The dubious joys of hymn singing

Off to the Linskill Centre North Shields for a ceremony to open the memorial garden recording the names of more than 1,500 soldiers from the then borough of Tynemouth who died in World War One.
All sobering and dignified stuff of course, and the final act of the splendid Tynemouth World War One Commemoration Project, which now becomes the bigger Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project (quite a mouthful!).
What strikes me is the way we in this country handle such quasi-religious events. Firstly the hymn singing. Naturally few of us know the words so we are given hymn sheets. But few of us know the tunes either. When we hear the opening notes from the brass band (ah, the goose pimples such bands can create!), we shuffle awkwardly, some of us cough, we look around sheepishly then launch into the first line rather like someone venturing a toe into the North Sea in mid January. In other words (or word), tentatively. We proceed, with all the confidence of a blind person on a tight-rope above Niagara Falls.
The choral effect (if I could even venture to use such a complimentary word as choral) is a half-hearted (or throated) mish-mash of vocal discordance, partially saved by the small minority of true believers whose voices ring out in clear confident tones – and with the correct tune. Many of us are secretly embarrassed and alarmed to see that a further eight verses await, each with the four line chorus following.
Nor do the archaic words make much sense to we 21st century text-savvy folk. All those ‘thee’ and ‘thous’, all those ‘redeemers’ and ‘hallelujahs’. We are mildly embarrassed because we are indulging a habit that has become alien to most of us. Hymns are no longer an everyday part of our lives. Never once have I heard someone in the street whistling a hymn. And many of the tunes are unbelievably dreary.
I was once commissioned, among other writers, to pen new words to traditional hymns. I was proud of my inclusion in the resulting pioneering anthology but what happened to it? No sign of the book in any religious establishment I’ve visited during the following 20 years. The church, as always, resists change.
Not that such church visits are common outside marriages and deaths. The UK’s ethnic communities apart, the religious behaviour of most of us is a kind of pagan apathy. It is not only the hymns that give us problems. There is also a strange rota of sitting and standing at such ceremonies.
I have long tried to make some sense of this, to anticipate just when we sit, when we stand and why. I have always failed. It is a ritual given to comic side-effects. Allow your distraction to waver momentarily, miss the instruction, “please now be seated’ and you find yourself stranded, as conspicuous as the last remaining conifer in a recently felled acreage of Forestry Commission land.
A similar lack of concentration leaves you seated, staring at the eye-level crotches of those alongside you who have obeyed instructions to stand. And is it only me, who feels a small satisfaction to hear the request “Please now be seated’, just as there is a tinge of annoyance at the instruction, “We shall now all stand”?
Imagine such rituals at other gatherings – standing and sitting on instruction in the cinema, say. This did use to happen at the cinema in a more deferential age where we all (with the exception of a few unruly republicans who made a bolt for the exit) obediently stood at the film’s end for the national anthem. Our anthem incidentally is even more dreary than most hymns (if we do need to have such a ritual, please replace the present dirge with the stirring and beautifully written Jerusalem).
But I digress!! Like the rest of us, I shall continue stumbling through hymns on those few occasions I am called upon so to do – as if bidden by some strange force I probably don’t believe in and certainly don’t understand. Glory be to the Lord.


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