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Singing through the tide of change

28 October 2016

This month, the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland celebrates its 80th birthday. Gordon Giles looks back


Hats to heaven and voices raise: singing from the heart

Hats to heaven and voices raise: singing from the heart

FOUR score years ago, most hymn books in the UK were denomina­tional. The majority of Church of England parishes were singing from either The English Hymnal (1906) or Hymns Ancient and Modern, Standard Edition (1922). The Methodist Church (its many strands having been reunited in 1932) was celebrating with The Methodist Hymn Book (1933). Con­gre­­gationa­lists were using their Congregational Hymnary (1916), or had perhaps acquired Popular Hymnal, or a small collection, 101 Hymns for Special Occasions — both, in 1936, hot off the press. The Baptist Church Hymnal had been revised in 1933.

Roman Catholics might have been using The Daily Hymnal (1931), but were more likely to be still singing from the older Westminster Hymnal (1916), a revision of which was begun in that very year. The Scots were using the revised edition of the Church Hymnary (1927). In spite of inten­tions expressed in 1927, there would not be a Welsh-language hymn-book until the following century (Caneuon Ffydd finally appeared in 2001). Across the water in Ireland, the Irish Church Hymnal was in its third edition (1919).

Some enlightened congregations — though mainly schools — were using Songs of Praise (1925, enlarged 1931), which, although edited by Percy Dearmer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Martin Shaw (all of whom had been involved in The English Hymnal), was intentionally non-denomina­tional. As Dearmer put it: “We are reaching the time when denomina­tional hymn-books will be recog­nised as an anachron­ism and a hin­drance to the unity of the Spirit. Why should we thus empha­sise and perpetuate our pecul­iar­ities?” (Percy Dearmer, Songs of Praise Discussed, OUP, 1933).


IT WAS in a similar spirit of ecumenism and cross-denomina­tional mutual vision that the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland (HSGBI) was founded on 5 October 1936, in Room A at West­minster Central Hall. Dearmer, sadly, had died five months earlier, and lay buried on the other side of the road in Westminster Abbey cloister.

The minutes of the first meeting are not riveting (they even got the date wrong), but they do reveal an intention that Dearmer would have applauded: that the following Churches should have automatic representation on the executive committee: the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, the Congregational churches, Baptists, Methodists, Welsh Presbyterians, and the Society of Friends. A subscription of 2s.6d. was agreed.

Two months later, the committee met at Baptist Church House, London, and resolved that the purposes of the Society were to “bring together for co-operative study research and fellowship” those who were interested or engaged in hymnal preparation. Second, it was agreed that the stated aim of carry­ing on the work of the great hym­nologist John Julian (whose Dict­ionary of Hymnology had been published in 1892, with a new edition in 1907) should not be seen as a static target, but rather as a forward-moving project.

This aim was finally realised as recently as 2013, under the editor­ship of Professor J. R. Watson, and with the aid not only of many contributors, but also computer and internet technology (see the Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology (https://hymnology.hymnsam.co.uk). Other desires — to “raise the standard of hymns (both words and music)”, and to promote catholicity and international connections among members — were also enshrined in the original stated objectives of the Hymn Society.


THOSE pre-war founders can have had little idea of the scale of the change that lay ahead, in the realms of politics and inter­national affairs, besides liturgy and hymnody. War was not far off — the “hot” war of 1939-45, and the Cold War that followed, as well as the Korean, Vietnamese, and many other con­flicts, remembered and forgotten.

Just as these changes affected the life of the Church both at home and abroad, so, too, has hymnody held the hand of those in peril on land and sea. Some wartime hymns have entered our books, such as “O Christ the Lord, O Christ the King” (NEH 496), and tunes including Cyril Taylor’s Abbots Leigh, written in 1941.

Since the Second World War, there has been what is sometimes described as a British “hymn explosion”, involving writers such as Timothy Dudley-Smith, Michael Saward, Christopher Idle, and Martin Leckebusch, and composers including Norman Warren, Michael Baughen, John Wilson, and John Barnard.

