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‘People’s prayers’ rise anew in ‘Common Praise’

‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ born again and renamed

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NORWICH, England — "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World" at long last have won places in "Hymns Ancient and Modern," the book that sets the tune for many an English parish church.

Moving beyond standard four-part harmonies, the book also has a Christmas carol with a calypso beat, a

song setting for Isaac Watts' "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," and the Afro-American spiritual, "Steal Away."

But the obvious new thing about this edition of "Hymns Ancient and Modern," which boasts of selling 165 million copies since 1860, is a new name: "Common Praise."

The name is designed to tie in with "Common Worship," the new Church of England liturgies being introduced in December. Gordon Knights, chief executive of the publisher, Canterbury Press, also hopes the name will help overcome resistance of those ministers and organists who regard "Ancient and Modern" as old hat.

This edition, the first wholesale revision since "Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised" in 1950, has been five years in preparation, and 628 hymns were selected from an initial list of 3,000.

"The great question on every hymn was, did it continue to carry a message in a way that modern worshippers would understand?" Knights said in an interview.

The test for all hymns was that they be "serviceable, well-written, singable, clear and unaffected . . . so that they may be sung without fear of embarrassment and with a full heart by people of good will and good sense," the editors say in the preface.

"One of the things we've always said to people — it was first said by Charles Wesley — is that hymns are the people's prayers. And we've pushed the idea that the hymn book should be used as a prayer book," said Allan Wicks, former organist at Canterbury Cathedral and a member of the committee that prepared the new book.

The late arrival of "Silent Night," written in 1818, and "Joy to the World" from the century before that, underlines the conservative nature of "A&M." But each succeeding edition has presented a fresh mix of new and old.

"I think God has given us in our generation what people call a hymn explosion, a whole lot of creative writing, and it is right that it should be offered to the church," said the Right Rev. Timothy Dudley-Smith, author of 18 hymns in the new book.

Dudley-Smith, whose 250 hymns include "Tell Out My Soul" and "Lord for the Years," said he had refused most offers to edit hymnals, but served on the selection committee for the new "A&M" because of "its long history, and the fact that for so many years it was really the archetypal hymn book of the Church of England."

Unlike many denominations, the Church of England has never had an official hymnal.

"Hymns Ancient and Modern" was created by a group of parish clergymen who aimed to create a broadly acceptable volume to supplant the hundreds of hymnals, Psalters and tune books then available.

Though a survey of the more than 13,000 Church of England parishes in 1894 found 269 different hymnals still in use, 70 percent of the churches were using "A&M."

The influence of "A&M" can be traced in many hymnals in the English-speaking world.

It is there in the verses of the Rev. Sir Henry Baker, author of "The King of Love My Shepherd Is," who chaired the committee which produced the first edition; the Rev. John Keble, author of "Blest Are the Pure in Heart," who was an important adviser; and William Whiting, who offered "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" to the editors.

The influence is also in the tunes and arrangements of William Monk, John Bacchus Dykes, F.A. Gore Ouseley, Charles Wood and Charles Steggal.

The mix of old and new hymns has evolved, and three earlier editions remain in print. The oldest is the Standard Edition of 1922, still in demand in the West Indies, Knights said.

Several living writers are included in "Common Praise," but the champions are long dead. Charles Wesley, who died in 1788 and wasn't in the top 10 in the first edition of "A&M," tops the list with 39 hymns in "Common Praise."

Isaac Watts, the author of "Joy to the World" who died in 1748, has 28 hymns in "Common Praise."

John Mason Neale, the prolific author and translator who had 48 hymns in the first "A&M," has 30 in this edition.

"Common Praise" is editorially conservative, rejecting any drastic revision of texts while trying to avoid sexist language in modern hymns.

"What we haven't done is to alter any language before 1880, because we felt that Isaac Watts, Cardinal Newman and George Herbert are period pieces you wouldn't dare to update any more than you would Shakespeare," said committee member Lionel Dakers, former head of the Royal School of Church Music.

Changing language is a sensitive issue for "A&M." Its 1904 edition flopped, in part because of ridicule in the press over its decision to revise "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" by restoring Charles Wesley's original text: "Hark how all the welkin rings."

The welkin did not reappear in subsequent editions.

Music can sometimes bury the words, said committee member Wicks, but a fresh tune may provide a new slant on the meaning. The editors, for instance, included a folk tune alternative for Watts' "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross."

"It's quite interesting to see the effect of a different tune. People say, 'It made me really sit up.'