Low life

When the going gets tough there’s nothing like an hour of rollicking hymn singing

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

On Saturday my boy had a mini-stroke at home, aged only 26. ‘You’ll have to give up smoking and do a spot of exercising now and again,’ I told him as the ambulance drove away. Smoking is his solace and consolation. ‘Out of the question,’ he said. On Sunday morning I went to church. ‘Your son ought to have taken the option of going to hospital,’ said the vicar before the service. Before becoming a vicar, she was a medical missionary in Papua New Guinea for 40 years and one wonders at the mental adjustment required for dealing with the subtler barbarities of a pretty English village. ‘He’s going to the doctor first thing tomorrow morning. Or so he says,’ I told her.

The service was a special Songs of Praise celebration. Holidaymakers and dilettantes such as myself swelled the congregation to around 50-strong. I went with my mother, who is an active church member and only ever misses a service through illness. It was the third time I’ve been to St Michael’s this year, I think, and I was welcomed with an enthusiasm that surprised me.

We kicked off with Canon Michael Saward’s hymn ‘Christ Triumphant’. I knew it. It is a fine hymn to lubricate the larynx. Lifelong Anglican servant Canon Saward died in January, and we were enjoined to celebrate his life as we sang. After that we sat or knelt to pray. Led by the vicar, we asked God to grant us forgiveness ‘for our careless thoughts, for our thoughtless deeds, for our empty speech, for our false desires, for our hateful actions, and for our wastefulness.’ Because these things are all I seem capable of, and because empty speech, in my admittedly limited experience, is the hallmark of English conversation at its most civilised, I was unable to ask forgiveness with anything like sincerity and I sort of skated over the surface.


We then rose again to sing ‘How Great Thou Art’. After the gentle warm-up of ‘Christ Triumphant’, we really let go with this one. I know the words by heart. They melt it every time I sing it. It’s that soaring chorus: ‘Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to Thee’. It trips me up every time. Once again the old feeling of helplessness engendered by those words and that melody stole over me and I lifted my face and sang out hardly knowing where I was.

Across the aisle, and in the corresponding pew, was a man worshipping alone: late fifties, beard, khaki shorts, grey socks, polished shoes. He reminded me of a scoutmaster. But what a voice! It was a beautiful tenor. Swaying majestically to the hymn’s slow rhythm, he used it to fling out his soul. I’ve been in plenty of evangelical and charismatic churches in my time and I have witnessed religious exhibitionism of every variety. But there was no trace of it in this man’s demeanour. He just loved to sing. His spirit was with us rather than against us or flying a loop the loop about the church rafters. And what a bonus it was to have his large, true voice to shelter and lead us. On the other side of me was my mother. I looked to the front as I sang, but I was conscious that her ego, which in day-to-day life is almost invisible, diminishes in church to the point where her presence becomes indistinguishable from the church furniture.

Next we sang that old Charles Wesley classic ‘And Can It Be That I should Gain?’. At that stirring line ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free/ I rose, went forth and followed Thee’ I was possibly exceeding even the marvellous tenor in volume and passion. Then we sang ‘Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus’, which made me want to tramp up and down the aisle, and then ‘Thine Be the Glory’, the chorus of which has popped spontaneously into my mind at strange or incongruous moments, like an auditory hallucination, all my life. Discerning that some of us were flagging by this time, the vicar said we should omit all but the first and last verses of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

Returning home after the service, exalted by an hour of rollicking hymn-singing, I saw that my son was outside, meticulously polishing the roof his Jag. I went over to him. ‘How do you feel now?’ I said. ‘A bit shaky still,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to give up smoking, you know,’ I said, hating myself for rank hypocrisy. ‘Out of the question,’ he said, shortly. ‘What about vaping?’ I pleaded. My boy indicated that the conversation was closed, and for all time, by returning wordlessly to his polishing.

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Show comments
  • Ngaire Wadman

    Ah yes, the glorious experience of singing fine music, with others. I think even music-hall sing-songs had a pale imitation of the benefit of group singing, but to let rip with such wonderful expressions of exultant faith – wonderful.
    It answers a deep fundamental need of humankind, and it is a great sadness and lack in our society that we don’t all do it, regularly and enthusiastically.

