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Hymns, prayers, and sacred songs

12 February 2016

Andrew Davison explores the doctrine of God in hymns and liturgy


Quires and places where they sing: Song monarch, published in 1904

Quires and places where they sing: Song monarch, published in 1904

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may rest upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Collect for compline, Common Worship


I FIRST encountered the service of compline as an undergraduate, in my college chapel, where this collect was the undisputed favourite: there was an unwritten rule that, whichever of the other options was chosen, this one was always included.

The idea that God is unchanging has rather been through the mangle in recent decades, although it is strongly affirmed by the writers of the Early Church, and alluded to in the first of the Thirty-Nine Articles (God is “without body, parts, or passions” — a “passion” here being a liability to be changed by others).

But I could point to any number of recent books of theology that again champion divine changelessness. In a frantic world, we might all be glad to remember that we can “rest upon [God’s] eternal changelessness”; and it is the prayers of the Church that bear most eloquent witness to that idea.

Another prayer that expresses the same idea is the first verse of an evening hymn attributed to St Ambrose (AD 337-97), here translated by John Ellerton and Fenton John Anthony Hort:


O Strength and Stay upholding all creation,

Who ever dost thyself unmoved abide,

Yet day by day the light in due gradation

From hour to hour through all its changes guide.



A HYMN worth exploring for its meditation on God as Trinity is F. W. Faber’s “Most ancient of all mysteries”; and “Holy! Holy! Holy!” is another favourite. Several hymns also have a trinitarian structure, such as “Thou whose almighty Word” and “Father of heaven, whose love profound”.

”Immortal, invisible, God only wise” does a good job of going through divine attributes. “Holy God, we praise thy Name” is a riot of praise to God, paraphrasing most of the Te Deum, with the magnificent tune Grosser Gott. Who says that church music needs to be tasteful?


AS FAR as representations of God in the Bible are concerned, the question about whether God could be seen is a good one. Exodus 33 presents us with a deliberate tension here: God speaks to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend”, but also says “No one shall see me and live”, and — a mediating position — “You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Ezekiel 1 gives us the wonderfully elliptical “appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord”. In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul points to Jesus as the one in whom we see God: “the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

In the eucharistic preface for Christmas in Common Worship, this verse is fused with a medieval Western text: “In this mystery of the Word made flesh you have caused his light to shine in our hearts, to give knowledge of your glory in the face of Jesus Christ. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see.”


NOT quite as many anthems directly address the doctrine of God as we might expect (although some of those that do are good). Some of the best church music, however, does not so much set out to teach us about God, as to help us express desire for God. Herbert Howells had a good eye for such texts.

Some come from the scriptures, and address God directly (here from Psalm 42, also set by Palestrina): “Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God. When shall I come to appear before the presence of God? My tears have been my meat day and night, while they daily say unto me, ‘Where is now thy God?’”

Other texts set by Howells suggest a love for God extending to all creaturely things, which nothing fully satisfies. These are often the work of Robert Bridges (1844–1930), for example “I love all beauteous things”, “Thee will I love”, or this anthem:


My eyes for beauty pine,

My soul for Goddes grace:

No other care nor hope is mine,

To heaven I turn my face.

One splendour thence is shed

From all the stars above:

’Tis named when God’s name is said,

’Tis Love, ’tis heavenly Love.

And every gentle heart,

That burns with true desire,

Is lit from eyes that mirror part

Of that celestial fire.


The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is the Starbridge Lecturer in Theology and Natural Sciences in the University of Cambridge, and the Fellow in Theology at Corpus Christi College.

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