In late Autumn 2015 we enjoyed an unusual service, prepared by Roger Wilson, about hymnwriters. The text is reproduced here (hymn numbers are from Rejoice and Sing):
Words and music are an essential part of our worship every week. We all have favourite hymns, whether it is words which mean something special, music which lifts us up, or just a rhythm which gets our feet tapping. Hymns help us remember special occasions in our lives, moments we do not want to forget. So for this week’s service we set out to pick some favourite hymns. I hope that among them is one of your favourites.
Each of our five hymns is written by a different author and we are going to hear about each author as well as sing their words. The theme which emerged as the different profiles were written can be summed up in the question – what does it take to inspire others in worship? I hope that in the next hour we can discover a little bit about what brings people to write words and music which find an indelible place in our lives.
The writer of the psalms had this to say (Psalm 68 v32-35). Sing to God, you kingdoms of the earth, sing praise to the Lord, to him who rides across the highest heavens, the ancient heavens, who thunders with mighty voice. Proclaim the power of God, whose majesty is over Israel, whose power is in the heavens.
Introduce first hymn
Hymn 1 – 135 Joy to the World (second tune – Antioch)
Isaac Watts read by Jan Badman
Our opening hymn was written by Isaac Watts. Isaac Watts was the first great hymn writer of the non-conformist churches. He is credited with some 750 hymns many of which remain in use today and scores of them have been translated into other languages
Born in Southampton in 1674, Watts was the son of a committed non-conformist who had twice been imprisoned for his faith. He had a classical education but because he was not an Anglican he was not allowed to go to university. Instead he went to the Dissenting Academy, in Stoke Newington in Hackney, and he stayed in London for the rest of his life.
Watts was called to be pastor of a large independent chapel at Mark Lane, in the city of London, where he helped train preachers. He gained a reputation for being non-denominational, having a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship than preaching for any particular sect. He took work as a private tutor for the Hartopp family. Sir Thomas and Lady Mary Hartopp had homes in Hertfordshire and at Abney Hall, Stoke Newington, where Lady Mary was Lord of the Manor.
Watts lived with them at Abney Hall for more than 40 years. He particularly enjoyed the grounds, seeking inspiration for the many books and hymns he wrote. He broke new ground in hymn writing using modern poetry rather than the poetry of the Bible. In this he followed John Calvin, who was the first to create verse translations of the Psalms so that congregations could sing them, and know what they were singing.
Watts also proposed that the translations of the Psalms sung by Protestants should have a specifically Christian perspective. Although acknowledging they were written by King David, Watts claimed that his religious understanding could be “renovated” as if David had been a Christian, and they should be “imitated in the language of the New Testament.”
Besides his hymns Watts wrote books and essays on theology and logic. One book on logic published in 1724 (with a 35 word title I shall not read out here*) was printed in twenty editions and became a standard text at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, being used at Oxford for over 100 years. One of his later books was credited by Michael Faraday as giving him scientific insight and inspiration.
He died at Abney Hall in 1748. His papers were given to Yale University, which was the first university founded to educate Congregationalist ministers.
*If after the service anyone asks, the title is:
Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences.
RW: Prayer of introduction
O God, give us enquiring minds and open hearts in tune with you. Let us find today, words and music that comfort, challenge and surprise us, as we sing your praise.
We remember today great writers and musicians who contribute to our worship. We give thanks for their talents and their inspiration which gave us hymns we can love and can share. We give thanks too for those who have brought those hymns to us, editors, publishers, printers.
We ask that you will open our ears so that we may hear your voice in the music, open our minds so that we may know your wisdom in the words, open our hearts so that we may receive your love and open our spirits so that we may know you better each day.
Fred Kaan read by Howard Bridge
Fred Kaan was born in Haarlem in the Netherlands in 1929. His early teenage years coincided with the Nazi occupation. His parents were members of the Dutch Resistance, hiding weapons and giving refuge to fugitives. The last winter of the war was desperate for the Dutch as they were cut off from food and fuel supplies until an allied airlift brought some relief. Many died, including three of Fred’s grandparents.
The war had a lasting effect on Fred. He was a committed pacifist, became a Christian and when he went to University in Utrecht he chose to study theology and psychology. In 1952 he came to England, studied at Western College in Bristol and was ordained as a Congregationalist minister. He married in 1954 and had three children. He served in Barry, South Wales and Plymouth, where his hymn writing talents began to flourish.
