Are hymns dying? 

As church attendance falls off a cliff, so is our beautiful heritage of sacred singing

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

15 February 2014

9:00 AM

I love a good hymn, so long as I’m not expected to sing it. Lusty declarations of faith sound ridiculous coming out of my mouth and embarrass the hell out of me, so I pretend that I’ve forgotten to pick up a hymnbook on my way in. If someone shoots me an accusatory glance, then I move my lips like John Redwood singing the Welsh national anthem. (Talking of whom, has it dawned on the jolly self-important Dr Redwood, former Fellow of All Souls, director of Rothschild’s, cabinet minister, etc., that one day he’ll be remembered only for that delicious video clip?)

The earliest Christian hymns were chanted — but when we talk about a ‘hymn’ in everyday speech we mean a harmonised sacred song in which every verse uses the same melody. As a form it’s mainly the creation of Lutherans, who understood that singable hymns were the perfect vehicle for their theology. Martin Luther was a rather good amateur composer: he wrote the words and possibly the melody to Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, ‘a mighty fortress is our God’ — an image that still sustains his followers.

You can also find Lutheran ‘chorales’, as they became known, in English parish churches. ‘Now Thank We All Our God’ is an obvious example — our German name for the tune ‘Nun Danket’ gives the game away. But I always thought that ‘All People that on Earth do Dwell’, known as the ‘Old Hundredth’ because it adapts Psalm 100, was a proper English tune, so snugly do the notes match the words. Not so. Listen to the electrifying opening of Bach’s cantata BWV 130, in which trumpets and woodwind bounce off each other and then the sopranos enter singing… the Old Hundredth. The tune appears again as the concluding chorale, this time in a lilting three beats to the bar.

Choristers at Westminster Abbey, 1962 Photo: Getty

Ralph Vaughan Williams, son of a vicar, loved Old Hundredth so much that he refreshed it with enchanting harmonies and a brass fanfare; this was the version that set spines tingling at the Queen’s Coronation and her Diamond Jubilee service. It’s the first track on a new CD of hymns from Westminster Abbey entitled Rejoice, the Lord Is King! (Hyperion). Listening to it reminded me how much I envy the Church of England its hymnody, which incorporates Lutheran chorales, the nonconformist belters of Isaac Watts and the Wesleys, and the gracious melodies of Sir Charles Hubert Parry and contemporaries. Is there a lovelier tune in the history of English music than ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’? The Old Etonian Sir Hubert knew exactly how to moisten public-school tear ducts, and this hymn invariably has Sloanes reaching for their hankies at weddings (but never funerals, because it’s common to cry for the deceased).Admittedly, the texts Bach uses have nothing to do with Psalm 100, but that’s par for the course. When you burrow into the tune’s history, you discover that it started life as a Calvinist setting of Psalm 134 that had to be unaccompanied in church but could be sung as a four-part chorale in the privacy of your home (i.e., the Calvinist version of letting your hair down). However, as early as 1561 it had turned up in the Anglo-Genevan Psalter as ‘All People that on Earth do Dwell’. It’s like a Richard Dawkins meme.

But hang on: is ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’ really a suitable wedding hymn, with its melancholy plea for mercy (‘forgive our foolish ways’)? My vicar friends don’t think so, but they long ago gave up the battle to persuade couples to choose hymns whose theology matches the occasion. People like what they know – and, these days, they don’t know very much. Hence the ubiquity of ‘Jerusalem’, which isn’t even really a hymn and whose poetic text is pretty much gibberish — but, again, features a melody by our craftiest tunesmith. Who else but Sir Hubert could have written an Anglican anthem that people sing when they’re smashed out of their wits?

The number of hymns familiar to non-churchgoers and occasional worshippers is now vanishingly small; indeed, given that most parishes don’t employ competent choirmasters and the clergy are increasingly philistine, even devout Christians know fewer and fewer hymns. Public schools go through the motions, but it’s hard to imagine their Chinese and Russian pupils keeping the flame alight. And if state schools permit hymns, they’re more likely to be politically correct doggerel than Hymns Ancient and Modern.

In short, our hymnody is doomed. You can’t have church attendance fall off a cliff in the West and expect to preserve this part of our heritage. In ten years’ time, I predict, the only hymns people will sing will be at weddings and funerals, plus a dwindling repertoire of carols. I’ll miss those grand old tunes. Still, looking on the bright side, at least I can stop doing my John Redwood impression.

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  • mahatmacoatmabag

    Damian Thompson asks ” Are hymns dying ? ”
    Not as fast as your dwindling number of readers on your DT blog ever since you allowed Phil Evans, MickyRoss & Fabian Solutions to dominate, bully & drive off all heterosexual non-Marxist Atheist posters. Damian you want to ban those 3 poisoned chalices from your blog or you will end up just writing boring blogs for just for those 3 losers

    • Doggie Roussel

      Says the man with more multi ID’s than than a hyperactive rabbit…. and who also has an, as yet unrequited, crush on Mr Thompson as well as an all-encompassing desire for recognition, which sits uneasily beside his humongous inferiority complex.

