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Obituary: Elizabeth Cosnett

by
09 February 2024

Kenneth Shenton writes:

ELIZABETH COSNETT, who died on 22 January, aged 87, was an award-winning hymn-writer and scholar who played an important part in the revival of hymnology in the latter half of the last century. Her ability to sing the faith in plain but inclusive language led to the publication of her work in hymnals and collections worldwide. She was also a leading authority on 19th-century figures, and her expertise helped to reveal new insights into the art of hymn-writing.

Born in Liverpool on 17 May 1936, Elizabeth Joan Cosnett was the only child of Eric Cosnett, a schoolmaster, and his wife, Dorothy (née Elkington). Educated at Calder High School for Girls, she read English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. She went back to Liverpool at her former school, which later became Quarry Bank Comprehensive School. She subsequently became a lecturer in English literature at St Katherine’s College, which became the Liverpool Institute of Higher Education, and now Liverpool Hope University.

At St Katherine’s, Cosnett enjoyed a productive artistic partnership with a music lecturer, Ian Sharp, who set several of her texts to music. In 1985, to celebrate 22 years of the programme, BBC1’s Songs of Praise organised a hymn competition. Out of five hundred entries, Sharp’s setting of Cosnett’s “However loud the shout” was one of the eight winners. It was then published by Oxford University Press. Three years later, the pair were again successful, this time with “Praise the Lord with sound-waves”. A further publishing deal followed, as did the presentation of a miniature handbell specially cast by Loughborough Bell Foundry.

A regular worshipper at Liverpool Parish Church, where she was also a bell-ringer and churchwarden, she received a request from her then vicar, the Very Revd Nicholas Frayling, which resulted in one of her most popular creations, “When candles are lighted on Candlemas Day”. At Sharp’s suggestion, it was paired with the traditional French melody Lourdes. Other hymn texts can be found in collections that range from the Church of Ireland’s Church Hymnal to the United Reformed Church’s Rejoice and Sing. In 2001, Stainer & Bell published 36 of her hymns in the anthology Hymns for Everyday Saints.

In all her texts, she used language and content relating to the concerns of contemporary Christians. She also embraced, alongside the themes of Christmas and Easter, a range of topics, including women, illness, wartime remembrance, and prostitution, in both her own texts and other writings. Her chapter, “Poetry as hymnody”, formed the centrepiece of Strengthen for Service, published in 2005 by Canterbury Press in celebration of 100 years of The English Hymnal. Such credentials would also find her in demand as a lecturer and keynote speaker at seminars, conferences, and workshops both here and abroad.

She was a longstanding member of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, served on the editorial committee of its quarterly magazine for 16 years, and was a regular contributor to its annual conference. In 1999, she became the society’s Executive President for three years, and was featured on Sunday Half Hour.

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