I can’t recall exactly when or where or with whom this conversation took place–maybe it was during coffee after Mass—but it concerned whether there would ever be a new hymn book approved for use in the three Personal Ordinariates for former Anglicans in the Catholic Church. And of course, the discussion then went on to discuss what hymns should and would make the cut.
Meanwhile, I expect parishes like ours are the beneficiaries of dustbins of Anglican Communion parishes across North America and elsewhere, with old, but discarded copies of various versions of Anglican hymnals. Perhaps they have masking tape on some holding the spines together, or the odd coffee stain, or name written in blue ink on the front page. In some of our old blue hymnals, some proto-feminist crossed out overly masculine language and inserted inclusive language in cursive writing.
But at least we have a good book shelf full of hymnals with music so we can sing congregationally in four-part harmony such gems as Onward Christian Soldiers. And even a marked-in-pencil inclusive language hymnal with the old-fashioned words still visible is better than modern hymnals where the inclusive language and only one line of notes, the melody, is all you get.
One Christmas a number of years ago, I attended a concert by a children’s choir at a nearby Catholic Church and almost threw the hymnal across the nave when I found they had changed the words of “Good Christian men rejoice!” to “Good Christians all rejoice!” How dare they. How appalling.
I was reminded of all this when I came across this piece by Anthony Esolen at Catholic World Report on a Fr. George Rutler’s The Stories of Hymns: The History Behind 100 of Christianity’s Greatest Hymns.
Nor does Father Rutler ignore certain kinds of hymns that have utterly disappeared from our consciousness. I note with gratitude his inclusion of a good number hymns of spiritual combat, such as Christian, Dost Thou See Them? and Soldiers of Christ, Arise. “A dyspeptic and slothful soul will try to make a virtue of pacifism,” he says, “but none of that is in the apostolic literature.” We are to put on, as the latter hymn has it, echoing Saint Paul, “the panoply of God,” that is, the full armor of God, as the priest is supposed to be doing when he vests for Mass. The beloved hymn known as Saint Patrick’s Breastplate – I Bind Unto Myself Today – has a history that should abash anyone who considers himself too sophisticated to learn from past masters. We have the fiery trinitarian Patrick sweeping through Ireland, celebrating Mass everywhere in Latin and, as legend has it, uttering the words of the breastplate as he walked to Tara in the midst of the scouts of his enemy, the king Loegaire mac Neill. Then the redoubtable wife of the Bishop of Armagh, Cecil Frances Alexander, a proponent of the Oxford Movement that gave a young John Henry Newman to the world of letters and a hymnodist in her own right, decided she would translate those Old Irish words into English verse and give them as a gift to the Anglican parishes in Ireland. The Catholics took up the hymn, which was set to a mighty and ancient Irish melody preserved and developed by Charles Villiers Stanford, “friend of Brahms, collaborator with Tennyson, and teacher of Ralph Vaughan Williams,” a man of prodigious talents, “who composed a piece at the age of eight that was performed two years later in the Dublin Royal Theatre.” Not a bad resume, that! But I doubt that the heads of many Ia “music ministry” would see much to work with here. “Patrick’s song,” says Father Rutler, “was neither merry nor sad, for his battle brought the sound known only to those who conquer idols, and that is the sound of joy.”
I should like to end with an appeal to ecumenism. Father Rutler is neither indifferent to the theological divisions among the Christian communities, nor ungrateful for the tremendous contributions that such men as the Wesleys and John Mason Neale and Isaac Watts have made to our treasury of sacred music. Liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants thought that they would be the architects of Christian unity, but it has not been so, because the liberal capitulation to modernity and its result, a unitarianism too pallid for Emerson, cannot inspire the young, and afflicts its congregations with liturgical and theological dementia.
If there ever is an international commission set up to determine a Catholic hymnal for the Ordinariates, I hope Fr. Rutler, a former Anglican priest, is invited to participate as an expert!
And may it include such wonderful hymns about spiritual combat as Onward Christian Soldiers that we sang at the recent baptism of our newest member.
What do you think? What hymns should be included in a hymnal reflecting Anglican and Catholic patrimony?