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Wesley's first and greatest hitsHallo again to all.

It's hard to believe that Advent is nearly here. But like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, we'll do our best to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Advent Sunday is 30 November, a fortnight away.

Given that the four last things are nigh, this night we're writing on something dear to the hearts of Anglicans everywhere — and yet unlikely to encourage schism: Hymns. They're known (preposterously) as Hyfrydol, St Bees, Diademata, or Ora Labora. Their music ranges from the lugubrious to the martial, their texts from the incisively brilliant to the woolly-minded. However splendid or awful, hymns have been a blessed part of our church's heritage since, well, donkey's years.

We once heard a bishop say that at his theological college he was cautioned never to draw theology from hymns. The demands of metrical poetry and the rigours of rhyme don't necessarily produce good theology. William Temple, when Archbishop of Canterbury, once remarked exasperatedly about the text of FW Faber's 'Hark! Hark My Soul' that 'its existence is a minor but quite indisputable part of the problem of evil'. Its imagery is dubious in the extreme:

      Far, far away, like bells at evening pealing,
      The voice of Jesus sounds over land and sea,
      And laden souls, by thousands meekly stealing,
      Kind Shepherd, turn their weary steps to thee.

Shining awayGenerations of English schoolchildren have giggled at the verse in the oft-sung 'Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us' where our Lord is described as 'lone and dreary'. JH Newman's splendid text 'Firmly I Believe and Truly' (from The Dream of Gerontius) has the odd verse:

      And I hold in veneration,
      For the love of Him alone,
      Holy Church as His creation,
      And her teachings as His own.

The fourth line, an Anglican theologian once pointed out, should more properly be rendered:

      And His teachings are her own.

Some once-great favourites are now mostly gone from current hymnals. One can turn vainly to an index for 'From Greenland's Icy Mountains', evoking the ghost of the British Empire or 'Once to Every Man and Nation', whose phrase 'comes a moment to decide' suggests a somewhat unAnglican theological view. Bleeding and bloody hymns, along with their dank churchyard companion pieces, have been mostly excised. 'In the Churchyard Side by Side' is probably not much sung anywhere, nor, we suspect, is 'There is a Fountain Filled with Blood'.

If the Victorians sang lustily of empire, churchyards, and Emmanuel's veins, our modern efforts — with some brilliant exceptions — are far more banal in their texts and happy-clappy in their tunes. No doubt many will argue that 'Shine, Jesus, Shine' is a better accompaniment to 21st-century evangelism than 'Nearer, My God, to Thee', but we wish there were room for both, even if it might make for an impossibly large hymnal. Surely there are young people who might find the strange archaism of Isaac Watt's verses more compelling than the Kumbayah-like texts of many modern hymns; there are older folk who might enjoy the newer, simpler, brighter hymns as a contrast to the diet of standard Victorian repertoire that many grew up with.

Now comes the hard part: If you could choose just one hymn to take to a desert island, what would it be? An impossibly hard question, we know. But play! Email us with your choice. We'll report back on the choices of AO readers next week. Have a good story or anecdote about a hymn? Playing or singing it? Rewriting the words? Some hymnal-liturgical faux pas? Share it with other AO readers by sending in a letter for publication.


      Ye saints, who toil below,
      Adore your heavenly King,
      And onward as ye go
      Some joyful anthem sing;
      Take what He gives and praise Him still,
      Through good or ill, whoever lives!

See you next week.

Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 16 November 2003

A thin blue line
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