In 1968 he became the secretary of the International Congregational Council and worked to create the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. He spent the next ten years travelling, writing and broadcasting. His work was in human rights, inter-church relations and serving as chairman on the Council for World Mission. He visited over 83 countries
Tiring of the travelling in 1978 he became Moderator of the West Midlands Synod of the URC.
(The following in italics is a personal memory by Howard and anyone using this material should not quote this word for word although it may be used as source material)
I first corresponded with Dr Kaan when he was still in Geneva. I was Church Secretary at the time and we had been told about the appointment of our new moderator. We thought it would be good to invite him to lead our worship and a good idea to get in early. It worked!
Very soon after his arrival in the UK he rang me and we had a conversation which began:
“Good morning Mr Kaan, er Dr Kaan, er Moderator”. “Wouldn’t it be easier of you called me Fred?” and Fred he was to us and many others. He and his first wife became our good friends and remained so until he died, despite a rocky patch over the breakdown of his first marriage.
He had a formidable memory. At his first provincial synod he was able to invite everyone who put his hand up to speak by name. It is a measure of the cruelty of dementia that at our last meeting he could not remember a round of four drinks.
Fred was a talented artist, linguist and wine maker. He was a jazz enthusiast, a member of Ronnie Scotts with an ambition to play the tenor saxophone.
Fred was a man of vision, not inhibited by national or spiritual boundaries. My favourite verse from all his hymns is:
Then grant us courage Father God
To choose again the pilgrim way
And help us to accept with joy
The challenge of tomorrow’s day
Fred’s formal ministry ended in 1989 but he served a four year term as honorary secretary of the Churches’ Human Rights Forum in Britain and Ireland. After his wife died in 1993 he remarried and later moved to the Lake District. He died in Penrith in 2009.
Fred said he wrote his first hymn when he was 34, in Plymouth. He became one of the most productive modern hymn writers. Six collections of his hymns have gone into several editions and have been translated into fifteen languages. Over a hundred of his hymns are in the pews of churches worldwide.
For the Healing of the Nations is recognized as a classic. It is our next hymn – number 620.
Hymn 2 – 620 For the healing of the nations
Received by RW.
Lord, we bring these gifts with our love, and ask that both they and we may be used for your glory. Amen
Reading – Acts 9 1-21 (Paul/Damascus Road) – Donald Horsfield
Jan Struther read by Janet Longstaff
One of the silent puzzles in the hymn book is the name Jan Struther.
It was the pen name of Joyce Anstruther. Born in 1901 in rural Buckinghamshire she had a conventional upbringing but in her own words was something of a tomboy. She married a Lloyds broker in 1923 and had three children. She started writing – poetry, short stories and occasional hymns. One national magazine which took her work was Punch. In 1936 she was approached by The Times to become a columnist. They were looking for “an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary life, rather like you” the Times editor told her.
She decided to take that as a compliment and created the character Mrs Miniver. The columns started appearing in 1937 and were an immediate success. Mrs Miniver was happily married, had a comfortable wealthy middle-class life yet was highly independent and was often critical of the world she moved in, especially when she returned from the weekend cottage in Kent
The columns were compiled into a book in 1939 and the book became an MGM film in 1942. It won 6 Oscars, including Best Picture. The film actually owed little to the book, not untypical of Hollywood adaptations at that time and since, but during the war it provided the American public with a symbolic view of ‘ordinary’ British life. As a result it also haunted Joyce.
Because of the film success she had been able to go to America. She became a popular panelist on radio shows, showing a warm character and a quick wit. On her return her marriage of more than 20 years failed and in 1948 she remarried a Viennese art historian who was 12 years her junior. She died in 1953 from breast cancer and her ashes are interred at Whitchurch in Buckinghamshire, close to where she was born. She was just 52.
Joyce attended church regularly but described herself as an agnostic. Her hymn writing dates from the 1920s. In 1931 she was approached by Canon Percy Dearmer from Westminster Abbey to write some hymns for a new collection commissioned by Oxford University Press. Our next hymn is number 531, “Lord of all Hopefulness” a poignant and sensitive message it is not hard to see her writing.
Hymn 3 – 531 Lord of all hopefulness
Gill Jackson and Elders come to Table during last verse.
Elders return to seats. Gill remains.
George Matheson read by Roger Wilson
We complete our service with two more hymn writers, who present a number of contrasts.
George Matheson was born in Glasgow in 1842, the eldest of eight children. He went to Glasgow University to study theology. In his first year there, at the age of 19 he became totally blind.