    • Doggie Roussel

      And a very noble cause it was… I only wish that they had asked me to join them!

      I pay a rat killer £ 65.00 a quarter to keep vermin away from my stables and the rest of the curtilage of my home and have asked him about getting rid of you, but as yet he has not come up with a solution. It appears that the internet is beyond his scope or capabilities.

      Fear not, Bagman, you have the support and solidarity of your Good Queen Bess, who appears to have evaporated lately… I have missed her late night billets doux to you:

      You were wonderful today, Maha, you truly sparkled… such gems of wit and insight….

      • mahatmacoatmabag

        ” I only wish that they had asked me to join them! ”

        Are you disappointed that they shun you?

        there’s no point in your joining them, they will just turn on you, for that is the nature beast.

        I thought were savvy enough to realize that, so go your own way & keep your own council , you’ll find no solace or comfort with that pack of rabid dogs

        • Doggie Roussel

          If for no other reason than that they have got so far up your nose… it must be a big one… they have fulfilled their purpose.

          The only downside is that they have obliged you to transfer your rodentine instincts to the Spectator.

          • mahatmacoatmabag

            Billy no mates , I am still on the DT , just not as the Mahatma

        • Doggie Roussel

          I was being facetious, you nincompoop… do have no sense of irony ?

          • mahatmacoatmabag

            but you so desperately want to belong to some group , circle or little clique don’t you?, it has come across in your repeated posts including your description of being an outsider during your Jesuit schooldays

          • Doggie Roussel

            Your obsession and sensitivity towards the matter of friendship and the solidarity of cliques or claques defines your own obvious insecurity.

            I don’t wish to establish any friendships on the wretched internet; I merely amuse myself by deflating odious, insecure and intellectually-challenged cretins like you.

            I have never suggested that I was an outsider during my schooldays under the Jesuits; where on earth did you get that idea from. I formed many longstanding friendships during my schooldays and am, in fact, attending a reunion in London this week where at least twenty of my former classmates and friends will be in attendance… It was with the casuistic Jesuits, themselves, that I found fault with, as did many of my contemporaries. Although there were some very fine men and brilliant teachers within that community, it was the bad apples who riuned the barrel.

            As for your good self; I see you festering in your Tel Aviv garret, spending night and day on your wretched computer dreaming up conspiracies against you and flattering your perceived allies, while all the while making a complete idiot of yourself.

            You have now turned viciously on DT… that was the biggest laugh of the week.

            We are all agog at the prospect of your next puerile and ill-considered rant.

          • mahatmacoatmabag

            It works every time !
            I press your button & you go ballistic !

            A short post from me revealing your achilles heel
            sends you into a tizzy & elicits a long winded rant, one in which you cant wait to reveal even more personal details about yourself.

            Do yourself a favour stop giving out your life story on a public blog, there are those out there in cyberspace who have bad intentions & could probably trace your identity just from finding out where a Jesuit school reunion is taking place in London this week.

            So Doggie, for your own good keep your posts free of Tom Browns schooldays stories & tales from your personal crypt

          • Doggie Roussel

            From the man who thought I was Sailorbilly and seeks advice from a frustrated virago who attempts humour on the DT blog…

  • WellRead29

    A powerful hymn can only result from revelation and stress, strain and struggle. All of these are increasingly less likely in our “I’m Ok, You’re Ok” version of national faith we try to peddle today through Anglicanism both in the UK and the States.
    Reality is, if I’m in charge and can make up my own formula for salvation, then what am I stressing against? Where is the struggle? Where is the challenge? If I can make it up as I go along, what on earth is there to sing about?

  • mahatmacoatmabag

    Thompson, sorry to deflate your ego, but you really should stick to the Tablet

    • Doggie Roussel

      And you should stick to the Jerusalem Times

      • mahatmacoatmabag

        its the Jerusalem Post

        • Doggie Roussel

          So, who cares … it’s a backwood’s red top either way !

  • Julie

    Dies Irae,dies illa
    Solvet Saeclum in favilla

    Although there is a (minor ) family custom of going out to All Things Bright & Beautiful, I am more inclined towards a version of the Day of Wrath, perhaps you can recommend one?

    That free booklet of Gregorian chant from Paul Vi is pretty good.

  • Borg-again Cyber Atheist

    Our greatest fear is that Mahatmacoatmabag and Agent Doggie might actually become friends.

    They already converse more than most married couples. #worrying

    • mahatmacoatmabag

      Fear not, ours is a doctor / patient relationship , but regrettably he seems to show signs of remission , I shall just have to increase his dosage or worst comes to the worst send him back to the funny farm , back to the cell he once shared with Phil