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Book review: The Revised English Hymnal: Full music edition, edited by The English Hymnal Company

by
02 February 2024

Jonathan Arnold and David Flood review the words and music of the new successor to The English Hymnal

“WHERE your treasure is . . .” If you want to know a person’s theology, ask them to name their favourite hymn. But what is a hymn? According to the impressive new Revised English Hymnal — perhaps destined to be known as the “REH” for years to come — a hymn is nothing less than treasure; and a hymnal, the preface tells us, is “an inexhaustible treasury of prayer and devotion”. It is offered, humbly, “to the whole Church as a treasure to be shared, for use in the worship of God ‘in the beauty of holiness’ and for the nourishment of faith”.

In his foreword, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams suggests that the purpose of a good hymn “is to seek to reflect the demands that the revealed trust and beauty of God place upon us, not simply to mirror what we are already comfortable with”. A “good” hymn must speak truthfully or justly about the narrative arc of salvation history, “the healing and transforming act of God among us”, which takes us through the journey of the liturgical year. A hymn is “affirmation and adoration”, the “offering of what is ‘meet’ and ‘right’, our ‘duty and our joy’ to the threefold God, for the sake of our common welfare here and hereafter”.

Quite a task. So, does the REH live up to these standards? The short answer is, Yes. The REH is eclectic and ecumenical, and expands considerably on The New English Hymnal (NEH), published in 1986: more than 100 new hymns have been added for all times, seasons, and themes, for pastoral services and the eucharist, as well as material for other special days.

Responsorial psalms have been omitted, but psalms and canticles make an appearance where they are an integral part of the liturgical observance of feasts such as Candlemas and the Easter vigil. Other themes include devotion, mission, justice, persecution, and stewardship of God’s creation.

Modern contemplative chants use the Taizé texts and chants. There is a very helpful appendix on “choosing hymns”, an activity that should be undertaken by the collaboration of musician and minister, planning for the liturgical seasons, with the hymn words as a primary concern, along with flexibility, variety, and careful placement, as just some of the recommendations.

The 1906 preface of The English Hymnal declared that the original book was intended as a collection of “the worthiest expressions of all that lies within the Christian Creeds”, from ancient Fathers to “exponents of modern aspirations and ideals”. One third of the REH comprises the latter kind of hymn, not featured in the 1986 NEH: a bold move, perhaps, but with the admirable, and not insubstantial, aims of being “classically Anglican, doctrinally orthodox, liturgically focussed, musically and poetically intelligent, and ecumenically and chronologically diverse” — indeed, a “treasury” both for worship and spiritual formation.

The editors (six men and one woman) make the point that the original English Hymnal, in 1906, introduced hymns that were new to the public, which are now “traditional”. The REH introduces some Welsh hymns, in both original language and translation, and seeks to provide material for the wider Anglican Communion and other denominations, although, apart from a few French and Latin chants, other languages are not in evidence.

The knotty question whether to preserve the original language-style of a hymn has been addressed by the modification of some texts, but others have been restored to the author’s original words. The even knottier problem of inclusive language has been dealt with by preserving the original words of “classic or well-known texts”; but, for translations and recent hymns (from the past century or so), small amendments have been made, but with the overall intention that the hymn-singer should not notice the change. Those who might have been expecting a complete overhaul of the all-dominant masculine pronoun will, therefore, be disappointed, and may wish to seek an alternative and more radically revised hymn book.

This hymnal stands on the shoulder of giants, and the editors freely admit as much, but, in so doing, they hand down to us gifts from previous generations while adding some wisdom and inspiration from our own age, so that we might have God’s praise in our hearts and on our lips when we are together, and when we are apart or alone. This book is not just for public worship. It can be used as an aid to private meditation, reflection, penance; for the depth of the poetry can provide, in the morning, noon, and night of our lives, the inexhaustible treasury of the editors’ dreams. The words call to us from the past and lead us to the future, strengthened to walk in faith, and giving God the glory.


The Revd Dr Jonathan Arnold is Executive Director of the Social Justice Network, diocese of Canterbury, a professional singer, and an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Kent.


