Rejoice O People: Hymns and poems of Albert Bayly

02 November 2006


The Hymn Society £12.50 (0-9505589-5-8)

ALTHOUGH the name Albert Bayly is probably little-known among Anglicans, many congregations will be familiar with some of his thinking through his hymns "Praise and thanksgiving, Father, we offer" and "Lord of the boundless curves of space".

Bayly was a Congregationalist (later United Reformed Church) minister from the late 1920s until his death in 1984. Rejoice O People is a collection of his hymns and poems, published by the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, in an attempt to make his work better-known. It begins with two short essays, "The Man and his Ministry" and "The Man and his Writing" , which introduce the reader to the author of what follows.

Bayly's life and ministry spanned the Depression of the 1930s, the Second World War, and the years of reconstruction which ensued. He lived and worked in a Britain in which manufacturing industry still thrived, and in which science might be seen as being in the service of human progress. He saw the birth of the World Council of Churches, and wrote a hymn for the occasion before going off to attend the Amsterdam Assembly.

In the years that followed, many of the architects of what is now the European Union began their day's work in Brussels by meeting together for prayer.

Such a world seems a long way from our secularised 21st century; and this may explain why most of Bayly's hymns remain unknown. That is not to say that their sentiments are blithely optimistic, for they are clearly born of Christian hope and from a ministry rooted in the sometimes harsh realities of daily life. But they may not be popular at the moment.

A further reason why so few of the hymns of someone who has been described as the father of modern hymn-writing are included in recent Anglican hymn-books - Common Praise has only four, for example - is that our almost exclusively liturgical approach to worship leaves little space for a series of hymns on the Hebrew prophets, or hymns on such subjects as senior citizens, growing, or the space age. I suspect that if Sunday evensong were still a popular service in the Church of England, modern collections might include far more hymns such as Bayly's, for use before or after the sermon or prayers that were normally added to the Office.


That said, we might ask ourselves why the recently revived 17th-century "How shall I sing that majesty" should prove more popular than Bayly's excellent "Lord of the boundless curves of space", a hymn that expresses many of the same ideas for a 20th-century world. Why do congregations prefer to sing about a "sea without a shore" and a "sun without a sphere" than about galaxies and atoms?

The poems included here may appeal more immediately to strangers to Bayly's work than do the hymns. The galaxies, atoms, cells, and tissue are less present, though the author's astronomical interest in the greatness of the cosmos still, appropriately, shines through in a poem about the Wise Men, and in one inspired by an astronaut's reading of the creation story on the moon. There is less, too, of God's coming Kingdom of righteousness and peace, a theme that finds a place in many of his hymns.

Here, rather, are hills and moors, the Essex countryside, and the stones of great cathedrals and buildings. And the poet, of course, is freed from the strict metres required of the hymn-writer. The music is in the words themselves.

These are religious poems, and the world is still God's world. It is a sacramental world, too, with frequent references to God's presence in holy places and in holy things such as the eucharist.

In fact, Bayly writes consistently, both in hymn and poem, of a world in which God's handiwork is apparent, both in nature and also wherever men and women work in co-operation with him, through science, art, and human industry.  It is not Bayly's fault that our post-industrial world finds it easier to see the beauty of God in what is left of the countryside around us - and that sometimes photographed through a rather opaque lens - than in all his works, from the smallest particle to a constellation a billion light years away.

Canon Draper is chairman of the English Hymnal Company.

The book is available from the Hymn Society, 99 Barton Road, Lancaster LA1 4EN, at £12.50 plus £2 p. & p.

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