Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 1st June 2011
Timothy Dudley-Smith will be 85 on Saint Stephen’s Day. He would have been in his late 60s when I met him in the foyer of a Belfast hotel one Saturday morning. He was immaculately turned out in his purple bishop’s shirt and smart grey suit. He was speaking at a conference on hymns and church music later that day and had agreed to an interview on his favourite subject of hymn writing.
He was warm and gracious and smiling and altogether different from what I would have been in the circumstances. There had been a fire alarm in his hotel in the early hours of the morning and he had found himself standing in the Lisburn Road in his dressing gown and pyjamas in the middle of the night.
Hymns are a passion for Timothy Dudley-Smith. He would not have matched the volume of writing of Fanny Crosby or Charles Wesley, but he has published 300, which appear in a collected edition of his work called House of Praise. There are nineteen in our current Church of Ireland hymnbook.
I never kept the interview I did with him, and it being published back in 1994, there is no chance of finding it online: the archive of the Church of Ireland Gazette does not extend further back than 2005. So I’m relying on an interview with Evangelicals Now. When he was asked about the importance of hymns, he responded “I think they are extremely important. Many people learn more theology from hymns than from anywhere else. They stay in the memory. . . . I think, for many people, the hymn offers the chance to express emotions which are in their hearts, but which they would find difficulty in articulating themselves. Our best hymns do that.”
Finding words to express emotions became important to him when he was young. “My father ran a small school in Derbyshire. I was a pupil there and very happy. We were brought up to go to church and know Bible stories. But he died when I was eleven. This really precipitated a sense of God.
He was ill for some time. But I vividly remember my mother telling me that he was not going to get better. We went away towards the end of his illness, and stayed with some family friends. The father there had the difficult job of telling me that my father had died.
Of course, I had prayed when I knew he was ill and you might think that my prayers not altering the situation would have put me off. But it didn’t. It introduced me to my need of a heavenly Father”.
Those early years brought not only a sense of God who was present in feeling and emotion as well as in words, but also a sense that this God was calling him to ordination.
“The extraordinary thing was that soon after my father’s death someone at a family tea party said to me (as they did in those days), ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ I found myself replying, ‘I’m going to be a parson.’ It just came out. It was the first I knew of it myself!
So I went to Tonbridge School as an ordinand. The Bible was really introduced to me through Scripture Union notes while at school. Perhaps it was in those years that I truly committed my life to Christ.
I went on to Pembroke College, Cambridge. I was tempted to go into schoolmastering and did a Certificate of Education there as a fourth year. I think my bishop could see me as a school chaplain. I remember opening my first education text book and reading, ‘A philosophy of education implies a philosophy of life.’ That year helped me to clarify my thinking. I went on to Ridley Hall and ordination”.
Timothy Dudley-Smith’s career as a hymn writer was most unlikely. He used to write poetry, but would never have attempted hymns. “After I became a Christian I longed to write hymns, but didn’t think I ever would because I am totally unmusical . . . I can’t sing in tune and often change key without knowing it! I think it was her husband who said of the hymn writer Mrs. Alexander, ‘Music was to her measure, not melody.’ That is how it is with me”.
His first hymn was written as a poem. In the early 1960s when the New English Bible was published, he wrote a metrical version of the Magnificat based on the words as they appeared in that translation. The words were included in the hymn book for a church conference. The tune to which his poem had been set was described by Dudley-Smith as “unsingable”, but the alternative tune suggested was “Woodlands”, and so began the life of our hymn “Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord”
Timothy Dudley Smith’s background as a writer rather than musician is what gives his hymns so much strength. I remember him saying in Belfast that “a good tune carries bad words clean past the critical faculty”.
There are hymns that are so badly written, that he says they make him cringe, “What makes me cringe is usually lack of technique. I cringe when people rhyme ‘sin’ with ‘king.’ I cringe at undue repetition and banal phraseology. I cringe also when hymns contain doctrinal ideas with which I do not agree.”
Timothy Dudley-Smith’s inspiration is the work of Charles Wesley, (who happens to be the only writer with more hymns in the hymnbook than Dudley-Smith himself!). There is a Biblical quality about Dudley-Smith’s work that I think the Wesleys would have admired.
Timothy Dudley-Smith never wastes words, every word counts in his writing. He is right, sometimes we can be so carried along by the very strong tunes to which his words are set, that we find that a good tune can carry good words clean past the critical faculty: we would sing the phone book if it fitted a tune that we knew well.
Three of Dudley-Smith’s hymns in our hymnbook have tunes by Michael Baughen, like Timothy Dudley-Smith, a Church of England bishop from the evangelical tradition. Michael Baughen was Rector of All Souls’, Langham Place in London and then Bishop of Chester. Baughen also writes hymns himself as well as books on Christian living and biblical commentaries. Perhaps it is when words and music blend together seamlessly that we get the best of hymns and the collaboration of Timothy Dudley-Smith with Michael Baughen creates that seamlessnes.
Timothy Dudley-Smith says his hymns depend upon perspiration as well as inspiration. ”Until retirement I did most hymn writing on holiday in Cornwall. Through the year I would note themes and first lines in a notebook. In August I would set myself to write each morning. I would take my wife a tray of breakfast and the children would amuse themselves and I would try to write from 8.30 until 11.00 am, when we went to the beach. I find you have to be prepared for two lines from a couple of hours’ work, and on subsequent review to scrap them!”
Perhaps his hymns cost him a great deal of sweat, (I’m not sure what reaction there would be in our family if I said I was going to write until 11 am on every morning on holiday!), but they are also written with a Spirit-filled inspiration.
Timothy Dudley-Smith challenges us to think about what it is that we sing. How often do we give thought to the words of our worship? If we don’t think about the words, how seriously are we taking God?