A Hundred Years On: The View from Primrose Hill

by Robert Atwell

It always comes as a surprise to realize that when The English Hymnal – now such an established and conventional part of Anglican parochial and cathedral worship – was first published on Ascension Day 1906, it did not meet with universal enthusiasm. Musicians may have been warm in their approval of the achievement of its Musical Editor, Ralph Vaughan Williams, but the ecclesiastical Establishment gave the new hymnal a decidedly frosty reception. A phalanx of bishops let their hostility be known in the press, and foremost among them was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, who went so far as to express the strong wish that the hymnal should not be adopted in any parish in his diocese.

The focus of their disapproval was the high profile The English Hymnal gave to the commemoration of the saints, and specifically to their invocation in prayer. The bone of contention was Canon Stuckey Coles’ Marian hymn, ‘Ye who own the faith of Jesus’ with its outrageous couplet, ‘For the faithful gone before us, may the holy Virgin pray’. As Percy Dearmer, its Literary Editor, protested, ‘Does the Bishop [of Bristol] think we should sing, “May the holy Virgin not pray”?’ At St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, where Dearmer was Vicar, where a number of the editorial meetings were held, congregations have sung the hymn in procession on their Patronal Festival for a hundred years now without noticeable ill affects or loss of faith; and it is difficult at this distance to conceive how hymnody could have raised the theological temperature of the Church of England if not exactly to white heat, then certainly way beyond its comfort-zone. But then again, as T. S. Eliot lamented as long ago as 1934 in Choruses from ‘The Rock’:

Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And of moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.

If critical attention in 1906 focused on the hymns for the commemoration of saints, other more radical (or at any rate unconventional) theological emphases seem to have passed most people by. Beneath its handsome but unconventional green covers, the book was uncompromising in its liturgical structure and presentation. It presumed a sacramental view of the world and promoted the Catholic ideal of objectivity in worship as the normative expression of all Anglican public worship, giving centre stage to the celebration of the Eucharist. This was in sharp contradistinction to the emphasis in Evangelical circles upon the centrality of the sermon, which many High Churchmen perceived as being vulnerable to an unhealthy dependence on the personality of the preacher.

The strong liturgical nature of the book seems unremarkable today, but at the time it was innovative. Besides the excellence of its music, what makes the hymnbook noteworthy, and to a degree controversial from the perspective of historical theology, is what the editors chose to include and exclude. Positively, they gathered an extraordinary wide range of material from the whole gamut of the Christian tradition, making amongst other things the riches of ancient and medieval hymnody available to a wider public. But they also included great hymns from English literature, some of them like John Bunyan’s, ‘He who would valiant be’ (though shorn of its ‘hobgoblins and foul fiends’) making its first appearance in a church hymnal. Negatively, the editors were determined to exclude the worst excesses of Victorian sentimentality, what Martin Shaw called ‘slushiness’. They were concerned to challenge the Evangelical preoccupation with personal salvation to the exclusion of all else.

In combination with fine new tunes, such as Vaughan Williams’ wonderful melody Sine nomine for ‘For all the Saints’, now universally adopted, this policy succeeded in raising the whole standard of English hymnody. The book represented a conscious attempt not merely to reflect the spirit of the new century in the worship of the Church, a sort of theological-musical aggiornamento, but to set forth a broader vision of Christian life and society. In the preface to the hymnal, Dearmer claimed that they were not interested in producing a ‘party-book, expressing this or that phase of negation or excess’. Their appeal (they claimed) was to ‘all broad-minded men’. But they were being disingenuous. Instinctively, they knew what has to be discovered afresh in each generation, that there is no renewal in the Church which is not spiritual. In the production of The English Hymnal they were consciously trying to disturb the complacency of the Edwardian Church, and to push it into a more profound engagement with the world. In short, they were trying to set the agenda for the Church of England in their generation.

