Wednesday, November 08, 2006

England's Little Green Book

English country church interiorBefore England’s “alternative national anthem,” the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ came along, what made its adoption possible was the appearance of The English Hymnal, whose centenary is currently being celebrated. This is the Church Of England’s official hymn book, with hymns set to music mainly by Ralph Vaughan Williams. (Although RVW was then relatively unknown, and a self-confessed atheist, he was chosen as one of the project organisers knew him as a local church organist.)
The BBC coverage has outlined the struggle its organisers had to include its diverse selection of hymns, and how certain Church Of England officials wanted the work of William Blake kept out. His ‘Jerusalem’ was not yet then set to music, but one of his earlier poem-songs was included. A leading committee member resigned over this, due to personal doubts he had about the nature of Blake’s beliefs. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop Of Winchester, and other officials soon opposed the entire project, their objection being the inclusion of hymns whose sentiments were similarly unorthodox. (It's been said the real aim of Blake's work was to follow in Milton's footsteps and create an Anglican equivalent of the Catholic Church's hierarchy of heavenly figures.) The objections were mainly to ‘Catholic’ hymns dedicated to the Saints. (There was a row over one to the Blessed Virgin Mary: 'Ye Who Own The Faith Of Jesus' has a refrain "Hail Mary, hail Mary, hail Mary, full of grace", and included the line "For the faithful gone before us, / May the holy Virgin pray.") The underlying in-house dispute here lay in the fact its main organiser, Percy Dearmer, Vicar of Primrose Hill parish in North London, was a supporter of the Oxford Movement. This was an attempt to create an Anglo-Catholic approach, to reclaim some of the grandeur of the old Catholic church.
At the same time, the Revd. Dearmer wanted to make the CoE the “broad church” that some supporters refer to today as a matter of course. He included not only mediaeval ‘Catholic’ hymns, but Old English plainsong, Victorian missionary hymns, American Shaker, and German, hymns. Though not mentioned in the coverage, his approach followed up a remark still in current use: "Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?" This much-quoted sentiment, deriving from a now-forgotten pastor of Surrey Chapel in London in 1844, was a complaint about the quality of 19th-century CoE hymns. (English music was generally then in a fallow period.) Although it was Ralph Vaughan Williams who adapted most of the hymns, Dearmer himself adapted an old sea shanty for the now-famous 'He Who Would Valiant Be,' inspired by lines in Bunyan's Pilgrim Progress. (It's sung in the 1986 Michael Frayne comedy Clockwise where John Cleese as the headmaster leads the school assembly in singing it.) The basis of another work, the now-familiar Christmas carol ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’, was a poem by Christina Rossetti set to music by Gustav Holst (of ‘The Planets’ fame).
Dearmer hated the CoE’s then standard hymn-book, Hymns Ancient And Modern (1861) for its lyrics as much as its mediocre tunes. Victorian hymn lyrics were sentimental and focussed too much, he felt, on achieving individual salvation. Ironically, opposition within the CoE to the Oxford Movement had forced some clerics, denied a conventional parish, to eke out a living in unwanted inner-city areas, which in turn created a determination on their part to avoid church complacency (perhaps complicity) in the worst excesses the English class system. So what began as a rather authoritarian force to reclaim church independence and dignity turned into what was, for its era, a sociopolitically progressive one. (Although he included the now-familiar "All Things Bright And Beautiful", Dearmer blue-pencilled out the complacent lines indicating that everyone had a social “station” in life: "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate/ He made them, high or lowly, / And ordered their estate.")
Dearmer’s disappointment at a ‘revised’ edition of Hymns Ancient And Modern in 1904 led him to start organising The English Hymnal, which would be published in 1906. The organising committee’s aim was to create a work that would appeal to ‘all broad-minded men’. Updated in 1933 and in 1986 as The New English Hymnal, it now contains over 500 items, with hymns for all occasions. While some opposition continues within the CoE to the ordination of women, and the singing of the even more radical and unorthodox hymn ’Jerusalem’ [see earlier item below], The English Hymnal was a significant public defeat for the old guard. This little handbook with its pale green cover became an ongoing confirmation of the CoE’s ‘broad church’ approach, which today promotes multicultural tolerance. On a more immediate level, it helped maintain national unity in the difficult times which would begin within a decade: the Great War, Communist revolutions, the Great Depression, the Second World War, and the Cold War. One might even say that, long before Communist China had The Little Red Book, England had "The Little Green Book". In fact the standard English expression regarding arrangements to promote social or group cohesion is “making sure we’re all singing from the same hymn book."
Update: A Parliamentary exchange the week before Xmas indicated that The English Hymnal remains both unofficial and party-political. A Conservative MP asked the Commons what the Church of England Commissioners were actually doing to commemorate the English Hymnal's centenary. The matter was described by the Times’s Parliamentary sketch writer in “A Rare Case Of Singing From The Same Hymn Book”. The Church Commissioners’ in-House spokesman replied, “the Church of England has never had an official Anglican hymnal.” The original question put was actually more of a statement: “Would you agree the English Hymnal of 1906 celebrates the fact that the rhythm of the Christian year is not just a matter of ecclesiastic convenience but a map of the soul seasons through darkness and light, hope and fulfilment? The singing of carols and hymns are one of the more exhilarating ways of celebrating the soul’s progress.” Labour MP Chris Bryant, a former vicar now “perhaps best known for appearing in his underpants on the internet,” responded “For over 100 years the English Hymnal has sustained the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England. Of course, it was put together by Percy Dearmer, a very prominent Christian socialist and a member of the Labour Party.”
The BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘The English Hymnal At 100’ will by now have vanished into the ether (or rather performance-rights limbo). But an excerpt from the book on which much of it was based (the anthology Strengthen For Service: 100 Years Of The English Hymnal 1906-2006, edited by Alan Luff) is online here. Anyone interested in the New English Hymnal will find it here.