Angela Tilby: Hymns heterodox and modern

02 August 2019

THERE are those who believe that words used in worship, especially in hymns, should be immediately comprehensible to all present, including children. While I understand the sentiment, I can’t help but feel that there would be a great loss to the creative imagination of children were this to be so.

I was convinced for many years that the Wise Men came from the magical land of Orientar, where tar was found regularly on the beaches and stuck to the hoofs of their camels (obvs). A friend used to pray regularly for the unfortunates who lived in Perilondersea, having sung the hymn “Eternal Father” and been moved by their terrible plight.

My longest-lasting misunderstanding was from “It is a thing most wonderful”, where I assumed for years — until I was about 50, actually — that “he chose a poor and humble lot” referred to the disciples, especially as they are portrayed in St Mark’s Gospel, endlessly misunderstanding the mission of the Lord. Light finally dawned one evensong when the appointed psalms included 16. As we sang “The lot is fallen unto me in a fair ground,” it clicked that the hymn was referring to Jesus’s choice to share our human condition.

I was a teenager when I first came across hymns that were obviously written especially for children. This was when I helped out with a children’s holiday club and remember swinging along to the unspeakably banal “I am H-A-P-P-Y”, and the slightly more imaginative “Do you want a pilot? Signal then to Jesus.” In contrast, my very young self was introduced to hymnody mostly through the more interesting, if theologically dubious, Songs of Praise for Boys and Girls.

The heresies that I was exposed to between the ages of three and seven included pantheism: “God comes down in the rain and the crop grows tall”; and Platonist emanationism: “Splendours three from God proceeding, May we ever love them true, Goodness, Truth and Beauty heeding, Ev’ry day in all we do.”

And then there was “God who made the earth”, with its long droop from B flat to E flat on the words “Careth for me” (suitable also for adults). Long before people were instructed to stare at one another while saying the Grace, we used to sing to each other, “Length to your days, strength to your ways, blessings, blessings be upon your head.” There was some orthodox Christianity in Songs of Praise, of course, but, in my first two schools, we almost invariably chose the heterodox. Extreme liberals note: this is your hymn book.

It was quite a shock to end up at my direct-grant school at the age of 11 with a tiny (7.5 cm x 12 cm) green copy of The English Hymnal. It has remained my hymn book of choice ever since.

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