THERE is no doubt that Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith, who celebrates his 90th birthday on Boxing Day, is one of the outstanding hymn-writers of our generation.
The test of a great hymn, John Betjeman once said, is that you cannot change a single word and improve it. Apply that test to “Tell out, my soul”, for instance, and the quality of the author’s work is splendidly affirmed. Betjeman himself described it in a radio broadcast 40 years ago as “one of the few modern hymns that will truly last”.
Hymns written by “TDS” are to be found in books of every denomination and tradition throughout the English-speaking world, and translated into a dozen other languages. The story of how — to his surprise — a part-time poet became a distinguished hymn-writer is well worth the telling.
HE WAS born in 1926 into a churchgoing family in Manchester. His father, who was also his school teacher, chose as bed-time reading for Timothy poems and verses, so that his young ear was soon attuned to the rhythm and flow of verse and the appeal of rhyme. He recalls writing verse from the time he could hold a pen, but he was convinced that he could never be a hymn-writer because he had no ear for music.
At the age of 11 or 12, following his father’s early death, he decided that he would one day “be a parson”. His faith was clarified as a teenager at a “Bash” camp — events led by the Revd E. J. H. Nash (hence “Bash”), intended to introduce public-school boys (no girls) to a robust, Evangelical Christianity. TDS describes the experience in someone else’s words: “My faith was there already, but in pencil. This experience inked it in.”
He recalls his interview for Tonbridge School, when the headmaster asked if he knew any poetry. He did, launching into Chesterton’s “Lepanto” — not, as he recalls, the greatest lyric poetry, but stirring stuff, and several pages long. Eventually the headmaster gently indicated that enough was enough.
Earlier, aged 12, he had played Portia in a school production of The Merchant of Venice, and reckons that, 78 years later, he still knows most of the “quality of mercy” speech by heart. As a schoolboy, he loved poetry: not just the verse, but the way it worked.
From Tonbridge he went on to Cambridge, where he earned a reputation for the quality of the publicity material he created for a university mission. The long-awaited ordination followed: in Rochester Cathedral, to a curacy on the edge of Erith. From there he became head of the Cambridge University Mission in Bermondsey, where he had been assisting for some time. Needless to say, it was a very different experience from public school and Cambridge: an encounter with a world of poverty and deprivation, whose spiritual needs and aspirations are reflected in several of his hymns.
IN THE 1950s Billy Graham and his crusades came to Britain. The Evangelical Alliance sponsored the Graham campaigns, which drew huge audiences in London and elsewhere. As part of its follow-up, in 1955 the Alliance launched an ambitious monthly magazine called Crusade. Its first editor was Timothy Dudley-Smith.
He shaped what was at the time something distinctly new in religious journalism in Britain. It was a glossy magazine; it cost one shilling and sixpence (a lot of money in 1955); it had cartoons and a sense of humour; and it mixed devotional material with commentary on world events and — its editor’s trademark innovation — serious poetry. I first encountered the splendid poetry of Alice Meynell in its pages.
At a rather different poetic level, he also included, from his own pen, little advertising verses and promotional poems for the magazine. These (as some of us noted) were rather better than the usual commercial jingles. TDS has never been one to despise the value of light or comic verse. He quotes Stephen Leacocke‘s observation that comic verse makes its appeal through “extraordinary correctness, aptness, and simplicity of words and phrases”.
He loved verse, rhyme, and the rhythm of words, and had long been writing Christian verse. But since he was not, as he puts it, “musical”, he never imagined that hymn-writing might one day be his greatest contribution to the Church’s life and worship.
IN 1959, he left Crusade to become editorial secretary of the Church Pastoral Aid Society (CPAS). Here he launched Falcon Books, a publishing venture intended to provide parishes with attractive literature about the Christian faith, mostly in booklet form.
A bigger enterprise was on the way, however. A group of young Evangelical clergy was compiling a collection of songs and hymns intended to appeal to the young people who, in many places, were coming to church for the first time as a result of the Graham campaigns. They had the songs and hymns, but where was a willing publisher? The answer lay in Falcon Books. What was originally a pocket booklet became Youth Praise, followed by Youth Praise 2, and finally Psalm Praise. The three titles sold one million copies.
TDS had originally seen his role simply as publisher and general well-wisher, but when, in the 1960s, the Anglican Hymn Book was in preparation, its editors, aware of his poetic gifts, asked if he had any texts that they might consider. They eventually included “Tell out, my soul” and two others. Finally he was convinced that, musical or not, he could write hymns.
He had worked with Michael Baughen and others on poetic paraphrases of the Psalms; now these, too, became cherished hymns, and not just in the UK. Thanks largely to George Shorney at Hope Publishing, TDS’s work became popular in North America (Hope are still his publishers, together with OUP). Some of his early poetry had been published, but now there was a huge audience waiting to sing his words.
AFTER leaving CPAS (where has was latterly its general secretary), his ministry changed radically. He became Archdeacon of Norwich, and subsequently suffragan Bishop of Thetford. In the quiet house in Bramerton where he and his wife, Arlette, lived with their two daughters and a son, he found the odd moment to write an occasional hymn, but the bulk of his annual output of seven or eight hymns was produced at their beloved cottage in Cornwall. Arlette, whom he married in 1959, died in 2007.
In the preface to his collected hymns (A House of Praise), the author remarked that, after 40 years of hymn-writing, he hoped for “a few more”. That was 15 years ago, and he is still writing: many of his friends will have enjoyed his usual Christmas card with a new carol on it; and this year Beneath a Travelling Star: Thirty contemporary carols and hymns for Christmas was published by the RSCM.
BISHOP Timothy has a high view of hymnody. He quotes Hilaire Belloc: “It is the best of all trades to make songs”, and what better songs to make than those offered in worship? For him, “Hymn-writing has been a most enriching and entirely unexpected gift.”
It is also a craft, and at times a hard and demanding one. Halfway through a line, he observes, “one finds oneself wondering ‘Will it do?’” If you have to ask the question, there can, for him, be only one answer: it won’t. In a paper for the Hymn Society, he spoke of the “salutary experience” it had been for him to analyse Noel Coward’s wartime song “London Pride” — a tour de force involving multiple pairs of rhymes in each stanza, and three triplet rhymes with a feminine ending. If Coward constructed so painstakingly for entertainment, what does that require of those who write songs for the glory of God?
IN THE right setting, you can tease out of Bishop Timothy his two minor grouses about hymnody today. The first and strongest is about editorial amendments: editors who think they can improve, for aesthetic or cultural reasons, the original text. While a few such amendments, he will concede, do actually improve the text, many simply distort it.
His other minor regret is about the huge numerical reduction in rhyming possibilities caused by the substitution (which he endorses) of “you” and “yours” for “thee” and “thine”. It had never occurred to me, but ten minutes’ experiment proved his point.
Undeterred, this hymn-writer continues to devote himself to his sacred craft. His mastery of the telling first line — “He walks among the golden lamps”, “As water to the thirsty”, “Set your troubled hearts at rest” — and of the creative contrast — “Self on the cross, and Christ upon the throne” — are matched by his sympathy for the texture and rhythms of language.
All the honours he has received, from a Lambeth M. Litt and a Durham D.D., to an OBE in 2003 for “services to hymnody”, are recognitions of a craftsman’s art. That late-emerging craft ensures that the one-time editor, publisher, archdeacon, and bishop will be remembered, above all, as a hymn-writer. I think that will please him.