Monday, September 28, 2009

A Hymn Geek's Version of Oldies

The Hymnal 1940, which was in the pew racks of Episcopal churches and chapels and cathedrals from 1943 until 1985 (and in some places, long afterward), was instrumental in my transition into the Anglican way of Christian practice nearly four decades ago. I thought to myself then, "If there's a church that actually sings these hymns, I need to be in it." And so I am, even though I was to later learn that some of the hymns that so captivated me as a I played through them on a Westmont College practice room piano during spring break of 1971 didn't actually get sung very much. This particular collection is something of a classic, in my estimation. I don't advocate wholesale return to it, as we have moved on, appropriately, from too many aspects of its milieu. But setting aside the essential problem of anachronism, it's "better" than its successor (the Hymnal 1982), in the way the the venerable Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica is "better" than its successors, even though you wouldn't want it to be the only encyclopedia you have access to.

Many years ago I discovered that sitting down at a keyboard (organ or piano) and playing through hymns is not just recreational for me; it' s a form of prayer. So I have incorporated it into my regular prayer discipline. Recently, on one of these occasions, I was working my way through the sections devoted to Ordinations, Litanies, and the Departed, respecitvely.

In the first of those three, I was especially struck by #221, Ye Christian Heralds...

Ye Christian heralds, go proclaim
Salvation in Emmanuel's name;
To distant lands the tidings bear,
And plant the Rose of Sharon there.

God shield you with a wall of fire,
With holy zeal your hearts inspire,
Bid raging winds their fury cease,
And calm the savage breast to peace.

And when our labors all our o'er,
Then may we meet to part no more,
Meet, with the ransomed throng to fall,
And crown the Savior Lord of all.

Yes, it's over-the-top Victorian in its sensibilities, and many today would call it racist. I find the tune (Missionary Chant) quite stirring, but I'm a hymn geek, and most today would find it stodgy. I can't imagine a contemporary occasion in which it would be appropriate to be sung. And I grieve for that fact. Even though this text is in the Ordination section of the hymnal, it clearly bespeaks an occasion of apostolic commissioning that is at the same time more concrete and more generic than simply an ordination. Those being sent with this hymn are heroes--they are putting their lives in danger, indeed offering their lives to be spent, consumed, in their vocation. As was the case with Paul and the Ephesian elders when he took leave of them, it's with the understanding that this is a farewell, not just a goodbye. Only the third stanza, completely eschatological in tone, hints at any future reunion. I wince that what passes for "mission" in today's Church is so anemic, so easy, by comparison.

I also rediscovered, in the Departed section (i.e. funeral music), #224, a text by the inimitable John Ellerton (who is himself worthy of the doctoral dissertation I would write in the parallel universe where I would write a doctoral dissertation):

Now the laborer's task is o'er;
Now the battle dayis past;
Now upon the farther shore
Lands the voyager at last.
Father, in thy gracious keeping
Leave we now thy servant sleeping.

There the tears of earth are dried;
There its hidden days are clear;
There the work of live is tried
By a juster Judge than hear.

There the penitents, that turn
To the cross their dying eyes'
All the love of Jesus learn
At his feet in paradise.

There no more the powers of hell
Can prevail to mar their peace;
Christ the Lord shall guard them well,
He who died for their release.

"Earth to earth, and dust to dust,"
Calmly now the words we say,
Left behind, we wait in trust,
For the resurrection day.

The first tune given is Pax, and it is sublimely lovely, though more appropriate for a practiced choir than a funeral congregation. The text may fall short of the sense of paschal victory that has since been recovered in our funeral rites, but it is solidly realistic, and therefore comforting, in a very pastoral way.


Undergroundpewster said...

#221, "Ye Christian Heralds," as you transcribed it, is appropriate at any time (IMHO). It would have been a good one to sing before heading off to GC2009!

The earlier version which included verses such as #3:

"Set up thy throne where Satan reigns,
on Afric shores, on India's plains;
on wilds and continents unknown,
and be the universe thine own!"

would probably be rejected as terribly politically incorrect. Being a Hymn geek who does not mind tweaking verses, I might suggest substituting Europe's shores and America's plains for the continents mentioned in v. 3.

robert said...

For your encouragement, there are lots of "hymn geeks" around. I meet them every day through my blog, Wordwise Hymns. And your comparison to earlier editions of Britannica is apt. Later editions of hymnals have sometimes robbed congregations of great treasures by trying to keep up with all the inferior contemporary stuff.

Bourne Draper's "Ye Christian Heralds" is a fine hymn. Editors can go a little overboard worrying about political correctness in some of these older gems. You mention John Ellerton, and I'm sure you're familiar with his "The Day Thou Gavest Lord." Stunning in its depiction of the church of Christ girdling the globe.

Well, thanks for sharing your enthusiasm about singing through the hymn book. It can indeed be re-creational to our souls, and an act of worship. God bless.