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Hymns Old and New publisher defends changes to traditional hymns

by
04 June 2008

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From Mr Kevin Mayhew
Sir, — As the Church Times is owned by Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd, I wonder what you were thinking in allowing Dr Keith Hamnett nearly two-thirds of a page (Comment, 16 May) to lay into the hymn-book of another publisher? Would you allow me equal space to rubbish Hymns Ancient and Modern? You can rest soundly: I shall make no such request.

Dr Hamnett describes the process of selecting Hymns Old and New for his parish as “diligent and thorough”. Presumably that included reading the foreword to the book, which clearly states our editorial policy of critical scrutiny and sympathetic rewriting of established texts. The latter has a long and honourable history. We write that “throughout the time hymns have been in use they have been reviewed, adapted and rewritten: many of the hymns now regarded as classics are in reality very different from the original texts.”

Ralph Vaughan Williams found textual amendment such an obvious part of hymn-book editing that in his preface to The English Hymnal he noted the fact that texts had been changed, but saw no reason to explain why.

Among the textual changes Dr Hamnett attacks us for is “Hills of the North, rejoice”. This is not our amendment, but is from the distinguished collection English Praise. Since that version has been in common use since 1975, I wonder where Dr Hamnett has been doing his hymn-singing since then.

He then really shoots himself in the foot by claiming the right to reject changes to “Hark! the herald-angels sing”. Wesley’s original first line was “Hark, how all the welkin rings”. It would be fun to restore that.

Similarly, we make clear in the foreword that Hymns Old and New uses positive and appropriate images, and that militarism and triumphalism are, therefore, not appropriate. We recognise that military imagery is used in the Bible, but history, including current events, shows only too clearly the misuse to which those images are open.

Dr Hamnett’s claim that we have merely replaced “Onward, Christian soldiers” with the word “pilgrims” is mischievous. We have substituted an entirely new text, which owes nothing to the original.

By quoting John Wesley, Dr Hamnett tries to make a case for printing only the original version of the text. Is he not aware that Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley, for example, often used the word “bowels” as an image for the mercy of Christ? More recently, the word “gay” has entirely changed its meaning. Otherwise, we would have included this verse from the hymn “Lord, for tomorrow and its needs”:

Let me in season, Lord, be grave,
In season gay;
Let me be faithful to thy grace,
Just for today.

Let me in season, Lord, be grave,
In season gay;
Let me be faithful to thy grace,
Just for today.

And, of course, there is the famous verse “The rich man in his castle . . .”, removed early in the last century from “All things bright and beautiful”. I bet the editor got banged over the head for doing that.

Perhaps Dr Hamnett may also like to reinstate the original final verse of the National Anthem:

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush:
God save the Queen.

Lord, grant that Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid
Victory bring.
May he sedition hush
And like a torrent rush
Rebellious Scots to crush:
God save the Queen.

That would kill hymn-book sales in Scotland.

The various editions of Hymns Old and New have sold more than a million copies in the past decade. We delight in receiving many appreciative letters from clergy, musicians, and worshippers, and almost no complaints — maybe one or two a year. This suggests to me that Dr Hamnett, to use a military metaphor that he may appreciate, is the one who is out of step.
KEVIN MAYHEW
Kevin Mayhew Publishers
Buxhall, Stowmarket
Suffolk IP14 3BW

From the Bishop of Ebbsfleet
Sir, — I hope it isn’t breaking a confidence to say that many bishops smiled at Market Bosworth during “Angel-voices ever singing”. It was not that they remembered that the Irvingites called their bishops “angels”. It was that the parish church’s new hymnal asked us to sing “our poor hymnody” in place of “songs of sinful man”.
ANDREW EBBSFLEET
Bishop’s House, Dry Sandford
Abingdon OX13 6JP

From the Revd Paul Roberts
Sir, — I agree with those who use Anglican Hymns Old and New and are occasionally irritated by politically correct updates. My solution, though, is quite simple: we print out the original words on our notice sheet when necessary. You can often find the texts at www.cyberhymnal.org, or use the CD that comes with Songs of Fellowship.
PAUL ROBERTS
The Rectory
232 Coulsdon Road
Coulsdon CR5 1EA

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