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More of Christ than ‘me’

by
11 September 2015

J. R. Watson finds a timelessness in new hymn collections

Beyond our Dreaming: Thirty-six new hymns, 2008-2011
Timothy Dudley-Smith
OUP £10.95
(978-0-19-338001-1)
Church Times Bookshop £9.85 (Use code CT611)

 

A House of Praise, Part Two: Collected hymns, 2002-2013
Timothy Dudley-Smith
OUP £21.95
(978-0-19-340377-2)
Church Times Bookshop £19.75 (Use code CT611)

 

A HOUSE OF PRAISE, Part Two is a successor to the volume with the same title published in 2003, which was not designated as Part One because, as Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith points out, there was no expectation then of a further volume. Since 2003, however, there have been three supplements: A Door for the Word (2006), Praise to the Name (2009), and Beyond our Dreaming (2012).

Each is incorporated into A House of Praise, Part Two, so that there is no need to treat Beyond our Dreaming separately, except to note that it contains a most eloquent preface, which should not be lost sight of (I hope that somehow, somewhere, it will be printed separately). Serious students of contemporary hymnody will need to consult it if they want to have any insight into what makes Dudley-Smith go on writing: “I live in hope”, he says modestly, “that the next text I write may serve the Christian community better than most of its predecessors from my pen.”

In A House of Praise, Part Two, the hymns are numbered consecutively with those of the 2003 volume, beginning with 286, and going through to 435. Each hymn has a note giving its purpose and function, the date and the circumstances of composition, and suggested tunes. These notes serve as a commentary on individual hymns, but the overall effect is that of an on-going conversation with the author, understanding why he writes as he does, what inspires him, and how he acts on that inspiration — sometimes instantly, sometimes after a long period of gestation.

What is it about Dudley-Smith’s hymns that makes them so valuable? Almost always they originate in a biblical text, which is a good start: particularly notable is a section on “Twelve minor prophets”. There are some exceptions, such as a brilliant pilgrimage hymn based on The Pilgrim’s Progress. But sometimes a word will leap from the original text: “consider him, consider him” is the end of a hymn that explores the significance of Hebrews 12.3, “Consider him, our Saviour Christ”. So too, the seven words from the cross are the centre of another: “The hour has come, foretold since time began”.

These significant words, memorable though they are, have their meaning within lines: the Christ-child is “enthroned on Mary’s knee”; we find that Christ is “mine,/ mine to the edge of doom”; in a crystalline moment of utter simplicity, we find “for Christ is risen, as he said”. In their turn, these lines take their places within the verses, and the verses within the whole hymn: there is a coherence that leads the mind with unerring sureness from beginning to end.

Then there is the insight into the human condition. These hymns have a remarkable way of pin-pointing exactly what the believer feels. “Slowly the hours creep on” is a line about waiting — in this case for Easter Day. A funeral hymn gives thanks “for fruitful years and sunlit days”, which is precisely what a mourner might feel in the midst of grief; we find that, in a hymn written on a school motto, the children are to be “firm in our faith, and loyal in our love”.

Like this last example, many of the finest lines are those that conclude hymns, bringing the mind safely into that haven where it would be: at holy communion, “we taste on earth, with friends above,/ the bread and wine of heaven.”

These hymns have memorable words, superb phrases, and a progression through the verse which is entirely satisfying. They respond to moments of high emotion with realism and compassion. But there is something else, which is harder to define. The details mentioned above are elements of a hymnody that breathes through the whole book a spirit of wonder, love, and praise, but also of self-surrender. Somehow it is as if Dudley-Smith has given himself again and again to the hymn and its occasion, yielded to the impulse to write in praise and joy.

Although a few are in the first person, they never become remotely self-seeking or self-absorbed. The feeling throughout is that the presence of Christ is at the centre of everything, and that the world, which is seen so faithfully, is projected through him.

Contemporary worship contains many hymns that attempt to deal with current problems, modern perceptions of God, or new forms of worship. These hymns stand above that. They are exact, and perceptive, and belong unmistakably to the early 21st century; but future generations will be able to use them with as much confidence as we can. They are contemporary because they are timeless.

 

Dr J. R. Watson is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Durham.

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