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The English Hymnal

Birthplace of the English Hymnal, St Mary's has a strong claim to have influenced its nature. Like most "high" churches, Hymns Ancient and Modern was used here at the time Percy Dearmer became Vicar, but this book was not particularly satisfactory, and the revised version was purchased in 1904. It soon became apparent that this book was little better than its predecessor, and a group of clergy, amongst whom Dearmer was prominent, formed a committee to consider an entirely new book.

Within two years, the English Hymnal was produced and was an immediate success. Many of the best known hymns in the book were first heard in St Mary's during the compilation period, and a number of tunes were first linked to the words with which they are now associated.

There were a number of reasons for the success of the English Hymnal. Perhaps the most important of these was musical, for the musical editor was Ralph Vaughan Williams, who was insistent that the music had to be of the highest possible standard, and there is no doubt that having an established musician working on the book was a considerable improvement on the arrangements made elsewhere. Vaughan Williams was also responsible for the high number of English folk melodies that found their way into the hymnal, many of which were virtually unknown at the time, but are now firmly established. He also composed a number of melodies himself, of which Sine Nomine, which replaced the Victorian tune to "For All the Saints" is probably the best known.

The book also provided a complete set of Office Hymns for the BCP calendar, and almost without exception, these are set to the traditional Sarum melodies. The words for the Propers for Sundays and Festivals were also provided, and these proved to be very popular at the more Anglo-Catholic end of the market, since no other hymn book has ever made this material available. The arrangement of the book is also uncompromisingly liturgical, with the first section giving hymns ordered to suit the church's year, and there is a lot of supplementary material that gives the appropriate texts and plainsong for days such as Palm Sunday and Good Friday. There is also a large section of processional hymns.

It stood the test of time remarkably well, and apart from a minor revision in 1933, was still used in many churches until the 1980s. In 1986 the New English Hymnal was produced, and this has now supplanted the older book in many places, although it is essentially a conservative revision. Once again the connection with St Mary's is strong, with several former clergy and incumbents involved in the management of the company or revision of the book. Prominent amongst these was George Timms, the seventh vicar, who was chairman of the revision committee. As might be expected, the new book is now used at St Mary's, although items from the older book still make an occasional appearance.

John Hawes

Content last updated on Wednesday, 4th October 2000
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