The Dangerous Pit Of Hymn Selection

At Santa Margarita the brunt of the task of exasperating and exhilarating the congregation through hymn selection falls upon your humble chaplain, who is constantly surprised at the passion incited by the choice of what we sing. What follows is reproduced from the journal of Adrian Marple, the parish organist of Saint Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds, who has now published his blog as a book: ‘An Organist Is For Life, Not Just For Christmas.’

Choosing the Hymns

Cartoon by Dave Walker – reproduced under licence from

Can’t we have some new hymns? … ones that we all know?”

“What do you mean, Mrs Forthright?”

“Well…I know we had a new one last week – but nobody knew it”

“NEW? But it was written in 1545”

“Well, I didn’t know it…”

“It is rather difficult finding new ones that people already know… but I suppose I could try tunes that are really well-known and fit old, traditional words to it, perhaps?”

“How do you mean?….”

“Well – we could do… I don’t know… maybe, off the top of my head…  ‘Hark the Herald’ to the tune of ‘The Birdie Song’ ? It certainly fits, listen..

(Organist then sings to Mrs Forthright, tongue-firmly-embedded-in-cheek):

“Hark the Herald angels sing, Hark the Herald angels sing – to the new-born king NA-NA-NA-NA”

(Mrs Forthright’s glare could strip paint).

I can’t possibly go into the hymns versus choruses arguments here – it is neither a new debate, nor one which will ever have a satifactory conclusion. Each style becomes a valid form of worship in the hearts of the worshipper, however simplistic the language and the music or complex and skilfully-written the offering may be.

But, how many times have you as an organist tried “THE ALTERNATIVE TUNE?” (- and lived to tell the tale!)

I remember clearly in my younger days, one service where for “When I survey the wondrous cross”, I changed the traditional tune of “Rockingham” for “O Waly, Waly”- both very beautiful and appropriate tunes for this hymn – or so I thought! It seemed to have gone down swimmingly and passed without comment, until I finished the final voluntary, and turned round to see a deputation of two gentlemen wishing to speak to me.

I quickly realised that Mr Allin-Tweed, the first gentlemen, was not there to enquire after my well-being or to share any Sunday-morning pleasantries.

“YOUNG MAN…” he exclaimed as he drew himself to his imposing full height, (I soon realised this was not going to be a pleasant moment). “HOW DARE YOU change the tune to ‘When I survey’. Whose prepostrous idea was that?….Yours, I guess?..That hymn MUST always have the old tune…”

Then, amidst much finger-pointing and angry gesticulations he gave me several reasons why I had goofed big-time, not understanding traditions, selling-out to ‘new-fangled ideas’…etc

I gave up attempting any verbal response other than the occasional “but..”, and all eye contact with my assailant ceased – I resorted to humbly looking at my dirty scuffed organ shoes and listened to proclamations of how I would probably never work again in a church, and after that, would suffer in eternity for such a sin.

When I bravely did catch his eye again, he had a look in it that would have not looked out of place on “Crimewatch”, and so I was mentally preparing my acceptance speech for my inevitable P45. Without formalities, he marched off leaving me to contemplate a possible career change.

UNTIL…. Gentleman no 2 came over, (who had been clearly out of ear-shot of the last barrage). I steeled myself for a losing battle, but NO – he clasped both of my hands in his, and passionately exclaimed with tear-stained-eyes:

“Adrian – thank you SO MUCH for that inspired tune to ‘When I survey’…. OH! It made me consider the meaning of the words like I never have before, and opened up the true essence of the message – HOW REFRESHING! Beautiful – truly beautiful!”

A very valuable lesson to learn – how to exasperate and exhilerate at the same time!

2 Responses to The Dangerous Pit Of Hymn Selection

  1. Lorraine Ure 2016/07/14 at 10:29 #

    Love it, Paul! Never can please everyone on anything. Just look at Brexit!

  2. Adrian Marple 2016/09/15 at 22:23 #

    Hope my experiences of ‘Ancient versus Modern’ has helped more can Christians to realise that it actually does not matter what you sing. (Put simply): it’s the way you do it! God’s Blessings from Bury St Edmunds to you all in Menorca!
    Adrian Marple

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