The power of hymns to change the world

The gap is widening in the world between the rich and the poor

O God, our help in ages past

Our hope for years to come

Our shelter from the stormy blast,

And our eternal home


These words purport to have a lineage of 2,500-3,000 years, originating from a prayer and lament of Moses in the book of Psalms (Ps 90), and transmuted through the genius of Isaac Watts (1674-1748) to a proclamation of a larger hope and note of sure protection.

This hymn has functioned as a virtual second national anthem in commonwealth countries, used for civic occasions, and evoking powerful memories ranging from school assemblies, poppies and cenotaphs, to services held in the face of aerial bombings in a war-torn city.

Extremely low on the news horizon this week was a notable anniversary for a volume that includes Watts’ paraphrase, and one of the unlikely best sellers of all time:  the publishers of Hymns Ancient and Modern claim the sale of 150 million copies over as many years, cherished in the hearts of worshippers around the world.

Perhaps one of the more colourful side stories to the anniversary event may in fact turn out to be the real substance of the event.

The celebration hymn-sing was moved from its original location at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London across the water to Southwark Cathedral due to the closure of St. Paul’s.

For the first time since the Second World War, St. Paul’s closed its doors, ostensibly on grounds of public health and safety, in the light of the occupation of its grounds by protesters in the Occupy movement.

This prompted the resignation of the Chancellor of St. Paul’s, the Rev. Dr. Giles Fraser. Fraser was concerned that the cathedral had crossed the line from its natural position in solidarity with the poor, and was cosying up to the City of London in its bid to remove the protestors by legal action and physical force.

There is a widening gap between the top end of the now seven billion of us on this planet and the 20 per cent at the bottom of that number who will go to sleep tonight hungry, thirsty, or inadequately sheltered. Perhaps it is fitting that the preacher at the 150th celebration, Tim Dudley-Smith, wrote a new hymn for the occasion with the timely title “How shall we sing the Lord’s song when justice stands denied?”

When we look at the grandeur of our tradition, with impressive cathedral buildings, a 400-year tradition of the King James Version of the Bible and 150 years of Hymns Ancient and Modern, it is too easy to lose sight of the fact that the Bible was written from the perspective and experience of the oppressed most of the time — the minorities and the losers, rather than the establishment.

The Canadian impulse to regulate banking activities in the past may have served us well, but it does not free us from the weaknesses of unregulated activity in financial sectors around the world, and we need to hear those voices of protest and respond at the highest international levels to the questions they are raising.

And as long as there is injustice swirling around us, poetry and melody will join hands in words of faith, hope, and love.

Don’t underestimate the power of hymns to bring change to birth in the world!





The Rev. Andrew Twiddy is the Rector (pastor) of St. Anne & St. Edmund’s Anglican Church, Parksville.  Questions or comments?, or 594-1549.