Saturday, 12 November 2011

Hymns old & already dated?

The English Hymnal & New English Hymnal: neither insanely inclusive nor full of dreadful ditties

One of undisputed gifts of the Anglican patrimony to the wider Church is its hymnody, drawing on on a wide variety of sources and traditions and often expressing in a few short lines an remarkable richness of doctrinal teaching, particularly perhaps in terms of eucharistic theology.
Yet, visiting other parishes from time to time, it would seem that this tradition is, if not actually threatened with extinction, then subject to the same kind of revisionism which casts such a blight on our ecclesial life.

Many modern hymnals try at least to include a selection of 'traditional' hymnody alongside the regrettable, trite and subjective, doctrine-free choruses or 'worship songs'. For the most part they are fairly unexceptional selections, although it’s very clear that most (with very few exceptions) of the more modern compositions will happily fade as quickly as a polyester chasuble exposed to direct sunlight.

Of course, to a certain extent, that was also true of many of the hymns selected for nineteenth and early twentieth century hymnals, included but rapidly forgotten. But for someone brought up in the English Hymnal tradition, it’s hard to be anything other than critical of hymn books which are put together in alphabetical order rather than in the familiar and more liturgically user- friendly arrangement of times and seasons.
But the very worst aspect of many of these recent productions is their attempt to ‘improve’ and update traditional, well-loved hymns. I’m not only thinking about such obvious monstrosities as ‘Onward Christian Pilgrims’ or the alternative version of ‘For all the saints,’ which have been altered to exclude all references to warfare. A note to those similarly tempted: please look up the meaning of the word ‘metaphor.’ We can be grateful that St Paul didn’t have a similar confusion about the nature of verbal imagery with regard to spiritual warfare. Too complex an idea for our modern minds to cope with? Some obviously have thought so.
Above all, what surely should be unacceptable to everyone whose ideology hasn't driven them insane is the attempt to rewrite the language of hymns, some of which can be regarded as poetry in its own right, in order to make it gender inclusive and acceptable to the prevailing culture. One of the worst culprits in this regard seems to be Kevin Mayhew's 'Hymns Old and New, Complete Anglican edition'.  I’m thinking here about two recent examples I've come across, Robert Bridges' 'All my hope on God is founded’ and John Keble's ‘Blest are the pure in heart.’ There is absolutely no ambiguity as to their authors’ meaning; the changes which have been made represent an alarmingly totalitarian literary dishonesty (if you don't like the past, airbrush out the bits you object to) and have been made purely on ideological grounds; * moreover, the ‘improvements’ subtly, and not so subtly, alter meanings, and are in many cases unutterably banal, the proud work of the heirs of Dr Bowdler.
In some instances this approach has even been extended to the words of familiar Christmas carols, with predictable results, almost always ending up causing total chaos as people, particularly the occasional seasonal worshippers, mercifully unattuned to ecclesiastical fashion, simply stop singing in bemusement, if not in outright exasperation.
The solution? When I have had to sing hymns in the newspeak versions, I simply sing the original words very loudly; I know it’s not very edifying behaviour, and it does nothing to dispel a growing reputation – at least to those standing next to me - for being difficult and eccentric. Oh well... as they say, that ship has already sailed.

* a little like that over-used expression in some quarters, ‘sisters and brothers.’ There’s nothing inherently wrong with it at all, even if it does jar somewhat on the ears of native English speakers; but we know only too well the theological agenda which underlies the words.

This is 'All my hope on God is founded' - the words are not the inclusive 'dynamic equivalents'


  1. I agree totally Father, last Sunday we had 'If I were a butterfly, I'd thank you Lord, for giving me wings' and I can't forget I was unlucky enough to have to say the line 'I will make you fishers of people'. If I have warning of a reading I read from the AV mainly because the poetry makes the readings menorable which is what they are being read for! I am not asked to read very often though

  2. 'Blest are the pure in heart' has an even greater resonance when we remember that it is part of a poem Keble wrote for the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady.

  3. I agree with you Father; the sad thing is that so many of the so-called hymns & choruses(ditties) are meaningless trash sung to musical rubbish and which form the basis of many people's spirituality. As a musician I some times despair!


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