Before embarking on this hymn to hymns, I’ll admit that hymn-enthusiasts feel a slight sense of anticlimax on Easter Sunday, when the pleasingly austere hymns of Lent are replaced with the too-happy, exclamation-mark-ridden hymns of Easter. Within minutes of the start of the Easter Eucharist, our mouths will ache from repetitive singing of the over-vowelled word ‘Alleluia’.
I’ll also admit that I sometimes long for hymns to be over. I check to see how many more verses there still are: three down, three to go. I’m relieved if the vicar says ‘omitting verses five and six’ of a slow seven-verser. Anything to speed up our increasingly padded and long-winded Anglican services.
I’m not writing here about how I love hymns — although I do — but about how I need them, and how we all need them, particularly at the moment, and not only because we’ve just witnessed the unbearable sight of an 850-year-old Gothic cathedral burning down before our eyes on television. If we’re addicted to politics, as most of us are, we spend our days watching, listening to and reading people squabbling, shouting over each other, being vile about each other, blaming each other and being withering about everyone but themselves. That has become the climate in which we live: one where it’s not done for anyone to admit they are wrong, weak or sorry.
How powerful it is, then, when singing a hymn in a pew, to find ourselves singing aloud, and communally, but without having to look anyone else in the eye, about our inner disorder, sorrow and frailty. Like wounded soldiers in the first world war crying for their mothers, we find ourselves crying out our remorse and our need for love. ‘Perverse and foolish oft I strayed/ But yet in love he sought me’; ‘Let not my slippery footsteps slide,/ And hold me lest I fall’; ‘Reclothe us in our rightful mind’; ‘Breathe through the heats of our desires/ Thy coolness and thy balm’.
Hymns give us an unembarrassing platform to utter those admissions of defencelessness and our need for forgiveness. As we do so, even the most hard-hearted of us can be poleaxed, floored, or reduced to tears by the plain speaking we hear coming out of our mouths. A line can suddenly hit us with the full force of its unvarnished frankness. It happened to me the other day when I was singing ‘Just As I Am, Without One Plea’ and came to the line ‘Fightings within, and fears without’.
Hats off to the self-effacing hymn-writers. I’m glad they weren’t Keats, Shelley or Wordsworth. People talk about hymns being ‘poems’, and in a way they are, because they rhyme and scan, but they’re not self-indulgently rapturous or purposefully obscure, as so many poems are. We don’t have to revere them or write essays on their imagery in the stressful Eng. Lit. way.
Most of the great hymns were written by clergymen with sideburns whom you haven’t heard of: men like H.W. Baker (‘The King of Love My Shepherd Is’) and R.F. Littledale (‘Come Down, O Love Divine’): classically educated vicars toiling away in parishes in Herefordshire or Norfolk, who wrote their own hymns and translated ancient ones from Latin into flawlessly scanning English. Their hymns weren’t ‘all about them’. They were all about humanity. In 1629, the greatest ever hymn writer, George Herbert — the Vermeer of hymn writers — gave up being Public Orator at Cambridge to be a rector in a small village near Salisbury. He was the master of the simple thought expressed entirely in monosyllables, such as ‘And the cream of all my heart I will bring thee’.
How we need those short words and unembellished thoughts, in these days of Brexit compound words like ‘flextension’. The longest word in Hymns Ancient and Modern is ‘inextinguishable’ in ‘O Thou Who Camest from Above’; but words of more than three syllables are rare.
It’s not just the frankness and plainness we need. It’s the beauty: the perfect match of words and music. An unheard-of author sets words to tune by obscure composer, and together they create unshowy sublimity.
‘Angel Voices, Ever Singing’ is a classic example. The words are by Francis Pott (b. 1832, M.A. Oxon, rector in Norhill, Ely), set to a tune by E.G. Monk (master of choristers at York Minster for a quarter of the 19th century). Between them, they produced the moment of perfection at the end of verse three, when we find ourselves singing the words ‘Craftsman’s art and music’s measure for thy pleasure all combine’ — and we suddenly think, ‘My God, that’s beautiful and true’.
Spare us the militaristic hymns. However much our vicar’s daughter prime minister might be holding her resolve by humming dogged, marching, self-righteous hymns such as ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Fight the Good Fight’, I’m grateful that those hymns have gone out of fashion in our churches in these ecumenical, post-crusading times.
We do, though, need the hymns’ happy endings. I know hope is a dangerous and misleading feeling. I hate pat sermons that brush away the problem of pain. But when hymns end with a hopeful thought — an uplifting, perfectly scanning couplet set to an optimistic culmination of a tune — I can forgive them. With their tying up of loose ends (such as ‘consubstantial, co-eternal, while unending ages run’), those endings fill us with a fleeting sense of possibility that things really might turn out all right in the end.
Surely that final flourish of optimism, expressed aloud, communally and to great music, must help us to live better lives and not sink into despair.