Voices raised, hearts lifted

by
22 September 2010

To mark the publication of Sing Praise, the Church Times and the Royal School of Church Music asked people to nominate the best hymns. Jeremy Davies looks at the top five

Top five hymns

1 “How shall I sing that Majesty?”
John Mason to the tune Coe Fen by Ken Naylor

2 “Love Divine, all loves excelling”
Charles Wesley to Blaenwern by William Penfro Rowlands, or Hyfrydol by Rowland Prichard

3 “All my hope on God is founded”
Robert Bridges to Michael by Herbert Howells

4 “In Christ alone” Words and music by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend

5 “When in our music God is glorified”
Fred Pratt Green to Engelberg by Charles V. Stanford

Close behind were: “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven”, “The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended”, and “My song is Love unknown”. Classic hymns dominated the top ten; the only worship song that appeared in the chart was “In Christ alone”, although “Be still, for the presence of the Lord”, by David Evans, was number 11.

HYMNS are important because, as St Augustine reminds us, “Those who sing pray twice,” which suggests that music (not just hymnody) can elevate heart and soul to God. But hymns, as Luther, Wesley, and Aquinas recognised, are also a means of imparting doc­trine in an unforgettable way — particularly if there is a marriage of rhythmic words with a strong melody.

Prime examples are: “A firm stronghold our God is still”, Bach’s arrange­ment of Luther’s chorale; Charles Wesley’s “O thou who camest from above” to S. S. Wesley’s Hereford; or the plainsong of Lauda, Sion, which brings Aquinas’s words from their 13th-century Latin original into the vernacular of our own day. The Christian teaching of some familiar hymns is worth 100 sermons — not least because hymns actually endure.

But most of us love hymns for more than their theological weight. Hymns bind us together as a community, create an atmosphere of praise or receptivity, change the mood of the liturgy as we cross liturgical thresholds, and move from greeting to penitence, to reception of word and sacrament — or are prepared by these for the dismissal and the Church’s ongoing mission.

Hymns move us, still us, raise us, provide us with words for prayer, and, indeed, allow us to pray when words fail. Hymns build us up together as we become the holy common people of God.

Interestingly, the top five underpin what I have already said. John Mason’s remarkable hymn, which tops the chart, begins with the introspective “How shall I sing that Majesty Which Angels do admire?” and ends with the theocentric conclusion that God is all in all: “Thou art a sea without a shore, A sun without a sphere; Thy time is now and evermore, Thy place is everywhere.”

It is a hymn that moves from necessary self-scrutiny and recognition of human in­adequacy to the contemplation of the divine. And, as though reflecting on the Sanctus, it re­cog­nises that our worship, however thin, joins with the hymn of the angels and arch­angels and all the company of heaven.

The spiritual depth of the text is matched, in a rare and utterly satisfying synchronicity, by a 20th-century tune of equal power. The composer Ken Naylor probably used his Methodist for­ma­tion and background as a director of music in schools to generate the power of the rousing eight-line tune.

SECOND in the survey, “Love Divine, all loves excelling”, is one of those peerless offerings from the pen of Charles Wesley, whose hymns matched the power of his brother John’s preaching, together transform­ing the religious landscape of Britain for ever. Not all of Wesley’s 6000 hymns will survive, but this one certainly will.

It deserves to, because it develops the idea of Christian life as a pilgrimage, while its three-verse form evokes a Trinitarian infrastructure. “Love Divine” suggests that the spiritual pilgrimage is initiated by God himself coming among us: “Joy from heaven to earth come down”.

He is not afraid to recognise the importance of emotion, as well as imagination and intel­ligence, in the human-divine encounter, yet without any hint of mawkish sentiment­ality. The use of the word “trembling” in “Enter every trembling heart” gives the human colour that implies fear, eagerness, rapture, expecta­tion — as though we were lovers waiting for the beloved. He does not need to say more: “trembling” is evocative enough.