    • Oddsbods

      Yes it symbolises unity and being part of a social group very well.

  • Ald

    Thank you for the post. For more on John and Charles Wesley, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George
    Whitefield opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this
    three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in
    England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain
    sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan
    movement’s effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American
    colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is
    http://www.francisasburytriptych.com. Please enjoy the numerous articles on the
    website. Again, thank you, for the post.

  • pobjoy

    Hearty singing, but not for reason that sustains the heart.

    ‘Above all things, guard your heart, because from it flow the springs of life.’ Proverbs 4:23

    Perhaps there is a sort of demonic ‘satisfaction’ in telling deity, “How great though art,” while hoping that one is dumping in his face; an idiot’s sense of victory in giving two fingers to one’s inevitable destruction. We would hardly be reading this, if the vicar was ‘he’. One thing is for sure, if there was hearty singing of “How great though art,” when there was no vicar at all, we would not be reading about it.

    ‘Know that Christ is the head of every man, and a man is the head of a woman.’
    1 Cor 11:3

  • Hamiltonian

    the lack of communal worship and hymn-singing is one of the reasons modern society is so fractious and full of hate for one’s neighbors.

    • Malcolm Stevas

      It’s an interesting theory, albeit IMO wildly incredible! Seven years’ compulsory church every Sunday at boarding school made me feel “fractious and full of hate” for religion – not least the bloody hymn singing. Hymns, and psalms too, still seem to me ghastly dirges almost without exception, maudlin, absurd, improbable, filled with Victorian po-faced tripe, not even stirring musically – and I love music.

      • pobjoy

        ‘compulsory church’

        No terms are more contradictory.

        ‘every Sunday at boarding school made me feel “fractious and full of hate” for religion’

        Then it worked a treat.

      • Hamiltonian

        If you hate hymns, why bother reading the article?

        • Malcolm Stevas

          It’s called curiosity, keeping oneself informed etc. I might not subscribe to the CofE but it’s a rich part of our history & culture.

          • pobjoy

            ‘It’s called curiosity’

            There was no logic in the question. If you can’t identify stupid, pretentious posts, you are a liability. Sharpen up.

            In what sense is the CoE a rich part of our history & culture?

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Well that puts me in my place. But despite your wisdom, your closing question – if not rhetorical – is fuc*ing dim. If you really need an answer, you must have grown up in a remote cave.

          • pobjoy

            ‘Well that puts me in my place.’

            In the cowards’ sewer, you mean. I’m sure that other readers will have noticed that you replied to the other poster only after another conversation had ended.

            So Malcolm Stevas has changed his nasty mind. A few hours ago, he felt “fractious and full of hate” for religion; now he says that the same religion is ‘rich’.

            No prizes for guessing what changed his guilt-ridden mind.

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Somewhat feverish! What on earth are you talking about…

          • pobjoy

            Contradicting himself again!

          • Malcolm Stevas

            Please explain – if you can. Perhaps you’ve been at the communion wine.

          • pobjoy

            The thought of Christians independent of leashed dog collars seems too frightening to contemplate.

    • pobjoy

      ‘neighbors’

      When did the USA have communal worship and hymn-singing? The country was founded by people who were escaping those very things.

      • Hamiltonian

        The denominations that have traditionally inhabited America all use communal worship and hymn-singing. While the US has always a plurality of Christian faiths, members of said faiths have tended to congregate in different regions (Puritans in New England, Presbyterians in Appalachia, Anglicans, Baptists, and Methodists in the South) and the US had many communities where everyone was one denomination or another.

        • pobjoy

          ‘the US had many communities where everyone was one denomination or another’

          Divided, then. Did native Americans joyfully join with immigrants to sing, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine”? Did black and white folk go shoulder to shoulder while singing, “Stand up for Jesus”? What was it that Rebs and Yanks sang together during the Civil War? And was it Amazing Grace that solved the nationwide labour strikes of 1919-1921? How is it that Obama cannot get a prayer meeting together to sort out the gun crime problem?

