Hymnody

Daughter three and her Alex are getting married in September. They will do so at our wonderful local church, which is Venetian in architecture and Anglo-Catholic in style. People say that the Church of England is on the skids, but I cannot help noticing that our church has a choice of at least three thurifers. One of them can make the thurible describe a complete circle in the air, though only, like the wall of death, having worked up to it.

I don’t know if daughter three and her Alex will be having a thurifer for their wedding. We have discussed – and the discussions continue extensively – invitations, dresses, flowers and the wider questions of the reception afterwards, but not whether and if so how to cense.

Alex is a retired Roman Catholic and daughter three was brought up under Soviet communism and its aftermath. ‘Religion is the opium of the people’ was Karl Marx’s view and the good people charged with the care of the Soviet Union saw no reason to disagree, even up to my daughter’s time. Poor grumpy old Karl, trundling myopically between Clerkenwell, Soho and the British Museum Reading Room, getting so much wrong; one can imagine him pressing his hairy old face to the windows of the fashionable houses of the Lloyd Baker Estate, watching parties to which he had not been invited and concluding enviously that the bourgeoisie had their wives in common.

He wished!

Mr Lee, from another standpoint, also objects to the phrase ‘the opium of the people’. At his prices, he says, ‘the people’ have nothing to do with it.

Anyway, the consequence of their being brought up respectively under Soviet communism and the rule of the Bishop of Rome is that when daughter three and Alex were asked what hymns they wanted for their wedding they were lost for words. I was sent to my old copy of the English Hymnal (that extraordinary achievement by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who didn’t entirely believe in God but did believe passionately in people who weren’t professionals making music together) and told to come up with a shortlist.

Most hymns date from the Nineteenth Century and fall into the category, which they share with a lot of Victorian art, technically known as barking mad. This may be good or bad. There are however a lot of very good hymns that are quite unsuitable for weddings.

My first thought, as I imagine most people’s would be, was For Those in Peril on the Sea.

Then The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended. It’s an excellent choice for a funeral; less so for a wedding.

I rejected

A servant with this clause
Makes drudgerie divine:
Who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine

as unnecessarily contentious. Daughter three and Alex divide their household duties with meticulous fairness and would resent any divine interference.

I recalled a fragment from a hymn that always haunted me when I was a child:

Through gates of pearl streams
In the countless host
.

The countless host I could fit into a world view. It was a sort of communion wafer that was unconstrained by the laws of physics: consubstantial, co-eternal while unending ages run and so on. I could also envisage the pearl streams, within the compass of the enormous wafer, like a late Salvador Dali painting. They would be bright and bubbling but deep enough to accommodate pearl divers and the concomitant oysters. It was the gates I had difficulty imagining. Forty years later I suddenly realised what it was meant to mean. I had been thrown by the wholly misplaced emphasis put by the tune onto the word ‘In’. Maybe the hymn was written by a weather girl.

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate, I suggested:

Against all Satan’s spells and wiles
Against false words of heresy
Against the knowledge that defiles
Against the heart’s idolatry,
Against the wizard’s evil craft
Against the death wound and the burning
The choking wave, the poisoned shaft
Protect me, Christ, till thy returning
.

They looked thoughtful. I realised that more investigation was called for.

A lot of hymns fall into the category portrayed in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life:

Priest: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.
Congregation: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You.

For example, in All People that on Earth Do Dwell:

The Lord, y’know, is God indeed

And what does that actually mean? It seems to me to be perfectly circular. If he, she or it is ‘the Lord’ then he, she or it is by definition God indeed – and if not, not. It goes without saying.

It’s like the Jibjab Woman, who, now that she is in preproduction, is starting to take on the characteristics of a real person. Every time I see her, without fail, she tells me that God is great.

Well, he would be.

All People that on Earth Do Dwell is a strange hymn anyway. All the words are in the wrong order:

All People that on earth do dwell
Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice
Him serve with fear, his praise foretell
Come ye before Him and rejoice
.

It can be strangely moving though, when sung.

Then to confuse things further Alex announced that he didn’t want anything sentimental and certainly nothing about Love.

I’ve found a good manly hymn. It’s usually sung at the feast of Sexagesima, but that needn’t matter:

Arabia’s desert ranger
To him shall bow the knee;
The Ethiopian stranger
His glory come to see;
With offerings of devotion
Ships from the isles shall meet,
To pour the wealth of ocean
In tribute at his feet
.

Just the thing.

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