The second verse suggests the human response to the divine condescension as we receive the gift of God himself — we bless him, serve him, pray to him, and praise him. And then, in the third verse, he raises our hearts and minds beyond the mundane to a view of heaven: “Finish then thy new creation.” By this completion of God in Christ, we will be changed from glory into glory.

But the coup de grâce (and I use the phrase advisedly) of this hymn is the line that I can almost guarantee we will remember, whatever else we forget from church: “Lost in wonder, love, and praise!” Throughout the hymn, love runs like a golden thread, as though to say: “If you want to grasp the Christian gospel, you have to grasp the centrality of love at the heart of the divine life.” Beside this, all Christian doctrine pales into insignificance.

Although John Stainer, in the 19th century, wrote a four-line tune Love Divine for these words, in my view it is much more successful as an eight-line hymn, and Blaenwern provides a magnificent setting of the text. This is particularly the case when it moves into a higher register in the second half, which is especially powerful when it accompanies the words “Changed from glory into glory”.

ALL my hope on God is founded” is another “goer” in the great tradition of Anglican hymnody. Robert Bridges was himself a poet, famous also for his friendship with Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose poems Bridges published in 1918.

The inspiring theology expressed in this hymn is about trust in God in all vicissitudes and exigencies, and the sense that God has created and continues to create new worlds out of the chaos of the old.

The guarantee of that constant renewal is the gift of Christ his Son, who calls us to follow in his way and, by implication, to be part of God’s great design, despite the fact that we are constantly be­traying his trust.

This strong emphasis on trust is reinforced by Bridges’s interesting rhyme, rhythm, and metre. It is not at all like the predictable rumpty-tum of much hymnody of the time. Maybe Joachim Neander’s German original proposed this prosody, but, whatever its prov­enance, it gives strength to the thrust of the hymn.

Also, the rhyming last three lines of each verse provide a memorable recapitulation of the divine activity in human life. No other tune than Michael could be sung to these words today. This has added poignancy when we remember that the Michael in question was the composer Herbert Howells’s son, who died at a young age, and whose death affected his father deeply. To write such a tune for such words means that a great deal of emotional and spiritual energy meet in this hymn.

THE hymn “In Christ Alone” picks up the sentiments of “my hope”: namely, trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, who “com­mands my destiny”. And, from this hand, nothing in life and death (paraphrasing St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans) can pluck me.

Like many of these favourite hymns, this has a first-person perspective, with an emphasis on the individual relationship with God and personal salvation. That is an important strand in spirituality, which has developed parti­cularly through the Evangelical and Catholic revivals into our own day, and is the mainstay of much con­temporary religious preaching and teaching.

This hymn has a great deal of emotional weight, and the tune, with its simple focus on faith and its midpoint octave-jumps, suggests simple faith leaping up.

My one cavil with this hymn — and it is a significant one — is about its theology. The penal-substitution theory of the atonement is central to Evangelical doctrine, but I find it very difficult to sing: “Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied.”

Are we really to believe that the angry God, propitiated by a blameless victim, is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?

FRED PRATT GREEN’s hymn “When in our music God is glorified” comes from the 20th-century English Nonconformist tradition, whose other exponents include Fred Kahn and Brian Wren.

This tradition has helped us to move away from personal piety to a wider, more outward-looking theology and spiritu­ality, concerned with issues of social justice, world peace, and care for the planet.

As it happens, this hymn, like much of Pratt Green’s work, is firmly rooted in the New Testament and the life of Jesus. He cleverly weaves the biblical references to song (which are relatively scarce in the New Testament) into a reflection on the life of Jesus and the Church, which implicitly brings us back to Augustine’s aphorism, with which we began.

Stanford’s Engelberg is, I believe, the pre­ferred tune, since it matches Pratt Green’s words both in depth and exhortation.

The other hymns that scored well in this survey covered a wide spectrum of hymnody from every century and theological tradition, with no surprises. They included: “Be thou my vision”, “Christ triumphant”, “Dear Lord and Father of mankind”, “Abide with me”, and “Be still, for the presence of the Lord”.

