Thought for the Day 7th August 2020
It is sometimes said that the theological understanding of most congregations comes from hymns, and, more latterly, worship songs. There is something about the poetry and the music which helps us remember. That is not to say that bible readings, prayers or even sermons are not memorable, but the singing enables thoughts and ideas to stay with us. Therefore the work of writers and composers is very important in our Christian worship and understanding.
Today the Church commemorates one of the best-known persons in this field. John Mason Neale was born in 1818 and, whilst an undergraduate at Cambridge, was influenced by the growth in interest at the time in ritual and liturgy, known as the Tractarian movement. He founded the Camden Society which stimulated interest in ecclesiastical art and which played a part in the revival of Catholic ritual in the Church of England. He was ordained and spent most of his short life (he suffered frail health for many years) as warden of an almshouse in East Grinstead. He also founded the Society of St. Margaret, which grew into one of the largest Anglican women’s religious communities.
However, it is as a writer and translator of hymns that Neale is most celebrated. He developed a great interest in ancient and mediaeval worship traditions, particularly the Eastern Orthodox Church, and translated numerous items from Greek and Latin. His desire was to see that these early traditions would not be lost but cherished by the contemporary church, and so it proved to be. The 1875 edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern contains 58 of his translated hymns, and the English Hymnal of 1906 has 63 of his translations and six original hymns by Neale. More than anyone else he made English-speaking congregations aware of the centuries-old tradition of Latin, Greek, Russian and Syrian hymns. Many are still popular today – O come, O Come Emmanuel; Of the Father’s Heart begotten; Good King Wenceslas; All Glory Laud and Honour; Sing, My Tongue, the Glorious Battle; The Day of Resurrection; Jerusalem the Golden; To Thee Before the Close of Day to name but a few.
It is easy to underestimate the importance of music and song in worship. It becomes familiar, almost commonplace, and it is only when they are not part of our services that we miss them. It is good that we can now gather in church on Sundays but a shame that we cannot join together in singing. Nevertheless, that time will come and we can still celebrate the immense achievement of writers like J.M. Neale who have done so much to know God and to bring Christ to us.