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Angela Tilby: This hymnal is worth the long wait

08 December 2023

COME, thou long expected hymn book. . . Well, it has come at last. After years of waiting, groaning disappointment, and rekindled expectation, The Revised English Hymnal was finally launched last week, in St James’s, Sussex Gardens, in London, at a gathering of clergy, musicians, liturgists, and other devotees of what must now be called the English Hymnal tradition.

The original English Hymnal (EH) was published in 1906, challenging the somewhat older Hymns Ancient and Modern. Some criticised the new book at the time for deepening divides among churchgoers, and bishops attempted to ban it, but the original EH, guided by Percy Dearmer and with Ralph Vaughan Williams in charge of the music, came to embody a confidence and distinctiveness that are still evident in the new version.

In this sense, the English Hymnal tradition has contributed to our understanding of Anglicanism itself, which, at its best, acknowledges our roots in the ancient Church, builds on our indigenous folksong traditions, and is selectively open to words and music from other branches of the Church, both Catholic and Reformed.

The launch was a jolly event: wine and sandwiches, followed by a sing-in, in which we trialled some new tunes, stumbled on slightly revised wording, and did our best with the plainsong of Ubi Caritas from the Maundy Thursday liturgy.

I was pleased to discover a foreword by Rowan Williams which reminded us that our business, when we sing hymns, is to speak truthfully about God. He uses the word “justly”, which here carries the sense of “meet” and “right”, as in the text of the Prayer Book’s Prayer of Consecration.

Finding the “right” words and music for worship is not just a matter of taste or preference, but of appropriateness. God, as God, is worthy of our best and highest response, and our words and music should help to elevate our emotions and aspirations rather than merely express what we are already comfortable with. Time and again, over the years, it has been the formality and careful selectivity of the EH which has sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to explore my faith more deeply.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of The Revised English Hymnal is that it remains firmly rooted in the church year, the calendar, and the liturgy. It expands and modernises a style of Church of England worship based on order, observance, and sacramental and credal fidelity. For a Church that sometimes seems over-preachy and wearily moralistic, The Revised English Hymnal reminds us that it is still possible to be set on fire by the mysteries of the Catholic creeds. The texts are as much for contemplation as for singing together in church. I would take this volume to my desert island, along with the Bible and Shakespeare.

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