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Lighten our darkness ...

The spate of remarks in the press, and elsewhere, about the dark evenings into which we have just fallen through our penchant for Greenwich Mean Time, perhaps does reflect a conservative streak in the British temperament rather than any consideration that lighter winter evenings could give us more time for recreation or whatever, as has been suggested. To this writer, Charles Wesley's hymn, Christ whose glory fills the skies, which has the lines:

Dark and cheerless is the morn,
Unaccompanied by Thee.

suggests another mode of sensitivity which undoubtedly in the darkness (without street lighting) made the 18th century winter morning even more of a hazard for the farm labourers or the factory worker in the new cities stumbling to work in the (very) early morning.

It was the Reformation that sparked off hymn singing for the laity beginning with metrical psalms quite early on in the 16th century. Choirs had previously held the 'stage' with Gregorian plainsong wherever there was a church that had the voices and the means. But Erasmus, in the introduction to his new Greek Testament, wrote that he would that the words of scripture should be translated, for the ploughboy to sing them to himself as he follows the plow, the weaver to hum them to the tune of his shuttle, the traveler to beguile with them the dullness of his journey.

Despite the great changes in the vernacular worship of the early reformation there would still have been quite a 'clerical' feel to the services, as has been said, 'new presbyter is old priest writ large.' But then, in this country, it was John Wesley's tremendously 'successful' ministry which sparked off the hugely attractive hymns of Charles in which the New Testament was mirrored in accessible verse. We haven't looked back since!

Today it is the tunes, some of them really quite splendid, which attract the worshipper. Organists and choirs love them! But of course it is the words that were intended to be more important and when you look at some of them today it is plain that they are not just out of date, but quite misleading for an understanding of Christian faith and life. Coming from a Cistercian, monastic worship, where there was one hymn per Office, it is quite fascinating to experience again both the attraction of the melodies and the problems of the words! But let the last word be with Charles Wesley:

Fill me, radiancy divine,
Scatter all my unbelief;
More and more thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day.

© Aelred Arnesen

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