May 3 2020

What is it about Hymns?

Dear Members and Friends,

It is well known that the poet Philip Larkin used to refer to himself as an agnostic, and then add, “an Anglican agnostic, of course!

Yet, as an agnostic, it was Larkin who used to cycle out to visit churches in the countryside, who found cemeteries to be sympathetic places for contemplation, and who wrote some of the finest poetry in English about the significance of the church, its architecture and traditions.

On one occasion while travelling in the car together with his long-time partner Monica Jones, Monica started to sing the hymn “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended,” and glancing over at Larkin saw the tears rolling down his cheeks.

I learn that he bought himself an expensive bible, and apparently read the entire book as he was shaving in the mornings. He later described it as beautiful, but complete nonsense, – although that wasn’t the word he used.

It is perhaps a final irony in the life of this very religiously-minded agnostic that Monica Jones, who inherited the bulk of Larkin’s estate, herself bequeathed one million pounds to be shared among St Paul’s Cathedral, Durham Cathedral, and Hexham Abbey in Northumberland.

The starting-point of faith for many sincere and well-meaning people is the bible. Many believers have a psychological need to pin their faith on something absolute, and for a substantial majority this concrete “something” is going to be a holy book.

For some this is going to be a bible, but for many it is going to be a hymnal. Not a specific volume of hymns perhaps, but a remembered selection of the most enduring sort.

The big difference between the scriptures and a hymnbook is that the hymnbook doesn’t tell you how to behave, it doesn’t lecture you, admonish or threaten you in the way biblical lessons can. That may be the reason why we do not have any great affection for large chunks of scripture (with exceptions of course), in the way we love old hymns.

Hymns are poems of praise set to easy memorable tunes, and it is much more in the nature of humanity to acknowledge the goodness and beauty of the divine as expressed by hymns, than to accept a moral code and behave well, as the bible requires.

Naturally there are exceptions on both sides.
Who isn’t moved by I Corinthians chapter 13: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love…” ? But who finds it palatable to accept the gloomy atonement theology of “There Is A Green Hill Far Away”?

I believe there is a powerful residue of spirituality within us all. I think I can say this with confidence about my own generation, and all those of us brought up in an environment touched by religious observances.

One friend habitually listens to the Sunday Service on the wireless when she is busy in her restaurant kitchen: “The familiar hymns and prayers have struck several chords from long ago, back to childhood and boarding school days. Indeed when Daniel was a baby, the only songs I sang to him in the silent watches of the night, or watching the January sun rise, were hymns, because they were the only songs I knew the words to…

The enduring popularity of programmes such as Songs Of Praise also attest to this feeling. The comedian and football fan Frank Skinner mentions the emotional impact of “Abide With Me” as a prelude to our FA Cup Final matches. And I have written before of how hymns are often requested by families arranging ostensibly non-religious services.

Truth is never settled once and for all. We are ever being shown new things and our attention drawn to vaster implications every day. Hymns are non-dogmatic and flexible enough to not wholly desert us as our ideas develop and change.

Hymns speak to us in a personal and immediate way. Even hymns on sad themes cheer us. And in a strange way, many of the best bits of the bible have been re-expressed for us in the form of hymns, “The Lord’s My Shepherd” being perhaps the best-known example.

I have often bemoaned the fact that so few younger people know many hymns today. Ask a couple which hymns they would like at their wedding and frequently the choice is “All Things Bright And Beautiful”, and often it is the same choice for a funeral too.

If, like my friend, the only songs you know the words to are a handful of hymns, I would say you are well enough equipped both musically and theologically to be able to appreciate what religious life is about, and why it is of such enduring importance to people like Larkin and Monica Jones, and all of us.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm…
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
W Cowper.

A prayer for the times from Harry Lismer Short* (1906-1975)
“O God, life would be easier for us and for all men and women if only the issues were more plain, and the solutions to our problems more obvious. We do not know what is best for us to do, either in our personal relationships or in the problems of our society and civilisation. We grope after solutions and are wise after the event. The world is a complex puzzle, and so is our human nature. Both this world and our individual humanity are streaked … with a mixture of form and chaos, with new things coming to birth and old things dying. We can only take one step at a time, and do not know how even our best endeavours will turn out…

Why should we agonize about doing good when even our best so often turns out wrongly? Why should we try to achieve better human relationships, when one problem solved only gives rise to another?

But that is not the true way of life. We are called to do good… in faith that no honest endeavour is ever lost. We are called on to take truth and goodness seriously, even in a world of imperfection…

Out of the loose ends of this life we must make a coherent plan of living. We must purify our hearts and simplify our affections, so that the grace of God may flow through us and make our lives fruitful and good. Amen.”

*Rev Dr H L Short was Principal, tutor and librarian of what is now Harris Manchester College Oxford.

Sunday Service homilies from the Minister during coronavirus period