Hymns – traditional hymns – have sculpted my theological and spiritual landscape. I’m happy to worship with Dan Schutte (“Holy Darkness‘), Graham McKendrick (‘Beauty for Brokenness’), George Bullock (‘The Power of Your Love‘), and all the other contemporary praise-singers, but they have not dripped steadily, obsessively and repetitively into my heart over 60 and more years as hymns have done.
There was a time in my life when I knew the number of every hymn in Hymns Ancient & Modern Revised. If I saw the number 372 on a bus or number plate, I would immediately think ‘Almighty, Invisible, God only Wise’, and often involuntarily blurt it out – to the amusement of friends.
Many hymns have been with me since childhood. I remember beefing out ‘For Those in Peril on the Sea’ (A&MR 165) at Tambellup Primary School Anzac Day services, and singing – very slowly, with my Mum on the harmonium, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ (A&MR 160) in the little church of St Mary in Tambellup.
But there are other hymns that I remember by the person who introduced me to them: Irvin Phillips, organist extraordinaire at St Matthew’s, Armadale, thought my repertoire was incomplete without the tune ’Lucius’ and the lovely words of community that accompany it: ‘All praise to our redeeming Lord, // who joins us by his grace, // and bids us, each to each restored, // together seek his face.’ (TiS 442(i)).
David Overington, my mentor in the Franciscan Third Order, was surprised I did not know the tune ‘Blaenwern’. Together in Song suggests that we should sing ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ to ‘Blaenwern’,(TiS 590) and, David was right, it adds a depth to that old crusade song that you don’t find with the usual tunes. David also recommended singing ‘Once to every man and nation // comes the moment to decide’ to this tune; and it certainly gives the words a drive towards decision that the curly Welsh tune ‘Ton y Botel’ lacks.
Michael Pennington, Rector of Applecross when I was his curate, introduced me to Samuel Stanley’s great hymn of re-dedication: ‘O thou who camest from above // the pure celestial fire to impart…’ Michael chose it for the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood, now 15 years ago. It deeply touched my own determination to continue as a priest, offering my life as a sacrifice and knowing that service brings its own reward. ‘Still let me guard the holy fire,// and still stir up the gift in me, // ready for all thy perfect will.’ (TiS 527)
I probably will never know the depth of spirituality that hymns have given me. I will continue to explore new worship music, and I will try to give new life, by giving new words, to old tunes. But it is the old hymns I credit with sustaining my faith through difficulties (‘Great is your faithfulness,’ – TiS 154) and joys (‘Hail thee festival day’, or ‘Christians, lift up your hearts’ in TiS – 423).
May the Lord grant me the joy of continuing to sing hymns; I do hope that they will be one of the options for praise in the eternal worship of the saints.