Canon Jeremy Davies is Precentor at Salisbury Cathedral.

‘And can it be’
 
Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
 
It puts into words the extravagance of God’s love, and the depth of God’s self-emptying. And then it goes on to the confidence and glory of the transfigured life of faith in images that for me have a unique power (who can forget “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light”?). It’s deeply biblical and informed in every line by Wesley’s characteristic theology of the incarnation.
 

‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me’
 
Pam Rhodes, BBC Songs of Praise presenter
 
I love the melody of this children’s song, but am touched by the words — so poignant and relevant. It poses a challenge to us all that if we play our part — making a difference in our own lives, families, and communities — then perhaps that “peace on earth” that the angels spoke of when they announced the coming of Christ will not simply be handed down to us from God, but will come through all of us, using God’s love to help build the kind of world he meant this to be.
 

‘Give to me, Lord, a thankful heart’
 
The Revd Barbara Bircumshaw, preparing the new Methodist hymn book
 
This is one of my favourite hymns, because as a minister in the Methodist Church for 22 years, I have tried to live out the words expressed in the first verse:
 
  Give to me Lord a thankful heart
  And a discerning mind.
  Give, as I play the Christian’s part,
  The strength to finish what I start
  And act on what I find.
 

‘All my hope on God is founded’
 
Dr John Rutter, composer, arranger,
and conductor
 
It’s not on my personal list of greatest hymns, and yet . . . despite Robert Bridges’s mangled translation (when did you ever hear anyone say: “Me through change and chance he guideth”), I love it. It has been there on the landmark church occasions in my life, and I want it at my funeral. Just as well I won’t be there to sing: by the last verse I’m useless, filled with more choked-up emotion than Brief Encounter, or else dripping with tears.
 

‘O Love that wilt not let me go’
 
Martyn Joseph, singer-songwriter
 
There is a sadness and melancholy that attracts me, but great hope as well. Apparently the writer George Matheson’s fiancée had broken off their engagement, and he had lost his sight. I can’t imagine the frustration and despair. The words of the penultimate verse always spoke loudest to me: “I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be.” The sense of hope among tears. I can hang my coat right there.
 

‘And can it be’
 
Stuart Townend, worship songwriter, co-author of “In Christ alone”
 
We tend to label modern worship-songs as “emotional”, and old hymns as more “cerebral”. And yet I am moved to tears by this hymn probably more than any other song or hymn ever written. I love the idea that people for centuries have been punching the air (literally or metaphorically) to the glorious testimony “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
 

‘Be thou my vision’
 
Sally Magnusson, broadcaster
 
Listening to this being belted out by a choir of 800 during the papal mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow reminded me how much I love this hymn. The words go back to the eighth century, and it has the unadorned strength you find in so many of the ancient Celtic hymns.  The last couple of lines — “Great Heart of my own heart, what-ever befall Still be thou my vision, O Ruler of all” — sums up the deepest prayer of many of us across the denominations.
 

‘Come down, O Love divine’
 
Henry Sandon, antiques specialist and
ex-chorister
 
My favourite hymn of all time is Down Ampney, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s marvellous setting of the words “Come down, O Love divine”. Named after the composer’s birthplace, in Gloucester­shire, he told me during the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral, in the 1950s, that he regarded it as his best tune of all. I had just become engaged to Barbara, and we simply had to include it during our marriage in Worcester Cathedral.
 

‘My song is love unknown’
 
The Rt Revd Timothy Dudley-Smith, retired bishop and hymn- writer
 
I’m particularly fond of this hymn. The tune by John Ireland is, of course, lovely, but it is the words that mean so much to me. They take you through the life of Jesus, and — though it is essentially a Passiontide hymn which leaves you at the graveside — the resurrection is nevertheless there. In the last verse, it says: “This is my Friend,” not this was my friend. Jesus is risen and alive — I love it for that reason.
 

