One of the most wonderful and distinctive features of our worship here at St Bride’s is of course the outstanding quality of our choral music. The whole function of Christian worship is to enable us to commune with the living God in ways that are creative and life-giving. And human beings have long recognised that one of the most powerful and effective ways of doing that is through music.
One of my great heroes, the Elizabethan priest and writer Richard Hooker, who in the late 1500s was Master of the Temple Church just a few hundred yards away from here, wrote powerfully about the extraordinary capacity that music has to affect our emotions, to change our mood, and to bring us into touch with God in his words:
to ‘carryeth as it were into ecstasies, filling the minde with an heavenlie joy and for the time in a maner severing it from the bodie.’
John and Charles Wesley, the heroes of Methodism also recognised the extraordinary power of music – particularly hymnody – in connecting people with God, and in communicating the truths of the faith. We continue to sing many of their most famous hymns today.
And almost 300 years after Hooker, during the Victorian era, another Anglican priest continued this tradition. He was a man with whom I have always felt a great affinity, because for twenty years he lived and worked in my home town, East Grinstead in Sussex. And he is a man who is commemorated in the Church of England’s calendar today, on 7th August. His name was John Mason Neale.
At the top of the High Street in East Grinstead, at the end of a rather spectacular run of mediaeval houses and shops, is an Almshouse called Sackville College. And it was in 1846 that the young, 28 year old clergyman John Mason Neale was appointed its Warden.
Neale had been deeply concerned at the loss of the great tradition of hymnody that had followed the Reformation, when the liturgy moved from Latin into the vernacular. As he pointed out, when the Reformed Churches started using worship in the language of the people, many of the great prayers and collects of the Western Church were translated and so preserved. But alongside that, a rich tradition of hymnody was completely lost. In an essay on the history of English Hymnology, Neale wrote this:
That treasury, into which the saints of every age and country had poured their contributions, delighting, each in his generation, to express their hopes and fears, their joys and sorrows, in language which should be the heritage of their holy Mother to the end of time – those noble hymns, which had solaced anchorites on their mountains, monks in their cells, priests in bearing up against the burden and heat of the day, missionaries in girding themselves for martyrdom – henceforth they became as a sealed book and as a dead letter.
And despite being crippled by ill-health, Neale’s contribution to, and influence upon, Anglican worship, through his hymn writing, and translation of Latin and Greek hymns into English has been extraordinary.
The edition of Hymns Ancient and Modern that was published in 1875 contained 58 hymns that he had translated. The New English Hymnal of 1906 included 63 of his translations and 6 of his original hymns.
We have J.M. Neale to thank for wonderful hymns such as ‘All Glory, Laud and Honour’ (without which Palm Sunday would not be Palm Sunday); ‘O come O come Emmanuel (without which we couldn’t think of marking the season of Advent); and there are so many more: ‘Of the Father’s Heart Begotten’, ‘A great and mighty wonder’; ‘Sing my tongue, the glorious battle’ and many, many more.
Neale really is one of the great unsung heroes of Anglican tradition – and it is right that we should honour his memory tonight at Choral Evensong – in a service that he would have loved.