always tell from the noticeboard which hymn-book a church uses. Not that I have won much money by pre-service flutters on the issue; but then, I haven't lost any either.

Take last year's holiday, as you no doubt prepare for this year's. We are in a small country town, a million miles from London but not from its traffic, with the parish church soaring above the chimneypots. The Sunday bells echo down the main street at 9.30, inviting the faithful and challenging the malingerers. Clearly A&M New Standard is on the menu.

Until, that is, we enter. Well, sometimes one slips up. Somewhere among the hymn leaflets, baptism cards, notice sheets, service booklets and holiday supplements lurks the green and gold of BBC Songs of Praise – as distinct from either BBC or SOP alone. The crowds were a surprise too; the baptism of twins helped to explain some of them. The family had clearly chosen what for want of a better word I call the hymns; their responses to the liturgical questions showed some familiarity with proceedings.

The music was jolly enough to please my friend Prebendary John ‘Music Hall' Pearce, but the organist had not quite made it to this section of his Sunday circuit. We reached the Eucharistic Prayer, all set to launch into ‘praising God and singing…', when a loud voice corrected the celebrant by interjecting ‘SAYING!' at the crucial moment.

The church was rich in nineteenth-century ornament, moderate in candle power, but I was sad that not one of the six sung items was earlier than c.1975. By the time the baptismal candidates grow to manhood there will be six different songs in the Christian pop-charts. If I were a butterfly, a wiggly worm or an elephant, I'd bet on that.

Three readings were listed on one of the leaflets. But on reflection, somebody decided that 1 Kings 3 was not quite so relevant as something about Winnie-the-Pooh, so we had that instead. The sermon took the Pooh motif further. In the evening they were doing Taizé, which is fine if you like repeating yourself. So we sneaked off to the Baptists and Mission Praise. We knew it would be at a glance from the road; this time my cash would have been secure. We had it together with your average informal super-friendly Alpha-style ghastliness. It's a real fun place, church.

Back home we go weeks without singing anything written after 1900. Here, a whole Sunday and nothing older than David Beckham. And not an organist in sight. It was like going to that Glasgow restaurant expecting a slap-up meal, and getting instead a couple of sardine sandwiches.


Christopher Idle seeks nourishment in the Diocese of Southwark.

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