‘And now we sing our final hymn, number 466.’ Remember that? The euphoria of congregational hymn-singing? The well-organised types always had the book open at the correct page, balanced precariously on the pew. The rest of us hurriedly flicked to 466 while singing the first verse, knowing it by heart from a thousand school assemblies. ‘Our shield and defender, the ancient of days…’
I can’t believe I’m writing this in the past tense, but it has been so long — almost 15 months — since anyone not in a choir sang a congregational hymn. How I miss that light-headedness, almost faintness, of standing up after a long service and singing your heart out, filling and emptying your lungs, fortified by the tiny wafer and sip of sweet wine. The experience was always tinged with relief — ‘Phew, we did it, survived the sermon, wasn’t too bad, gosh, still managed to be an hour and a half long…’ But mainly it brought us all together into a heightened state at that final moment before the doors were flung open and we were released back into the cow-parsley churchyard.
Much has been written about the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s absurd edict, announced last month, that only up to six amateur singers are allowed to sing indoors in England, even in a large ventilated hall, church or cathedral, while everyone is allowed to shout in pubs, sing in football stadiums and huff and puff in gyms. Not only is it scientifically dubious — the doctor and voice expert Declan Costello’s experiments last year proved that singing produced no more aerosols than speaking — it’s a rule clearly dreamed up by philistines, because the number six makes no sense in musical terms, most choral music being in four parts or eight parts but rarely in six.
The rules have forced amateur choirs to rehearse in the acoustic-less outdoors (only 30 allowed even there), or to run 12 consecutive rehearsals for six singers each, or more often to cancel their rehearsal bookings and long-planned summer concerts.
But what about us, the hymn-singing masses? We’ve had to endure more than a year of dismal hymnlessness: dry services without the necessary gravy of communal singing to make us feel part of it all. ‘My mouth is dried up like a potsherd,’ as the psalmist put it. Listening to a choir singing a hymn, though better than nothing, is not an acceptable substitute. You feel excluded, sitting there in bovine silence while others sing the words you long to belt out. Some congregations have taken to humming very softly behind their masks, longing to mouth the words but resisting for fear of a backlash from the diocese. Even in New York, famous for being almost manically Covid-compliant, the rules have now been eased, I’m told by Jeremy Filsell, the director of music at St Thomas Church Fifth Avenue. Congregations are allowed to sing hymns if masked and socially distanced.
I spoke to the Revd Mark Roberts, rector of my home town of Sandwich, Kent, who said that the absence of hymn-singing had been very hard for his congregation. ‘Lots of people,’ he said, ‘might not remember the words of the Bible, but they do remember and need to sing the words of well-loved hymns, to sustain them through hard times. Singing is at the heart of praise, praise is at the heart of worship, so to remove singing is to begin to neuter what worship is about.’
The soprano Katherine Jenkins, who presents Songs of Praise and worships at St David’s Church in Neath, Wales, tells me: ‘Perhaps we didn’t really appreciate how much we loved hymns till we lost them. They bring us together, take the emotion up a notch. When we’re allowed to sing them again, it will be a very emotional moment.’
If it’s been hard for my type of worship — up at the ‘high’ end — how much harder has it been for evangelicals, whose services normally kick off with half an hour of communal singing to get everyone into the groove? A friend who sings in an evangelical church in west London tells me that, whereas she used to ‘lead’ the congregational singing at her church by standing at the front singing into a microphone, she has now had to become a solo ‘performer’, singing to the masked, silent congregation, accompanied by four masked guitarists. It’s hard for anyone to reach a state of spiritual ecstasy under these restrictions.
And how much have school pupils been deprived! They’ve missed a year of building up their bank of hymn poetry that should be there to sustain them through all the changing scenes of life. No communal hymn-singing in school assemblies has taken place since before the first lockdown last year. Assemblies have been held on Zoom, broadcast to classroom bubbles. At boarding schools, singing has been restricted to house group bubbles — again, better than nothing. It was heartbreaking to read about a primary school pupil who announced to her mother that ‘singing spreads germs’. That bit of propaganda will prove hard to shift.
The nation’s craving for hymns became clear last month when more than 1,000 people took part in an online hymn-singing concert organised by the recently formed Self-Isolation Choir, dreamed up by Ralph Allwood, to raise money for choral charities. I watched it and was moved to tears, both by the emotional power of the hymns themselves, and by thought of those 1,000 hymn enthusiasts who’d managed to sing alone into their smartphones and upload the result on to Dropbox.
Amateur singing is a soft target for the government. The silencing of indoor singing is an easy way for them to be seen to be being efficiently cautious. To most of us with common sense, it seems grossly unfair, disproportionate and emasculating. Watch the recent Twitter video of the choral conductor Sam Evans singing into a candle flame, and it doesn’t so much as flicker. He then speaks to say ‘Two pints and a packet of crisps’ — and the candle goes out.
Communal hymn-singing had better come back in time for the belting out of ‘Jerusalem’, or even ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ from school assembly halls on the final day of term next month. But I don’t dare to be hopeful, judging by the government’s Roundhead approach.
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