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In praise of hymns


IT CAN be dispiriting to be a small c conservative (though not half as much as being a big C Conservative – thank goodness I am not one of those), and at TCW we do sometimes have the distinct feeling of swimming against the tide.

Once in a while, though, we find the tide is with us, and there was such an occasion last week.

Regular readers will know that since the New Year we have been running a series on Wednesdays called The Midweek Hymn, when we tell the story of a hymn and give a few YouTube links to renditions of it. This grew out of A Carol a Day in the run-up to Christmas, a sort of aural Advent calendar. This is because we believe our Christian heritage should be maintained and celebrated, and because hymns and carols are great.

So it was with pleasure that we noted this headline in Thursday’s Telegraph: ‘Allowing our traditional hymns to die out would be a terrible act of cultural vandalism’.
Jemima Lewis wrote that hymns were falling out of fashion at funerals in favour of pop songs such as Ed Sheeran’s Supermarket Flowers. The reason she gave is that people simply do not know them any more, partly due to falling church congregations and more importantly to the death of school religious assemblies.
When I was at grammar school in the 60s, we had a religious assembly first thing every morning which everyone attended with the exception of a few girls belonging to the Plymouth Brethren. We had prayers and at least two hymns accompanied on the piano by the music teacher, Miss Hawkins. It does not take long to learn a hymn and my mental library must extend to many hundreds.
Jemima Lewis wrote: ‘Hymns were the folk songs of our bygone Christian culture, repositories of knowledge and tradition and comfort, passed down through generations. Allowing them to die feels to me like a well-meaning act of cultural vandalism.’
The very next day, Friday, Ann Treneman in the Times wrote about the same subject.
‘For the past few months, a hymn tune has kept popping into my head. I couldn’t think of the words, though I knew that the word “forgive” was part of it. That didn’t really narrow things down much. So I began humming it to people and, as a last resort, actually singing the tune.

‘Nada. Then I hit upon the rather obvious idea of asking my friend Helen who has a gifted voice and is in many choirs. Within 30 seconds, she had the name. Dear Lord and Father of Mankind was written in 1872 by American Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier and the tune is Repton by Hubert Parry.

‘Hymns, painfully out of fashion, are going the way of landlines, dictionaries and mental arithmetic. Yet I still enjoy them as comfort music – which works just like comfort food but without the calories.’

In fact Dear Lord and Father of Mankind was one of our first Midweek Hymns, being one of my favourites from school. The line Ann Treneman was striving for is ‘Forgive our foolish ways’.

The series has turned up some amazing stories behind the hymns, such as It Is Well With My Soul which was written by a father after a tragedy at sea, and We Rest on Thee, sung by five missionaries before they set out on a dangerous trip.

We have covered some classics, such as Jerusalem and The Lord’s My Shepherd, and some which do not make it into the cathedral repertoire but which are lovely and much-loved, such as What a Friend We Have in Jesus and Just a Closer Walk With Thee.

We have also had some memorable performances: two in particular stick in my mind. I can’t decide which is my favourite so here they both are.

First, Dear Lord and Father of Mankind by Neil Hannon, who wrote the theme for Father Ted.

Second, the Happy Iowa Farmer (I emailed the Iowa farming authority to ask if they knew who he is but they didn’t reply) in his ‘steel cathedral’ with It Is Well With My Soul.

Anyway the great thing is that there are still thousands of hymns to write about – Charles Wesley alone composed something like 9,000.

And it is good to be able to say that where TCW leads, the Telegraph and the Times follow.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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