Word from Wormingford

20 February 2015

Ronald Blythe remembers hearing hymns sung by Cornish fishermen

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 every Monday.

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.

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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 hymns.

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.

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