This seems a lot to claim for a hymnbook. But in a pre-television age, as Donald Gray points out in his introductory essay, ‘hymns and hymn singing was a significant ingredient in the musical repertoire of most people’. In Edwardian England it formed a key part of what we would now call ‘popular culture’. Historians of the early Church regularly coin the Latin tag lex orandi, lex credendi (the rule of prayer and the rule of belief) to highlight the significance of the interface of prayer and belief in the life of the Christian Church. If you want to understand what Christians believe, look how they pray and worship. By the same token, how Christians worship and pray will be informed by what they believe about God. There is a pattern of religious osmosis to be observed. To this two-fold cord, one might add a third strand, lex cantandi: what Christians sing also exercises a formative influence. The combination of word and melody is a powerful tool in shaping the spirituality not only of individuals but of an entire community. It fosters a corporate sense of belonging to the pilgrim people of God.

The editors of The English Hymnal grasped this intuitively. But to return to the origins of the project and the theological motives of the hymnal’s editors: what was it that they were rebelling against? What was it they were so concerned to exclude?

From the outset it is clear that Dearmer and his fellow editors were decisive in wanting to outlaw the banal, the sentimental, and all narrowly focused evangelical piety. Dearmer had long been dismissive of Hymns Ancient and Modern in its original edition (1861), and was happy to adopt the new edition at St Mary’s as soon as it was published in 1904. But apart from its maroon covers of which he approved (in contrast to the ‘lamp-black’ or ‘London fog’ colour usual for Bibles and hymnals) the new edition proved to be a big disappointment to him. In the opinion of Martin Shaw (later to be appointed by Dearmer Organist and Choirmaster at St Mary’s) it was a ‘dull compromise, and as such compromises will, it fell flat. It was certainly not the new hymnbook that the new century needed.’ Compromise was not a word in Percy Dearmer’s vocabulary. He had high standards and applied them equally to music, to religious texts, as to the performance of the liturgy itself. To quote Martin Shaw again:

Our musical policy, never put into words but mutually understood and agreed upon, was that the music should be chosen on its own merits. The obvious thing to do, it might be thought; yet I really believe that St Mary’s, Primrose Hill, was the only church in London where, for instance, the popular weak Victorian hymn tune was never heard. The usual argument is – you must give people what they like. Percy said – ‘You must give people what is good and they will come to like it’.

Here we glimpse the driving force and the vision behind the project for a new hymnal, at least as it was being expressed in Primrose Hill. In the new dispensation, sentimental lines like:
Weary of earth, and laden with my sin,
I look at heaven and long to enter in.

or O Paradise, O Paradise, who doth not crave for thee?
were out. The editors did not see the world as negatively or as unredeemable as their Ancient and Modern counterparts; nor was their image of God, in the words of Shaw, ‘a kind of angry policeman waiting to catch us out’. In general, their choice of hymns reflected a belief that the earth is good, that God has put us on it to enjoy it, and to say the least, it is ungrateful to declare that we are weary of it. No attempt was made to pretend before God or to adopt a devotional pose.

In pursuit of these principles, the hymns selected (‘the best hymns in the English language’ or so they claimed) reflected a more generous vision of the Christian life, and a less stern and judgemental image of God. In general the hymns they chose tended to be theologically transcendent. When focussing upon the Incarnation, their language tended to be more ‘Christ-centred’ than ‘Jesus-centred’ as was customary in Evangelical circles. Following Tractarian custom, when the focus was specifically upon the person of Jesus it tended to be in a Eucharistic context. That said, there are notable exceptions such as Horatio Bonar’s hymn, ‘I heard the voice of Jesus say’ (sung to that wonderful folk-tune, Kingsfold); or Charles Wesley’s hymn, ‘Jesu, Lover of my soul’, or indeed, Percy Dearmer’s own hymn, ‘Jesus, good above all other’. But in each case, the theology is rich and strong. There is passion in The English Hymnal, but it is without syrup. So much for what was excluded. But what was included?

