Second Sunday in Advent
and the centenary of the English Hymnal

Luke 3.1-6.

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden
10 December 2006

I promise to get to the Gospel for today in due course, but we are going to start somewhere else.

Each of you has on the ledge in front of you a copy of the English Hymnal, from which, five times almost every service, we sing. Now it seemed to me almost discourteous to let 2006 slip away without noting the fact that this year is the centenary of the English Hymnal, first published in 1906. I thought I would say something about it because many of us simply take it for granted – as part of the furniture, there to do a limited if important job.

I shall start with (as the Michelin Guides say) a bit of history.

We tend to assume that hymns have always been an important element in worship, but it is not so. True, they do go back very early:  you will find two or three probable hymns in the letters of Paul in the New Testament itself, and in the following centuries Christians sang hymns on some occasions.  But, though some of these have got into our modern hymn-books, including the English Hymnal, most of them have long ago disappeared. There were also popular carols.  But such music rarely entered the experience of the ordinary regular churchgoer. When we get to the Reformation, you will find no reference to hymns anywhere in our Book of Common Prayer, though anthems were allowed in cathedrals and a few other big churches at Morning and Evening Prayer.

But the opposite trend did begin in this period, with people making verse translations  of  the Psalms.  Some of these are still in our hymn-books, for example ‘All people that on earth do dwell’, which is a translation of Psalm 100. Queen Elizabeth I tried to get these psalm-hymns sung at the beginning and end of every service, and no doubt she succeeded in some places. Hymns had a big boost in the 18th century with the work of Charles and John Wesley, who wrote hundreds of them, and then there was a big take-off in the time of Queen Victoria, when hymn-books started to appear and to be used in churches for the first time.  The spread of hymns was often disapproved by authority:  bishops would regard them as an unwarranted addition to the sober worship laid down in the Prayer Book – to no great effect!

The English Hymnal itself was compiled by a London priest, Percy Dearmer, and, for the music, by Ralph Vaughan Williams, later to become one of the greatest English composers of the 20th century. He gave two years to the making of this book and formed its musical flavour, bringing together tunes from all quarters and periods. He could also be ruthless, and dropped many of the sloppier Victorian tunes that people thought they loved! There was at that time a big movement to collect old English folk-tunes.  You went round villages and got old men and women to sing their songs before they died out.  Some of these were arranged by Vaughan Williams to go with hymns:  for example, the tune we use for ‘He who would valiant be’.  He also composed new tunes of his own:  for example, Down Ampney, named after his home village in Gloucestershire, where his father was vicar, which we sing to ‘Come down, O love divine’, and the tune for ‘For all the saints’. His tunes are moving and full-blooded. They make you feel that you really are praising God with heart and soul.

So:  thank God for the EH and all it contributes to our worship. And it is not just a matter of music of course:  the book is a treasure of wonderful words for prayer and reflection, worth possessing for oneself.  It uses the work of many famous poets from many times and places.  So the union of words and music can lift our souls to God as we sing or even listen to others  (even with their mouths wide open before our eyes as in ‘Songs of Praise’).

Now, to turn to our Gospel, Luke 3.1-6.  Luke gave his first two chapters to the lovely stories of the birth of John the Baptist and then of Jesus, and what followed in his infancy and childhood.  It is the tale of God’s crowning gift of himself to us his people.

But now we move abruptly to Luke’s way of telling how Jesus’ ministry began. And he is keen to fix it in our sights:  it really happened, he says, and I’ll tell you exactly when.  We would say AD29, but then they had no universal way of dating anything, so he just gave a list of reference points to top people in office at the time. It is a very laborious way of doing the job, but impressive.  Once that is fixed, he can go on to God’s work, starting with John the Baptist, who heralds Jesus’ own mission;  speaking out for God about his purpose.

But it is all in continuity with God’s long-laid meaning – and Isaiah wrote it out, as Luke reminds us in his quote:   ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness…’ And if we don’t know the words from Isaiah, we know them from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – and countless tenor soloists;  with the great chorus to follow, ‘And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’.

So Luke too, like the hymn-book, combines the comings and goings of ordinary life with the great purposes of God – and the two are interwoven. And so it is for us, as we see our lives, with work and humble details shot through with deeper meaning, with love and self-offering and the adoration for God for his own sake.

The Reverend Professor Leslie Houlden

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