Our great ecclesiastical musicians have also made their mark: in the past 80 years, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Bairstow, Dearnley, Scott, Archer, and others have all con­tributed fine hymn-tunes to the pool from which we regularly draw. Simultaneously, we have seen the rise of the folk- and pop-inspired songwriters, from Geoffrey Ainger and Patrick Appleford via Graham Kendrick to Stuart Townend and Keith Getty, Matt Redman, and Tim Hughes today.

Liturgical freedom has been influenced by the world of Christian music, and has returned the favour: new settings of canticles followed the introduction of the ASB 1980, and Common Worship (2000), in­­­volving, among others, Ian Sharp and Anne Harrison, David Mowbray and Peter Moger, and James Seddon.

A glance at the section headings of any modern hymn-book shows how things have changed in the past 80 years or so: “Justice and Peace”, ‘The Church’s Ministry and Mission”, “Wholeness and Healing”, “Sorrow and Lament”, “Short Chants”, and “Creation and the Environ­ment”.

Within these categories are collections of songs from Iona and Taizé; songs and chants from the worldwide Church; politically mot­i­vated hymns by Fred Kaan and Sydney Carter; hymns for use at the funeral of a child, or when dementia sets in; and — as it ever was and ever shall be — settings of the Psalms, recast in contemporary incarnations of timeless classics of prayer and praise.

While many hymns have been consigned to the dustbin of time, others have been revivified with stunning modern tunes, such as John Mason’s “How shall I sing that majesty” set to Ken Naylor’s Coe Fen, and Frederick Faber’s “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy” to Maurice Bevan’s Corvedale.


TECHNOLOGY, too, has made an impact. The introduction, in recent decades, of powerful indexing tools means that modern hymn-books often have thematic as well as scriptural indexes, and sug­gested hymn selections to match current lectionaries, as well as author, composer, and metrical in­­dexes.

While, today, there are many more hymns and songs to choose from, powerful tools (the RSCM’s magazine Sunday by Sunday, and website HymnQuest among them) mean that there is also far more help than there used to be in making an effective selection.


SINCE the Hymn Society was founded, other hymn books have come (and sometimes gone), and each has been recorded by members of the society, and introduced and discussed at conferences. Notable examples include The New English Hymnal (1987) and New English Praise (2006); Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised (1950) and New Standard (1983); Common Praise (2000) and Ancient and Modern (2013). Also, Church Hymnary 4 (2005), Hymns and Psalms (1983), and Singing the Faith (2011).

Meanwhile, the contemporary hymn-writers who constitute the Jubilate Group have burgeoned since the publication, 50 years ago, of Youth Praise (1966), and are now to join with the Resound worship-song group to form the Song and Hymn Writers Foundation.


THE membership and interests of the Hymn Society are even broader and more vibrant than in those visionary days before the war. Technology has enabled a website, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as the ongoing publication, online and in print, of monographs, occasional papers, and short guides covering the selection of hymns and other matters, both practical and theological.

Although the society itself has never published a hymn book, its gatherings and conferences always include a “Festival of Hymns” in a large church or cathedral — a model from which, if the truth be told, the BBC’s Songs of Praise probably got the idea.

The HSGBI holds annual con­ferences, which, every six years, are held in conjunction with the Euro­pean Hymn Society, and the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. The most recent worldwide gathering was held in Cambridge last year.

As it celebrates its 80th birthday, the society is far from being on its last legs; rather, it is thriving in its celebration of, and resourcing of, the wider Church, in all our singing of the hymns that are yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s.


The Revd Dr Gordon Giles is an editor of Ancient and Modern (2013), a director of the English Hymnal Company, and an adviser to Jubilate hymns. He is on the ex­­ecutive committee of the HSGBI.

For more information about the HSGBI, visit www.hymnsocietygbi.org.uk. New members are en­­cour­aged and welcomed.

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