The declared intention of the editors that their new hymnal should not be a ‘party-book’ is certainly reflected in its wide array of texts. It was truly catholic, in the sense of being broadly based and international in flavour They selected material which was (dare one say) both ancient and modern. Their wish to be ‘inclusive’, and in the preface they specifically use this term, enabled them to embrace Office Hymns ascribed to St Ambrose, the riches of the American Quaker tradition, seen for example in the inclusion of John Greenleaf Whittier’s hymns, ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ and ‘Immortal love for ever full’, the poetry of Herbert, Donne and Milton, and from the Orthodox Church, the Russian Kontakion for the Dead.

Were there limits to their inclusivity? The answer lies in a series of preparatory meetings which took place in 1903 in London to discuss the parlous state of English hymnody. Besides Dearmer, the group consisted of A. Hanbury-Tracy, D. C. Lathbury, G. R. Woodward, and Athelstan Riley. The majority of these would become the core of the editorial board of the new hymnal, but this was someway off. Early in their discussions, Woodward, a pioneer in the revival of plainsong in the Church of England and a prominent member of the group, resigned on the grounds that he could not tolerate the inclusion of William Blake’s poem, ‘To Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love’ on the grounds that Blake was not a committed Christian. The disagreement brought to the surface underlying ideological tensions. In contrast to Woodward, Dearmer stood for the generous embrace of those whose theological credentials may not have been entirely orthodox, but whose contribution was still valuable in their pursuit of excellence. Ecclesiastical affiliation (or lack of it) was unimportant. In the end, the only valid criterion for assessing the worth of a melody or a text was merit. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when The English Hymnal eventually rolled off the printing presses three years later, contrary to Woodward’s wishes, it included Blake’s hymn with its powerful, though alas, no longer politically correct, final verse:

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, Turk, or Jew;
Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too.

Dearmer was a Christian Socialist, and for him God was to be encountered in all men and women, in the ‘heathen, Turk and Jew’, and closer to home, in the poor and disadvantaged. In parallel with his instinctive desire to celebrate beauty went a passion to eradicate all forms of ugliness in society. Beauty in worship had to go hand-in-hand with ‘mercy, love and pity’ and a commitment to address the causes of poverty. According to his second wife, Nan, Dearmer’s subsequent impatience with ritual was due to the fact that for him it had little value if it was divorced from Christian social teaching. This passion is behind his inclusion of Henry Scott Holland’s hymn, ‘Judge Eternal, throned in splendour’, and G. K. Chesterton’s hymn, ‘O God of earth and altar’. The latter was a late inclusion, having only been published early in 1906 in Commonwealth, a Christian Socialist magazine for which Dearmer also wrote. At the time Chesterton was still a lapsed non-Conformist, sixteen years away from his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

The hand of Dearmer is also evident in the editing of Mrs C. F. Alexander’s hymn, ‘All things bright and beautiful’, made even more popular by its subsequent setting to ‘Royal Oak’, an arrangement by Martin Shaw of an English traditional melody. The original version of the hymn, however, contained the infamous verse:

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate:
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.

This was precisely what Dearmer did not believe. As he pointed out acerbically in his Songs of Praise Discussed, Mrs Alexander ‘must have forgotten Dives, and how Lazarus lay “at his gate”; but then she had been brought up in the atmosphere of a land-agent on an Irish estate.” It was the passivity and inertia at the heart of the British Establishment in the face of huge inequalities in Edwardian society that Dearmer felt called to challenge. One hundred years on from its publication, The English Hymnal in its successive editions continues to enrich the worship of St Mary’s, Primrose Hill. It is still the faithful ‘companion’ of our liturgy, to use a phrase from the preface, albeit these days liturgy drawn from Common Worship rather than from The Book of Common Prayer, which we only retain for Choral Evensong. The parish continues to stand four-square in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England, though not in a partisan way. Its style of worship is unmistakably Anglican, with unfussy ceremonial, good music and sensitive preaching. It has an openness and robustness and a commitment to social engagement which we like to think Percy would have approved of.