‘And can it be’
 
Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury
 
It puts into words the extravagance of God’s love, and the depth of God’s self-emptying. And then it goes on to the confidence and glory of the transfigured life of faith in images that for me have a unique power (who can forget “I woke, the dungeon flamed with light”?). It’s deeply biblical and informed in every line by Wesley’s characteristic theology of the incarnation.
 

‘Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me’
 
Pam Rhodes, BBC Songs of Praise presenter
 
I love the melody of this children’s song, but am touched by the words — so poignant and relevant. It poses a challenge to us all that if we play our part — making a difference in our own lives, families, and communities — then perhaps that “peace on earth” that the angels spoke of when they announced the coming of Christ will not simply be handed down to us from God, but will come through all of us, using God’s love to help build the kind of world he meant this to be.
 

‘Give to me, Lord, a thankful heart’
 
The Revd Barbara Bircumshaw, preparing the new Methodist hymn book
 
This is one of my favourite hymns, because as a minister in the Methodist Church for 22 years, I have tried to live out the words expressed in the first verse:
 
  Give to me Lord a thankful heart
  And a discerning mind.
  Give, as I play the Christian’s part,
  The strength to finish what I start
  And act on what I find.
 

‘All my hope on God is founded’
 
Dr John Rutter, composer, arranger,
and conductor
 
It’s not on my personal list of greatest hymns, and yet . . . despite Robert Bridges’s mangled translation (when did you ever hear anyone say: “Me through change and chance he guideth”), I love it. It has been there on the landmark church occasions in my life, and I want it at my funeral. Just as well I won’t be there to sing: by the last verse I’m useless, filled with more choked-up emotion than Brief Encounter, or else dripping with tears.
 

‘O Love that wilt not let me go’
 
Martyn Joseph, singer-songwriter
 
There is a sadness and melancholy that attracts me, but great hope as well. Apparently the writer George Matheson’s fiancée had broken off their engagement, and he had lost his sight. I can’t imagine the frustration and despair. The words of the penultimate verse always spoke loudest to me: “I trace the rainbow through the rain, And feel the promise is not vain, That morn shall tearless be.” The sense of hope among tears. I can hang my coat right there.
 

‘And can it be’
 
Stuart Townend, worship songwriter, co-author of “In Christ alone”
 
We tend to label modern worship-songs as “emotional”, and old hymns as more “cerebral”. And yet I am moved to tears by this hymn probably more than any other song or hymn ever written. I love the idea that people for centuries have been punching the air (literally or metaphorically) to the glorious testimony “My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
 

‘Be thou my vision’
 
Sally Magnusson, broadcaster
 
Listening to this being belted out by a choir of 800 during the papal mass at Bellahouston Park in Glasgow reminded me how much I love this hymn. The words go back to the eighth century, and it has the unadorned strength you find in so many of the ancient Celtic hymns.  The last couple of lines — “Great Heart of my own heart, what-ever befall Still be thou my vision, O Ruler of all” — sums up the deepest prayer of many of us across the denominations.
 

‘Come down, O Love divine’
 
Henry Sandon, antiques specialist and
ex-chorister
 
My favourite hymn of all time is Down Ampney, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s marvellous setting of the words “Come down, O Love divine”. Named after the composer’s birthplace, in Gloucester­shire, he told me during the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral, in the 1950s, that he regarded it as his best tune of all. I had just become engaged to Barbara, and we simply had to include it during our marriage in Worcester Cathedral.
 

‘My song is love unknown’
 
The Rt Revd Timothy Dudley-Smith, retired bishop and hymn- writer
 
I’m particularly fond of this hymn. The tune by John Ireland is, of course, lovely, but it is the words that mean so much to me. They take you through the life of Jesus, and — though it is essentially a Passiontide hymn which leaves you at the graveside — the resurrection is nevertheless there. In the last verse, it says: “This is my Friend,” not this was my friend. Jesus is risen and alive — I love it for that reason.
 

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