The Revised English Hymnal: Full music edition
The English Hymnal Company, editors
Canterbury Press £35
(978-1-78622-005-9)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50


Worthy successor to RVW’s work

PROVIDING a revision of The English Hymnal, the classic work of its music editor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and his associates (News, 8 December), brings a challenge in the 21st century: whether to retain the scholarly and historically sourced musical material or to break away towards more contemporary lines. After a few delays, this new arrival has brought a much broader collection, with a significant injection of new music, along with an even broader selection of plainsong, providing a solution for both sides of this challenge.

This is a resource that will enrich a wide range of liturgy and offer support and authoritative material for congregations and communities who might be described as “classically Anglican”. Naturally, it does not pretend to be a “complete” hymnal: some melodies that have become well-known are not included, but there are a considerable number here that do not appear in other collections.

In the effort to provide not just for the Church of England but for other Churches of the Anglican Communion, there is an increase in the breadth of the source of musical material. Melodies from Scotland (Iona, in particular) and especially from Wales find a place, along with some from further afield, notably from Taizé. The focus is clearly on a congregation who thrive not just on the variety of musical material throughout the church’s year, but also those who strive to mark and observe the detailed and proper festivals. There is plenty of material for the liturgical seasons, with office hymns well marked and exhaustive lists of optional choices for particular festivals.

The editors have conscientiously maintained the scholarship and awareness of the provenance of the material, listing and acknowledging sources and, where necessary, revisions. For those accustomed to the 1986 New English Hymnal, there are many more hymns for specific festivals and seasons, along with a much expanded Liturgical Section.

Among so many hymns that lie at the core of Anglican worship, there are plenty of fine new tunes, as well as the inclusion of many that have become good friends but have appeared only in other collections. It is good to see contributions from so many contemporary composers, providing strong rhythmic and melodic material with which congregations can identify.

Also welcome are hitherto less well-known melodies from Elgar and Howells. While there is more “proper” plainsong, there is also new material in the same vein. Clearly, some of the specific material will rely on experienced cantors or those with knowledge of neumatic notation; but there are often optional choices of metrical melodies where such skills are not available.

The written pitch of the majority of tunes is retained at, or close to, the original. This makes some seem quite high among comparable collections — Cwm Rhondda is in A flat major, for example — but also caters well for choral forces singing in harmony. Keys are generally maintained as they have become familiar and to keep the tessitura at a moderate level, without extremes of high or low, although there are a few exciting peaks for choral sopranos.

Organ parts of unison tunes are given both in full and with four-part versions. Melodies that appear more than once in the collection are often in other keys or with different harmonisations. Tunes are mostly printed with phrases broken across the lines in parallel with those of the text, bringing upbeats on to new lines where appropriate.

The awareness of what might be seen as the “right” tune for a specific text is regularly satisfied with a list of alternatives, but the selection of which might be the primary choice, or the one printed adjacent to the text, could be a point of discussion. Almost all preferences are there to be found.

To provide for those churches where soloists or choral forces may be available, some settings that have been known as small-scale unison anthems or songs are included: Litany to the Holy Spirit or Brother James’s Air, for example. But let this not be seen as a collection just for a generously equipped community: there is a huge quantity of rich material for congregational singing — so much, in fact, that the provision of the melodic line in any congregational book will be essential to give as much guidance and freedom as possible to explore the rich and eclectic material.

Not only does the Liturgical Section provide music for Advent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, All Saints’ Day, etc., but also eight Mass settings: four in contemporary language and four in traditional language. They range from familiar settings of recent years, and those deserving a wider awareness, to the Missa de Angelis and Merbecke. To have the Mass setting in the same volume as the hymns is a great asset.

This is a substantial collection, not just in the variety of material — the volume is large for a music desk — and the editors have provided well-thought-out background to the compilation. Appendix 3 gives guidance on the choosing of hymns, which some might not believe necessary, but, with such a rich collection of quality material, the selection deserves to be carefully considered, to make the most of this worthy successor in the line of The English Hymnal.


David Flood was Organist and Master of the Choristers of Canterbury Cathedral 1988-2020, and President of the Cathedral Organists’ Association 2016-19.

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