The strong liturgical structure of the hymnal continues to invite and encourage a disciplined adherence to the rhythm of the Christian Year as it moves inexorably from creation to judgement, from the birth of Christ to his passion and resurrection. And if one is obedient to this discipline, the hymnal creates a rich and effective musical counterpoint to the Church’s lectionary and reinforces the theological themes being celebrated, enabling a congregation to engage more profoundly with the great religious themes of the Christian story. To give an example, at St Mary’s we still mark the beginning of Lent with the singing of the Litany in procession, and throughout the season there are neither jolly hymns nor organ voluntaries. Musical fasting contrasts starkly with the musical feasting of Easter. As part of this self-imposed discipline, some hymns are sung only once or twice a year in spite of their popularity. ‘My song is love unknown’, for example, is sung only on Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The restricted use of such hymns makes them all the more powerful through their lack of exposure. In the context of the liturgy of the day they become very evocative. Like many parish churches, and indeed as the original editors of the hymnal anticipated, we make no attempt to use all the hymns or liturgical material contained in its successor volume, the New English Hymnal. England has changed hugely and rapidly over the last twenty-five years, and as a result there is already much that feels dated. Some things just no longer work. We use all the responsorial psalms in tandem with singing the Gradual Psalm to plainchant (maintaining our long-standing commitment to plainsong in English) but we find that the introits, sequences and stations of the liturgical section, no longer sit easily with a modern Parish Eucharist.

Happily, the Advent Prose has found a new home in the Advent Carol Service, and the Lent Prose serves as the recessional at the Ash Wednesday Eucharist. Liturgical aficionados will be glad to know that certain ceremonies, doubtless unique to St Mary’s and of Dearmer’s creation, but which are reflected in the hymnal, survive unchanged. We still use the original Lenten array designed by Percy Dearmer, complete with his great Lenten veil suspended before the Rood. The Palm Sunday procession, having begun at the summit of Primrose Hill with the blessing of palms, much to the puzzlement of sundry Japanese tourists, Tai-chi enthusiasts and dog-walkers, eventually enters St Mary’s and stands before the chancel arch. At this point the great Lenten veil is lowered and the so-called ‘Prophetic Anthem’ included in the liturgical section of the hymnal is sung, revealing the Christus Rex figure. It is a good example of how ancient music and ceremonial, words, drama and prayer can still coalesce into an incredibly powerful liturgical moment.

Conrad Noel, sometime assistant priest at St Mary’s, records Dearmer’s like of congregational singing and their frustration at the rigidity of the then organist, Dr Goldsmith. ‘When I said to Goldsmith one day: “I think, at last, the people are beginning to join in that hymn,” he answered: “Oh! Then I’ll change it”.’ Dearmer had pioneered regular congregational practices on Friday evenings as a means to greater lay participation in the liturgy. And it was in the context of such practices that new hymns and tunes were tried out before their inclusion in the hymnal. In the parish records for December 1905, for example, we have a note of the debut of Christina Rossetti’s poem, ‘In the bleak mid-winter’ as a Christmas carol. The editors had specially commissioned Gustav Holst to write a tune for it, which he named ‘Cranham’, the village outside Cheltenham where he was born. It is strange to think how this Christmas carol, now an established part of the English repertoire, along with many other famous hymns began their life on a Friday evening congregational practice in north London.

Such midweek practices are not feasible today. Nevertheless, we maintain a broad, if selective palette of hymns, mindful of the importance of allowing them (contrary to the wishes of Dr Goldsmith) to become familiar to a congregation which is not only constantly changing, but which is nowadays very international and diverse. Learning by rote has gone out of fashion. But there is value as well as virtue in instilling spiritual truths through the gentle but steady drip of the familiar, so that they enter more deeply into minds and memories. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt: it can bring comfort and reassurance. In old age when memories are fragmenting, or in times of crisis or stress, remembrance of a hymn tune can become a moment of grace, conjuring up an association of words and feelings that refreshes us and enables us to pray. One hundred years ago The English Hymnal related to a culture that was English, that was Christian, and although not necessarily Anglican, was still familiar with and valued hymns. This is no longer the case, and it presents a fresh series of challenges to clergy and musicians alike. At St Mary’s, for example, if we are unmistakably Anglican, we are no longer unmistakably English.