His fiancée told him that she could not go through life with a blind man and left him. His younger sister supported him and helped him adapt to his new situation. She lived with him for the next 20 years.
Despite his handicap he graduated from university and was trained as a Church of Scotland minister. For the next 18 years he served a church on the Argyll coastline near Dunoon, not far from Glasgow, and gave himself to theological writing, establishing a strong reputation as a liberal and spiritually minded theologian.
He was invited to preach to Queen Victoria at Balmoral. In 1886 he moved to a church in Edinburgh and cemented his position as one of the leading preachers in Scotland. He was awarded honorary degrees and invited to be a guest university lecturer.
Matheson wrote our next hymn in 1882 when he was 40. His sister, who he had relied on so much for 20 years, decided to get married. Losing his dearest friend, albeit to her happiness, was a reminder of his own heartbreak of all those years earlier. The hymn came out of this situation.
He later wrote:
“I am quite sure that the whole work was completed in five minutes, and equally sure that it never received at my hands any retouching or correction. I have no natural gift of rhythm. All the other verses I have ever written are manufactured articles; this came like a dayspring from on high.
George Matheson never married. He died of a stroke in 1906 after a long period of ill health. He was 64. He will always be remembered for that five minutes of inspiration, his one hymn, number 511, O Love that will not let me go.
Hymn 4 – 511 O love that will not let me go
Prayers of intercession – Glenys Young
Let us pray.
Lord, we live in a world where there are haves and have nots …
… we can see where there is health and where children die …
… where there is food in abundance and where there is hunger …
… where there is fear and where there is peace.
We pray that your guidance and your spirit will reach those who are in a position to change the world for the better, so that they act for the benefit of all your people.
Guide them to an end of violence, to the fairer sharing of the worlds resources, and to the care of the disadvantaged and oppressed everywhere.
We offer our prayers now in a moment of silence.
There is intolerance in our own society. It shows itself in concerns about migrants, disdain for different points of view, fear of other faiths and cultures.
Help us to challenge where such views are expressed and with the power of your spirit to reach out across the divisions in our society so that all people can be valued equally.
We are aware too that there are those we know, in our town, in our families and in this church facing problems with their health.
Give your wisdom and compassion to those that treat them and care for them. We ask that the knowledge and love of you will be with each of them as they make choices, face treatment and seek to be themselves despite everything they face.
We ask all this in the name of Jesus Christ, our teacher and guide.
Caryl Micklem read by Graham Young
Thomas Caryl Micklem was born in 1925 in Oxford. As the son of a Congregational minister and the grandson of an MP his family had a strong free church and Liberal party tradition. His father was also an organist so music featured alongside theology and political affairs in family life. After graduating from New College, Oxford, he studied at Mansfield College, where his uncle was principal. He accepted a pastorate at Oundle school in 1949 and was ordained a minister of the Congregational Church in 1952.
He was minister in Banstead, Surrey, then for 20 years served in Kensington, before his final ministry back in Oxford at St Columba’s. He had a reputation for not being a populist and he had no time for instant solutions to problems.
Micklem quickly established a reputation as a hymn writer and musician. He was a longtime member of the Hymn Society, and its chairman from 1993 to 1999.
His influence as a shaper of hymn books was significant. He was on the music committee for the URC’s first hymn collection “New Church Praise” published in 1975 and then went on to chair the music committee which compiled “Rejoice and Sing”. He worked alongside our own David Goodall on that project, which has been our hymn book for the last 20 years. They became good friends.
Micklem was a shrewd judge of what might last as a contemporary hymn and he was as stringent a critic of his own work as of that of others. He valued simple faith. His influence can be seen in many ways in Rejoice and Sing, not least because there are 16 of his compositions as well as 8 hymns for which he wrote the words.
He was free church religious adviser to ATV for ten years and a contributor to Radio 4’s Thought For The Day, where he had a reputation for being challenging. He died in June 2003. The Times obituary writer said “the old nonconformist in him would not settle for going with the flow”.
Rejoice and Sing will always be associated with Caryl Micklem.
Our final hymn is number 497, Give to me Lord a thankful heart, for which he wrote both music and words.
Hymn 5 – 497 Give to me lord a thankful heart
Parting blessing (said by all following Gill’s lead)
Be thou a bright flame before me,
Be thou a guiding star above me,
Be thou a smooth path below me,
Be thou a kindly shepherd behind me,
Today – tonight – and for ever