Thursday, 16 July 2009

Praise Him all you little children!

I am not a child, neither do I have children, so in many ways I am completely unqualified to comment on the subject of children's hymns. I certainly don't think that just because I do not like singing or listening to songs about Jesus wanting me for a sunbeam or similar, our brethren of tenderer years should be deprived of them if they find them an enjoyable and edifying means of devotional expression. It is very important to make church fun for children, but I sometimes wonder if, in fact, we are doing them a disservice by serving them up with children's versions of everything. A small child of my acquaintance likes nothing better than singing endless verses of "Glory be to Jesus", indeed his appetite for hymning the virtues of the Precious Blood could scarcely be greater, and although he has certainly been exposed to "If I were a butterfly..." it has not had anything like the same effect on him.

This occured to me again recently while reading "A Late Beginner" Priscilla Napier's beautifully-written memoir of a childhood spent in England and Egypt during and at either end of the Great War. Even in those days there were Sunday School hymns, the musical equivalent of their wholesome, but dull, boiled fish and boiled milk nursery meals, and the young Priscilla is not impressed with either the culinary or the musical attempts to cater for the young. One disappointing week "Bright the vision that delighted" and "Onward Christian Soldiers" are replaced by the far less rousing "Praise Him, Praise Him all ye little children, He is Love, He is Love." This new hymn is only made interesting for her when an equally unimpressed, and rather braver child starts revising the words, showing surreal and splendid powers of invention .

"Serve Him, Serve Him, all ye little soapsuds," Peter carolled. I listened entranced, to see where the flight of his fancy would carry him next. His face was radiant with enjoyment, his feet beat out the rhythm, no fire from Heaven descended to consume him, "Crown Him, Crown Him, all ye little wigwams," Peter sang on. This was too much for me, and I was told sternly to go outside until I could stop laughing."

By contrast, the nine-year old Priscilla finds in the "Te Deum" a glorious expression of her serious, though childish, religious feeling. Indeed, so enchanted is she by the line "To Thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually, continually, CONTINUALLY do cry" that she gets stuck on it, and has to be gently reminded by her mother that they have now got to "Vouchsafe, O Lord..." She explains her preference by saying that, "It was the same idea, only how much less soppily expressed"

Of course I am not trying to suggest that we skip the milk and go straight on to solid food either culinarily, theologically or musically; I am not calling for a ban on children's hymns. However, I think sometimes we can underestimate what children can cope with. I was not exposed to the sort of hymns I enjoy now as a child and therefore cannot say how I would have reacted, but there were many other "grown-up" things, perhaps especially the 1950's comedy of Flanders and Swann which I loved as a five year old although I scarcely understood a word of them. Some of it my parents explained to me, some of it remained mysterious until a lesson at school, or a book gave me a clue as to its meaning. One way and another, they kept me entertained and taught me a number of interesting things. The analogy with religious music is not exact, but we should not be afraid of introducing to children things which contain hard words or hard ideas: they will ask questions, some of it will remain mysterious for a while, but that does not mean that children will not enjoy and benefit from the rousing tunes and poetry of "grown-up" hymns.


  1. (My first visit to this blog!)

    Indeed, and the same may be said for churches - mostly Roman Catholic - who underestimate what ADULTS can understand, and subject congregations to drivel that is musically third-rate, and in its language is completely inane. I just can't bring myself to join in with it.

    The choristers I used to sing with in my cathedral choir last year had no trouble with the Te Deum, the Magnificat, the words of various anthems and the whole NEH, and these were boys aged eight and up.

  2. Very true. I love hymns with a great passion, but I often find that I simply can't be bothered to sing when both tunes and words are completely uninspiring. I am on holiday at the moment and so went to the local RC church this morning and of course it was Mass, which is the really important thing, but I did find myself wondering: Does anyone actually enjoy these hymns, or do people just assume that everyone else likes them and are too polite to say anything?

  3. My eldest child is a chorister and at 11 she finds no joy in overly simplified modern hymns. Interestingly, although she's very keen on pop music she dislikes Christian pop music. My theory is that many modern hymns aren't that good, nearly all Christian pop music is awful and therefore she instinctively recongises what is quality. This makes me sound like a music snob, and I am. However, my youngest child very much engages with the modern children's hymns she sings at school. Her favourite is "Magic Penny"..."love is something if you give it away, you end up having more..." She loves it.

    What bothers me is that we may be in danger of accepting modern hymns/children's hymns as most adult's/children's preference and rejecting a tradition of complex choral music which has been a beautiful mainstay of our worship for years. It's as if what is complex, artistic or beautiful is seen as having little value because, to use a really horrible buzzword, it's "inaccessible". Surely this is underestimating the emotional and spiritual responses of the majority of church goers (including our children)?

  4. I completely agree with you. I certainly don't wish to argue for an exclusive diet of Palestrina and Gibbons for four-year olds and I remember some jolly children's hymns from my primary school which I sang with great gusto. Something is going very wrong, however, when significant numbers of people are leaving church depressed rather than uplifted by the banal music they found there.

  5. Kindly define music !15 August 2010 at 13:12

    "Something is going very wrong, however, when significant numbers of people are leaving church depressed rather than uplifted by the banal music they found there."...

    ...and your source for this is...???