Hymns abide

On Palm Sunday I visited a mission congregation that's largely on my theological wavelength. I would have felt entirely at home if sound theology alone made for rewarding worship. Then I encountered what has become a common problem on the Anglican Right: substandard music. When the priest was about three-fourths of the way through the traditional Palm Sunday Gospel reading -- the lengthy description of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and his trial before Pilate -- I suddenly heard the sort of doleful and mawkish harmonica-playing that would occur around a bonfire at summer camp.

This caused two immediate thoughts for me: "What the hell?" and "Oh, please, don't let this be what I think it is."

Once the Gospel reading was done, the congregation sang through a Taize chant ("Jesus, remember me"), and then the harmonica solo returned. Even if the solo had been played in the style of the beloved Bob Dylan, I would have considered it a distraction from the point of the Gospel.

The Daily Telegraph brings welcome news about a survey of people who watch the BBC series Songs of Praise. The headline says it best: "Traditional songs beat the 'happy clappers' hands down in search for Britain's best hymns."

Michael Wakelin, the show's executive producer, offers an explanation filled with good old British common sense:

"It takes a long time for a hymn to settle into the national consciousness," he said. "For a classic hymn you need a very substantial piece of music and a very substantial piece of poetry. I think modern hymns will take their place eventually, but they are battling with the likes of Charles Wesley."

And there's an interesting political thread running through the story, offering a contrast between a tut-tutting bishop and a conservative politician who has her priorities straight:

The shortlist is likely to prove highly controversial -- not least because of the much-loved songs that have not made it to the final round of voting. We Plough The Fields And Scatter and All Things Bright and Beautiful, among the most performed songs in Britain, both failed to make the final list. By contrast, Jerusalem and I Vow To Thee My Country, which many worshippers contend are not hymns, made it to the final 20. Originally entitled Fight for the Right, Jerusalem was a favourite of the suffragette movement and has subsequently become the anthem of the Women's Institute.

But I Vow To Thee My Country has actually been banned in some churches. In August the Bishop of Hulme, the Rt Rev Stephen Lowe, asked local churches to prohibit it because it expressed "inappropriate sentiments for Christians to hold".

He said the hymn was a "dangerous" example of rising English nationalism.

Ann Widdecombe, the Conservative MP and a practising Catholic, said: "Strictly speaking, Jerusalem and I Vow to Thee My Country are not hymns. But I am not particularly dismayed that they are on the list. I think I Vow to Thee My Country is there because it is one of the very few outlets for patriotism which we still have left in the country."

Miss Widdecombe's favourite, How Great Thou Art, which was inspired by a Swedish folk melody, made the list.

"It is about the majesty of God," she said. "It is not petitioning or asking for anything, it is merely celebrating God's glory."

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