Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2008, 13th July 2008
Our look at hymn writers with names beginning with ‘A’ started in June with Sarah Adams, writer of ‘Nearer, my God, to thee’ and Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander, writer of “There is a green hill far away”. Sarah Adams might have hoped that her hymn would stand the test of time, she was very much a literary writer, but probably wouldn’t have imagined that her hymn would still be sung 160 years after her death. Mrs Alexander wrote at a similar time as Sarah Adams, but wrote her hymns for children and would not have seriously expected that a century and a half on, we would still be singing her words.
The writer of our hymn this morning, Patrick Appleford, probably did not expect his hymn still to be sung half a century after he wrote it as contemporary piece for the 1950s.
Patrick Appleford, was born in 1925 and felt called to ordination when a student at Trinity College, Cambridge. After leaving Cambridge, he prepared for ordination at Chichester Theological College and was ordained for the parish of All Saints, Poplar in the east end of London, where he served as a curate from 1952 until 1958. Ministry in the London docklands at a time of great social change demanded imagination and enterprise and Patrick Appleford became known for writing pantomimes for the youth club as well as his first hymns.
In collaboration with Geoffrey Beaumont, who had been college chaplain during his days at Cambridge, Appleford founded the Twentieth Century Church Light Music Group. Their emphasis was on “light music”, they wanted to write hymns that slipped easily into the culture of the 1950s. There was no expectation that these hymns would last, that they would take their place amongst the great hymns from previous centuries, rather that they would allow people to worship through words and music that they understood.
Delivering a lecture to the Hymn Society in 1999, JR Watson talked about the need for hymn writers, “to have regard to the contemporary world, not only in its philosophies, but in its daily modes of living”. All of us know that there is nothing that goes out of date as fast as the contemporary—think of a newspaper: today it is the most up to date of publications, tomorrow it is destined for the recycling bin.
JR Watson realises that making hymns very contemporary gives them a very short ‘shelf life’, but the group to which Patrick Appleford belonged were not worried about this. “It is interesting to note” says Watson, “that the composers who gathered round Geoffrey Beaumont to form the Twentieth-Century Church Light Music Group were prepared to accept this, and saw their work as likely to be short-lived from the very beginning”.
The point of the exercise was not to write hymns that lasted, but hymns that communicated. There was a particular desire to communicate with younger people who found alien the traditional music and worship of the church.
Patrick Appleford was able not only to communicate with the congregations of the time, but also to give us a hymn that has far exceeded its anticipated shelf life. The BBC Songs of Praise website notes how some contemporary hymns have very quickly become traditional hymns, ” Songs once regarded as outrageous in musical style or language are now honoured amongst the royalty of mainstream ‘traditional’ hymn books. Sydney Carter’s 1960s song Lord of the Dance once raised hackles. But it has been in several major hymn books for over 20 years. Patrick Appleford’s slipstream hymn to Cliff Richard’s hit song Living Doll, ‘Living Lord’ now sits alongside newcomers from the 1980s like Graham Kendrick’s The Servant King in the stiff-bound volumes of the mainstream churches”.
A clerical career filled with variety and challenge followed Patrick Appleford’s days in the East End. He lectured in a theological college; worked for a missionary society; became Dean of Lusaka Cathedral in Zambia; and was director of education in the Church of England diocese of Chelmsford; all through which time he carried on writing words and music for worship. Fifty years after Twentieth-Century Church Light Music Group was formed, Patrick Appleford is still working hard.
“Living Lord”, for which Appleford wrote the words and the music is a hymn for a Holy Communion service intended to express the meaning of Holy Communion in words understood by a generation of people who were distant from the church, set to a tune that was easier sung than many of the more traditional pieces of church music.
Critics at the time complained that the music written by Appleford, Beaumont and others was more like the music of the 1930s than the music of the 1950s in which they were living; but, then, it’s easy to be a critic when you are offering no alternative yourself.
The hymn speaks of Christ’s oneness with us through becoming the son of Mary and his oneness with us through the Holy Spirit, which allows the inpouring of his love and goodness. It calls on him, as Son of God, to be our teacher and to break into our lives as we share the bread and wine in his memory.
The object of Patrick Appleford and those with whom he worked – to be understood – is a lesson that the church needs to relearn. We have become so preoccupied with our own affairs that we have forgotten that our first task is to simply tell people about Jesus in a way that they understand.
Anglicans particularly need to relearn that the church is not about divisions and disagreements; it is not about ways of doing things; it is not about maintaining our own churchmanship or our own traditions; the church is not about those things, the church is about the Living Lord.