Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2008, 10th August 2008
On six Sunday mornings this summer, we have had a series of sermons on hymns written by writers whose name begins with the letter “A”. Beginning back in June, we have had “Nearer, my God to thee” by Sarah Adams; “There is a green hill far away” by Cecil Frances Alexander; “Living Lord” by Patrick Appleford; “O dearest Lord” by Father Andrew; and “When all thy mercies” by Joseph Addison. We come to the sixth out of six this morning with “God, whose farm is all creation” by John Arlott.
John Arlott was part of my life from my teenage years. Summer in England would not have been summer without tuning into BBC Radio 3 to listen to the cricket commentary and John Arlott was always there. He covered every test match England played, home and away, between 1946 and 1980. I got a copy of Arlott’s How to Watch Cricket as a wedding present. John Arlott, for me, was a sporting figure and a national institution.
Twenty-five years ago, when I came to Ireland, I remember thinking it odd that in the middle of the 1960 hymn book, which we used until the year 2000, amongst the works of Wesley and Watts and Alexander, and the rest of them, there was a hymn by John Arlott. I mean to say, John Arlott wasn’t even dead, and the first qualification for having your work respected seemed to be that you had lived a long time ago.
In 1990, Arlott published his autobiography Basingstoke Boy, which I got as a Christmas present around that time, it revealed a wonderfully colourful and fascinating character.
Arlott came from a very ordinary background, born in the Hampshire town of Basingstoke in 1914, he grew up in the lodge of the local cemetery where his father was superintendent. Arlott went to the local school and then worked as office boy in the town planning office at 10/- a week before getting a job as diet clerk in the local psychiatric hospital—it was double the money, £1 a week. In 1934 he joined Hampshire Police, being “arrested” for attempting to join the Royal Air Force at the outbreak of the war, unaware that he was in a restricted occupation.
Arlott’s posting in Southampton gave him access to bookshops and libraries and he began to write poems and be published. His works came to the attention of John Betjeman who became his mentor and who led him into joining the BBC in 1945 as the poetry producer of the World Service’s Eastern Service. When leaving the police, Arlott was asked by his superior how much he would earn at the BBC, £720 a year, he admitted—a huge sum of money in those days.
The BBC allowed him to combine his love of poetry with his love of cricket, and his soft Hampshire accent became familiar in millions of homes across Britain for three decades.
But what about his hymn? John Arlott is the most self-effacing of characters, he even writes his autobiography in the third person, calling himself J.A. In his own undemonstrative way, here’s how Arlott describes the writing of “God, whose farm is all creation”
“A female voice one day announced itself from another department of the BBC to ask, ‘Can you write hymns?’
‘I expect so but I have never tried.’
She then went on to explain – not particularly flatteringly – that she had approached ‘some of the best poets’ but that their efforts had not pleased the editors. She said she wanted three hymns; how soon might she have them? On being told, probably the next day, she undoubtedly took umbrage. So much umbrage indeed that J.A. dived into the exercise at home that night: found it harder than he had thought and worked into the small hours. Nevertheless, the hymns were written and duly delivered next day. They were to be on the subjects of Harvest Festival, Rogation and Plough Sunday. Oddly enough, one of them – the Harvest hymn caught on. It was simple enough in all conscience. The chairman of the editorial board – who was a bishop – objected to the Almighty being referred to as ‘you’. The amused author pointed out that he did not wish to sound deliberately archaic, so the matter was resolved when the bishop agreed to such use, provided the initial letter was a capital. Although J.A. sang the lines to himself, in his utterly tuneless voice, as he wrote, he did not dare to make any suggestion as to music. It was the editorial board who decided on the use of the English traditional melody ‘Shipston’, though congregations all over the place seem to use any sort of music that occurs to them.
He never hawked it – not once – but demands for it came in from almost every Christian denomination and from all over the world. It made him several hundred times more per word than anything else he ever wrote. The Americans in particular were generous in their payment. Of the three hymns, that was the one that gave the least trouble – first written, it prompted the idea that hymn-writing was simple; the next two, stretching far into the night, convinced him that it was not . . .
. . . Despite its apparent popularity, nobody ever asked him to write another hymn, which was fortunate because he probably could not have done so. The young man’s confidence soon faded into humility. It is, though, it must be admitted, deeply stirring to hear one’s own words sung, not necessarily by a master choir, but by ordinary people who, unlike the writer, can sing in tune. Less comfortable is the feeling when one of those students, who call themselves ‘hymnologists’, writes with earnest questions about his spiritual experience or something even more elaborate. It remains, nevertheless, seriously and, quite apart from its continuing contribution to income, a rewarding experience, humbly accepted”.
Arlott’s faith is private and personal, yet it is also firm and public. His response to inquiries about his own “spiritual experience” is fascinating, His hymn is not about ourselves, it is about our response to God. The Christian message is not about what we do; it is about what God does for us. Arlott would be uneasy in a world which has become obsessed with the individual and the personal; faith is not about oneself, faith is about God.
On the Channel Island of Alderney, in 1990, Arlott concludes his story, in the final paragraph he says, “He has made money and amassed possessions, though he would happily have exchanged both for the lives he has lost. Now, on this island, he can regret his sins and count his blessings.” A very humble conclusion from a much-loved man.
John Arlott died in 1991. Harvest Hymn lives on.