ST PAUL tells the Church to put on love as though it was a
garment; to wear it so that the world can see it. As both a Jew and
a Roman, he was entitled to wear the recognisable dress of both
nationalities. In the same edict, he commands the followers of
Jesus to "Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs."
There was a time when this order appeared to have been
forgotten; it was then passionately restated by St Ambrose, the
Bishop of Milan who had not been baptised when he was made a bishop
by acclamation. His "O Jesus, Lord of heavenly grace" was sung
Ambrose is called the father of church music in Latin
Christianity. St Augustine said: "How greatly did I weep in your
hymns and canticles, how moved I was by the voices of your
sweet-speaking church! The voices flowed into my ears, and the
truth was poured into my heart." This singing was imitated by
almost all of its congregations.
We accept 18 Ambrosian hymns and four Ambrosian poems as
authentic, but it was their combined sound and language that
continued to add to make "songs of praise" the only aspect of
Christianity known to most people.
Some hymn-writers possess a special reverence for many of us - a
devotion that we hold on to all our lives. When I was in my
twenties, the poets R. N. Currey, James Turner, and W. R. Rodgers,
and I "spoke" hymns in the big, cold East Anglian churches, usually
without so much as a by your leave. And I was 19 when I first heard
the magnificent Methodist hymn-singing in Cornwall when, on a
Saturday night, fishermen perched on the window sills of pubs to
sing "O for a closer walk with God", and St Bernard's passionate
"Jesu, the very thought of thee" - a hymn that, some believed, had
helped to civilise the world.
George Herbert famously made little of his poems, and told his
friend to burn them if they were no good. Sensibly, this friend had
them printed by the best publisher in Cambridge.
"Our" local hymns are "Hills of the north, rejoice!" and "My
song is love unknown" - the first set by Martin Shaw, and the
second by John Ireland. Its author, a youthful curate in the 17th
century, was deprived of his living, but still ended up as a dean.
All that remains of his country church is a big stone and a wide
view. My mother's favourite hymn was "My glorious Victor, Prince
Divine, Clasp these surrendered hands in thine."
Hymns tumble in and out of the books, and Hymns Ancient and
Modern (1861) was "a task of much labour", the preface
confesses, not to mention much copyright, much cutting, and,
eventually, much popularity. An old friend, Alan Cudmore, is my
authority on hymns. I also love Thomas Hardy's mention of them.
Once, when his lovers were strolling past a Dorset church, they
heard a new hymn being practised. It was "Abide with me".
The Salvation Army's all-conquering weapon was the band-led
hymn. Unfortunately, there are hymn-book-makers who do not allow
their ignorance of literature to stop them meddling with some great
The Jews' peerless hymn-book is Psalms: all 150 of them carry
the singing through the heights and depths of human existence. It
was sung through the Holocaust. It is a pastoral one, but it never
dates, and it is Christ's own songbook. It is hard not to "hear"
him and his family singing from it.