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Why the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and I no longer sing from the same hymn sheet: Veteran chorister Victor Gordon

Veteran chorister Victor Gordon never approved of the new, modernised Presbyterian Hymnary. Then on Remembrance Sunday, something snapped...

Published 17/11/2016

A modern choir in full voice
A modern choir in full voice
Sergeant William Gordon, who perished at the Somme, with wife Elizabeth and children George (5), Mary (3) and Hannah (1)

It struck me on Sunday morning (Armistice Sunday) as I stood in the church choir stalls. The 'augmented' words of the classical remembrance hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save, flashed up on the giant screen.

I complained with a behind-the-hand whisper to contralto Rosemary: "I'm not singing these lyrics anymore - they've botched up the words of nearly every hymn in the book." Contralto Rosemary agreed.

The scene was Armagh Road Presbyterian Church in Portadown, where I've sung tenor in the choir for 60 years. It was a eureka moment - like a harassed motorist in the centre of Belfast, marooned in a traffic jam, with empty bus lanes, left and right.

The words were changed by the authors of the latest Presbyterian hymnal. You can't improve on the original. I include verses 1 and 3 of the old and the new Eternal Father.

Old - 1 Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm doth bind the restless wave, Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep, Its own appointed limits keep: O hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea.

3 O Holy Spirit, who didst brood, Upon the waters dark and rude, And bid their angry tumult cease, And give for wild confusion, peace: O hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea.

New - 1 Eternal Father, strong to save, Whose arm restrains the restless wave, Who told the mighty oceans deep, Its own appointed bounds to keep: We cry, O God of Majesty, for those in peril on the sea.

3 Creator Spirit by whose breath, Were fashioned sea and sky and earth, Who made the stormy chaos cease, And gave us light and life and peace: We cry, O Spirit strong and free, For those in peril on the sea.

The original words (by William Whiting) and tune Melita (by John Bacchus Dykes) and tune resonate from the 19th century, and I believe the new words are a pale shadow.

About 10 years ago, some budding Wordsworth was given carte blanche by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI) to change the words of almost every hymn in the Church Hymnary (Third Edition).

Biblical words such as 'Thee', 'Thou', 'Thine', 'Hath', 'Doth' and 'Yea' were scrubbed, which meant that most hymns were virtually rewritten, to rhyme with colourless substitutes such as 'You', 'Yours', 'Do', 'Has' and 'Yes'.

Most references to 'Men', 'Brothers' and all things masculine were also erased - quite a contradiction in the PCI, where male ministers can bar female clerics from their pulpits, a sop to the band of dog-collared brothers who oppose the ordination of women.

I felt the word changes profoundly on Sunday. My grandfather, Sergeant William Gordon, of the 9th Royal Irish Fusiliers, sang tenor in the same choir at the beginning of the 20th century, before he went off to the First World War and perished on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. He left three children - my dad, George (then five), aunties Mary (three) and Hannah (one) and granny Elizabeth.

The siblings were all super singers and kept up William's choral traditions at Armagh Road - George a sublime tenor, Mary a true contralto and Hannah a high soprano.

His brother Bob, a deep bass, survived the war.

The memories were refreshed recently with the remaining sibling Hannah's death coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War.

Her ashes were brought back to her beloved Portadown from her adopted city of York. Her memorial service (complete with choir) was held in the church the very day after it had been my honour to pay tribute to Sergeant William Gordon. The church held a First World War night. All seven of his grandchildren (and their offspring) were there.

None of the Gordon choristers would have appreciated the changes to the original words of the hymns. After all, who would try to rewrite Shakespeare? Earlier on Sunday, I'd heard the 'proper' words of Eternal Father from the Whitehall Cenotaph on BBC television. So, I ignored the big screen and let rip with the traditional words. Choir members and many in the pews smiled knowingly. The changes are a real hobby horse of mine.

The hymn Rise up O men of God is now Rise up O Church of God; Courage Brother do not stumble is Courage Friend, and do not stumble; O Thou who camest from above is O Lord who came from realms above; and my favourite hymn, Angel Voices Ever Singing, has been so convoluted that I can't bring myself to repeat the words.

Even the hacks of the PCI admitted they had botched up Thine be the Glory and Great is Thy Faithfulness and included the original words of both hymns with their own rather languid substitutes.

I posted some of my feelings on Facebook at the weekend and was encouraged that other churchgoers feel the same way.

Ruth, a devout Methodist and an aficionado of the great Wesley hymns, replied: "The same has happened to us. So many beautiful words have been lost. Read Daphne Du Maurier and revive all that lovely language."

Margaret (Church of Ireland) commented: "No matter how I try, I still find myself saying prayers with the words I grew up with."

And a hard-bitten journalist colleague posted (with a side-swipe at praise groups): "I'd like a ban placed on turning the great hymns into pop music, such as playing Immortal, Invisible to the beat of drum-kit."

My firm Presbyterian favourite hymn, though, is O Love that wilt not let me go (Tune: St Margaret). Try as they might, the aspiring Wordsworths couldn't work their 'poetry' on that one, which pleases me greatly.

It was - according to family lore - the number one of Sergeant William Gordon:

O Love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,

I yield my flickering torch to thee;

My heart restores its borrowed ray,

That in thy sunshine's blaze its day

May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to thee;

I trace the rainbow through the rain,

And feel the promise is not vain,

That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from thee;

I lay in dust life's glory dead,

And from the ground there blossoms red

Life that shall endless be.

No further words are necessary ...

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