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Others may run bazaars

by
01 December 2010

The ‘hymn explosion’ was very male, but women are back, says J. R. Watson

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This is Our Song: Women’s hymn-writing
Janet Wootton, editor
Epworth Press £25
(978-0-7162-0655-2)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

The first, up to page 233, is a straight­forward, tough, and forceful account of the history of women’s hymn-writing from the earliest times to what Dr Wootton calls the “explosions and outpourings” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The second consists of ten interviews with contemporary women hymn-writers, most of whom are known to the compilers of hymn books and supple­ments, and whose ideas are worth listening to.

Sometimes, those ideas work against the grain of the argument, as when Marian Collihole says that she has not noticed any prejudice against her, and that she continues to use the word “man” to mean humankind; for there is no doubt that, for many women writers through the ages, there has existed an expectation that they should operate in a world dominated by patriarchy, if they operated at all.

In A Room of One’s Own (1928), Virginia Woolf imagined Shakespeare as having a sister, Judith, as talented as he, but frustrated, disappointed, and killing herself in despair (I think that this may have happened to hymn-writers such as Dora Greenwell: writers draw a veil over her final years, in which I suspect she took to drugs or drink).

It was only in the 19th century that women’s voices began to be heard; Dr Wootton’s argument is that they were silenced again by the two dominant forces of British religion, masculine Evangelicalism and Christian Socialism. In the 20th century, the so-called “hymn explosion” was male-dominated, and Dr Wootton movingly mourns what she calls “the lost years”, before women’s voices began to be heard again — although how those voices will be heard in the multi-styled worship of the modern Church is left unclear.

This is an important book. It exposes pre­judice and long-held assumptions effectively, and makes a strong case for the neglected insights, values, and skills of women’s hym­nody. Dr Wootton writes well, apart from a tendency to over-use exclamation marks: her treatment of a writer such as Hildegard of Bingen is lyrical in its warmth and admiration. I missed some contemporary women hymn-writers whom I admire — Anna Briggs, Rosalind Brown, Emma Turl — but those that are included make an eloquent case for their own experience and its need for expression.

The book’s cover prints “Our” in a different colour, to give it emphasis: This is OUR Song. That song certainly needs to be heard, and this book will help to make its imperatives understood.

Dr J. R. Watson is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Durham, and author of The English Hymn (Clarendon, 1997).

GERALD BRAY has collected the prefaces to the main translations of the Bible into English between 1525 and 1611, and provided an introduction and notes, in celebration of the 400th anniversary next year of the Authorised Version. His book, Translating the Bible: From William Tyndale to King James, is available from the Latimer Trust, PO Box 26685, London N14 4XQ; www.latimertrust. org (£9.99). It covers the Tyndale Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, the Douai-Reims (Roman Catholic) Bible, and the AV; 12 prefaces in all.

 

GERALD BRAY has collected the prefaces to the main translations of the Bible into English between 1525 and 1611, and provided an introduction and notes, in celebration of the 400th anniversary next year of the Authorised Version. His book, Translating the Bible: From William Tyndale to King James, is available from the Latimer Trust, PO Box 26685, London N14 4XQ; www.latimertrust. org (£9.99). It covers the Tyndale Bible, the Great Bible, the Geneva Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, the Douai-Reims (Roman Catholic) Bible, and the AV; 12 prefaces in all.

 

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