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Angela Tilby: Hymns for a Three Hours’ service

01 April 2021

ONE of the privileges of preaching a Three Hours (or two hours, or an hour and a half, or whatever the pattern is) on Good Friday is that you usually get to choose the hymns. I have developed some distinct preferences over time, which are complicated this year as there is no indoor congregational singing, and so I am having to rely on my CD collection.

I always like to start before the first address with something upbeat and affirmative. For me, this is chance to indulge the fervour of old-time mission-hall religion, and my preference is Fanny Crosby’s “To God be the glory”. But the only recordings I could find when I looked were too exuberant for Good Friday, with massed choirs, trumpets, and drums. Eventually, I bought the Fox Records collection of The Nations’ 50 Favourite Hymns, and found a version that would do.

Then, it has to be “When I survey”, and I am boring enough to insist on Rockingham rather than O Waly Waly. But finding a decent recording is another matter. Most over-indulge in weepy solos and tremulous final-verse descants. An old recording of the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, was the nearest I could find to acceptable.

I like to reflect on the Passion as a “glorious battle”, but I couldn’t find a recording of the plainsong of “The royal banners forward go”. Gonfalon Royal? No. Musicians love it, I know, but I can’t bear the way the tune starts in the middle and seems never to end. This year, I settled for a version of “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle” in an obscure recording by Ely Cathedral Choir.

There are lots of hymns I love but don’t choose for a Three Hours. I can do without congregations dragging their way through “O sacred head”. I love Bach, but this year he will be represented by two chorale preludes. “My song is love unknown” is too long. Sadly, the verses that usually get cut are the best ones. “There is a green hill” brings up unhelpful memories of school assemblies and Easter bonnets.

When I was at Christ Church Cathedral, I discovered F. W. Faber’s “O come and mourn with me awhile” in the slightly less Catholic version “O come and stand beneath the cross” to the tune St Cross. I managed to find a luminously beautiful version from the choir of King’s School, Canterbury, an unexpected gift.

How to end? I don’t like pre-empting Easter; so, for me, it has to be “We sing the praise of him who died”, to Bow Brickhill. I can hardly hear this in any context without a pleasing anticipation of the first buttered hot-cross bun. Good Friday points to our liberation in more ways than one.

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