          Exactly when was it that American modern society was not more or less fractious and full of hate for neighbours? Many observers consider the USA to be the greatest exponent in history of that old saying that one cannot serve God and money. Forget who said it, but it was a fair point.

          So, before posting criticism here, get your own right wing house in order.

          • Hamiltonian

            You are silly, buddy.

          • pobjoy

            Answer this question from an eight-year-old, O sage.

            How is it that a person can describe others as Christians, but refuse to meet with them?

          • Hamiltonian

            I would meet with any other Christian, but I would not attend a worship service of some denominations because of elements I disagree with.

          • pobjoy

            What ‘elements’ are important enough to cause schism, while remaining Christian?

          • Hamiltonian

            Do you really need a theology lesson? There are reams of information on this issue.

          • pobjoy

            ‘Do you really need a theology lesson?’

            So are you God? What are those ‘elements I disagree with’?

            This is not the dumbed down USA, chum.

          • Hamiltonian

            You aren’t a very coherent thinker, pobjoy.

          • pobjoy

            Possibly not! But anyone can spot a frightened worshipper of Mammon, come here to cajole thinking people into joining his hypocrite denominations.

          • Hamiltonian

            Again, with the incoherence. Try harder.

          • pobjoy

            Typical Americans are so dumbed down by the nasty ones, the nasty ones just don’t know how to reply when they come across a thinking person. 🙂

          • Hamiltonian

            You aren’t a “thinking person”. You are someone who randomly flits from one thought to another without logic or coherence.

          • pobjoy

            I have used only your own context.

            What ‘elements’ (your own word) are important enough to cause schism, while remaining Christian?

            You know what ‘schism’ means? Just tell the jury what it is you object to in the meetings of others you mentioned.

          • Hamiltonian

            As I said before, this is a fairly basic question that can be answer by better theologians than I. I assume you will parse my answer for things that you consider “inconsistent” but are not, requiring me to do more unnecessary work.

            As far as what “schism” means, obviously I know what the word means. Your insistence that I don’t is quite frankly bizarre and is further evidence of your incoherence.

          • pobjoy

            ‘As I said before, this is a fairly basic question that can be answer by better theologians than I’

            So Hamiltonian refuses to meet with others he calls Christians, but he doesn’t know why!

            ‘Your insistence that I don’t’

            Obviously, a lying farce of a troll.

          • Hamiltonian

            I disagree with them on communion, but again, if you knew anything about Christianity, you would know that already.

          • pobjoy

            ‘I disagree with them on communion’

            On what grounds?

          • Hamiltonian

            Read a book, pobjoy. I am not your theology teacher. If you are genuinely interested in this subject, I can recommend several.

          • pobjoy

            ‘Read a book’

            Which one describes your own ideas about communion?

          • Hamiltonian

            Try reading RC Sproul or NT Wright.

          • pobjoy

            Sproul and Wright don’t agree. But they will agree that they don’t like the recommendation of a stupid liar.

          • Hamiltonian

            Sproul is more militant than I am, sure. I am sure they both would dislike being recommended by you. You are correct there.

          • pobjoy

            ‘Sproul is more militant than I am, sure.’

            But you still refuse to meet with other Christians, nevertheless. An eight-year-old still thinks that’s serious dementia; or the devil at work. It can be hard to tell the difference, in fairness.

            ‘I am sure they both would dislike being recommended by you.’

            They would love it more than words can express! 🙂 But it’s an unlikely occurrence. Maybe you love only liars, and you came here because you wanted people to singalongaliar.

          • Jackthesmilingblack

            Bit like Americans. Nice people who have been so exposed to a lifetime’s propaganda and brainwashing that they are literally incapable of independent thought.
            “How do we know what we think we know?” Because it has been repeated and reinforced over and over so that you accept it without thinking.
            Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “My heart melts every time I sing the soaring chorus of ‘How Great Thou Art’”
    You silly twisted boy, you.

    • pobjoy

      If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.

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