Recently at Pentecost we celebrated our own version of the Acts of the Apostles narrative, inviting members of the congregation for whom English was not their first language simultaneously to say the Lord’s Prayer in their mother tongue. Twenty-two different languages emerged, including Icelandic, the African languages Twi and Fante, Greek, Russian and Lithuanian. Such a range of languages and cultures is absent in rural England, but is no longer unusual in our major cities. It is both exhilarating and challenging to minister in such contexts. The editors of The English Hymnal intended their book to be inclusive. The question is how to make that vision a reality for this generation, given the complexity and fragmented nature of British society, and the sheer diversity of the Church in England. It may be an impossible task. Time will tell.

As always, high ideals need to be matched by pastoral realism. What is possible musically in a parish is invariably determined by the quality of its leadership, and the willingness of clergy and musicians to work together. Without patronizing anyone, both have to be more modest than Percy Dearmer in their expectations about what is possible for the average congregation to sustain comfortably. Not least because increasingly (whether one likes it or not) being a regular and committed Anglican often means attending church every other week – certainly not twice on a Sunday plus a hymn and plainsong practice on a Friday night. Being realistic, however, does not mean opting for lowest-common-denominator worship. Nothing is solved by bad music, and the worth of some hymns only emerges the third time round. One can make too much of the need for accessibility. The trouble is, sometimes you only get one chance. It’s a case of getting the balance right. In this as in all things, we are talking about the art of the possible.

In 1906 the editors of The English Hymnal said that it would ‘stand or fall on its merits’. One hundred years on, as this volume of essays has revealed, the reason why it had such an impact on the worship of the Church of England (and beyond) was precisely because of its merits. We need to be loyal to our musical inheritance, but not in a narrow antiquarian way. Dearmer, Vaughan Williams and their fellow editors faced the challenge of their new century with enthusiasm, and we need to find the same energy and vision to do the same for ours. The Church is it not a support-group or a club, but the Body of Christ, a worshipping community witnessing to Christ and to the power of God to change lives. In every generation the Church needs good hymns and good music. ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ,’ wrote St Benedict; and it is the worship of God that must always claim the Church’s first priority. Only worship that is real permits others to be real. Only worship that looks outward to the needs of the world and consciously brings them before God in prayer can have space to welcome fellow pilgrims who may call upon by God by another name. Only worship that goes deep can sustain us in our journey to the gates of heaven. In the words of St Augustine:

How happy will be our shout of ‘Alleluia’ as we enter heaven. How carefree we will be, secure at last from being attacked, where no enemy lurks and where our friends do not die. In heaven praise is offered to God, but here on earth too. Here it is offered by anxious people, there by those who have been freed from anxiety. Here it is offered in hope, in heaven by those who enjoy the reality; here by pilgrims in transit, there by those who have reached their homeland. So my dear friends, let us sing ‘Alleluia’ even though we are not yet in enjoyment of our heavenly rest. In so doing we will sweeten our toil in this life. Let us sing as travellers do on a journey to keep up their spirits and help them keep on walking. Press on from good to better in this life. Sing up, my friends, and above all, keep on walking.

© Robert Atwell

This article was first published in Strengthen for Service: 100 Years of the English Hymnal 1906-2006, edited by Alan Luff, Canterbury Press, Norwich, 2005; © English Hymnal Company Ltd 2005; and is reproduced here with their permission.


Martin Shaw, Up to Now, London, 1929, p.100.
Percy Dearmer, reviewing the new edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern for the Commonwealth in 1904.
Martin Shaw, op. cit., p.101.
Quoted by Nan Dearmer, The Life of Percy Dearmer, London, 1941, p.164. No source given.
Shaw, op. cit., p.100.
Nan Dearmer, op. cit., p.178.
ibid. p.115.
see The Penguin Book of Hymns, ed. Ian Bradley, London, 1990, p.301.
Percy Dearmer, Songs of Praise Discussed: A Handbook to the best-known hymns and to others recently introduced, Oxford, 1933, p.239.
Conrad Noel: An Autobiography, edited with foreword by Sidney Dark, London, 1945, p.80. Augustine, Sermon 256, 1, 3.