Category Archives: Hymns

The Water Poem

Me, I’m a versifier. Give me a subject, any subject within reason, and I’ll write a bit of verse for you that rhymes, has a definite beat and, after you’ve read it, leaves you with something to ponder on. There are limitations, of course. First, I need to know something about the subject. I need time. I need time to think about it, obviously. Then I need time to start getting something on paper or, in my own case, screen.

I need time to get rid of the lot and start again. And when I have finished it for a second time I need time to show it to someone not involved to see how it strikes them. I then need time to start again.

Sometimes, the request is easily met and flowers are strewn in my path. Sometimes I get a blinder that sends me rushing to my room and my comfort blanket and drawing the curtains.

Once, this did happen. Not the comfort blanket bit but certainly the rushing to a small room – I forget which one. The chap on the phone said actually he not only wanted the poem to be on a specific subject, he had to have it by the following weekend.

The specific subject was water. The chap – just one chap – who wanted it was the Speaker for the Sunday service at a rather well-known church, and his subject was Water. And he wanted it to be in the form of a hymn. He wanted words for singing. For singing by the church congregation and the Choir. And set to some already well-known tune.

I could not swear to it but I daresay I slept fitfully that night. And the next. I bubbled and possibly squeaked and was very hard to get on with for several days. Draft followed draft. But I made it; I not only made it but also received a very nice note of thanks from the Speaker.

Why am I telling you this? Because I am preparing you for one day a little while from now when I shall be able to tell you about a brief given to me for a hymn on a subject so utterly un-hymnlike, so foreign to any church congregation anywhere in any kind of church that you can think of, that you will scarcely believe me.

Watch out.

Charles Wesley: two thoughts

I‘m afraid, for this bit of fun, the reader has to know something about Charles Wesley, the English hymnwriter of the 19th century, and in particular his love for – and his extraordinary skill in using – the English language. In his well-loved hymn, ‘O thou who camest from above’ he uses the word ‘inextinguishable’. At first sight it looks unsingable. Then you find that, with absolutely no effort, you’ve just sung it. Wonderful.

Mr Wesley, of hymnnody, King,
Once did a remarkable thing;
    Is six syllablesful
Yet it's awfully easy to sing.

And, in passing:

Charles Wesley liked to use the pun
   But most of all the metaphor;
And managing the two in one
   I’m sure he felt much better for.


words ©paul wigmore 2013

The Hymn about Frescos

In thirty years of writing hymns I have been asked to write by all kinds of folk – composers, heads of schools, organists, Directors of Music and senior church members – and they have asked variously for a hymn that will become their school’s Assembly hymn, a hymn about their church’s beginnings, a local anniversary, about a person, on the subject of a new series of sermons (and, once, for one particular sermon), but only once have I  been asked to write a hymn about paintings. It happened a few weeks ago

The request came from the Rev Gordon Giles, Vicar of St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, and I’ve never been faced with so many problems. Problems that taught me a lot. At first, it sounds straightforward: these are wall paintings, frescos. The whole of the glorious Chancel roof is covered in paintings, the walls, too. Each is on a subject spoken of in the Bible. And the point of the hymn would be that these paintings have now been thoroughly and professionally cleaned and restored. So what’s the difficulty? Once I began thinking in detail, I soon found out.

A lot of sitting and thinking began. I wanted to avoid any implication in the hymn that the paintings were icons, that the church would be worshipping or addressing them in any way.

I wanted the hymn to make immediate sense to the newcomer. The purpose of the paintings had to be made clear before people could give thanks for them. Explanation can call for long phrases, and long phrases can be boring to sing. And, most worrying of all, just how do you sing about paintings?

Sleep came fitfully that night.

But right at the beginning one hazy thought had lodged itself in this not particularly bright head, and I hung on to it. The thought: these paintings had just been cleaned. One hundred years of soot and dust had been removed. They were now bright and shining. They had been renewed. And we, too, have to be renewed. The paintings were a parable.

So, I reasoned, let’s begin with a statement of intent: We come to this place to remember and meditate. That’s what you do in church.

Next, the idea of looking up and seeing something: And lifting our eyes we can see there a parable – beauty renewed in a shining array. And proceeding swiftly to the nub of the subject: The paintings remind us of God and his way with us.

Now, the paintings themselves and their content could safely become the subject: Prophets and priests on the earth that we share; And there go disciples, apostles and cherubim. . .

But not every detail of the way God came into our affairs could be represented. So a reminder – we use the visible to remind ourselves of the rest: Mary with her child, and Mary, the Magdalene woman as she stoops to look into the empty tomb, the risen Christ breaking bread in the upper room, and so on. So: They help us imagine. . .  etc.

Then can come the thanksgiving for the hard work of those in the distant past who gave their money and their labour in the preparation and realisation of the paintings, unique to the church of St Mary Magdalene, Enfield. Next, the reiteration of the thought that these restored paintings serve as a parable to everyone singing about them. Then, a closing doxology.

With the final draft finished there came the actual singing (croaking, actually) through it, from start to finish, making sure that each word and phrase fitted smoothly into the tune. The tune had been decided upon after consultation with my friend and colleague, John Barnard. He has written the music for most of my hymns (and you have almost certainly sung Michael Saward’s ‘Christ Triumphant’ to John’s tune, Guiting Power). He was his usual helpful self and felt that the traditional tune, Was Lebet , the tune associated with O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, would be the perfect match.

Textual difficulties abounded, but now I’m grateful to The Reverend Gordon Giles for the experience. I hope that the hymn will do its job, that the act of singing about the paintings will lead to a deeper understanding of their role in the life of the church, and of this Enfield church in particular.


We come to this place to remember and meditate,
	Speaking to God as we sing and we pray,
And lifting our eyes, we can see there a parable -
	Beauty renewed in a shining array.

The paintings remind us of God and His way with us,
	Prophets and priests on the earth that we share;
And there go disciples, apostles and cherubim,
	Silently hearing our praise and our prayer.

They help us imagine the Lord and his suffering,
	Mary the Magdalene down by his tomb;
We picture the risen Lord seated among them all
	Breaking the bread in a quiet upper room.

Today we remember the work of those long ago.
	Giving these treasures for us as we praise;
Dear Lord we give thanks for their love and their thoughtfulness,
	Fruit of their faith in the Ancient of Days.

These pictures, once veiled in the wear of a century
	Cleansed and renewed with their beauty revealed!
And thus do our souls  become veiled by our waywardness,
	Till, through God’s power to renew, we are healed.

All glory to God for his goodness and love for us,
	Glory to Christ, our Redeemer and friend,
To God’s Holy Spirit be glory for evermore,
	In every one of us, world without end.

Tune TRAD: Was Lebet 
O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness

Being a Rev

M ost new jobs come with their big surprise – new arrivals find that they’re supposed to know about at least one quite unconnected activity; in the RAF, for example, I was a photographer yet I found myself, a  non-driver, driving everyhing from Jeeps to three-ton Dodge trucks. And I was amused and puzzled to hear a little while ago that a Vicar has to know about granite, and the difference between ‘Blue Pearl’ and ‘Arctic Blue’.

Little more than a handful of years ago I would cheerfully and confidently have said that the job of a Church of England vicar is to stand up in a pulpit every Sunday and address the people sitting in front of him on the teachings of Jesus Christ. And of course to conduct all weddings, funerals and christenings. And to be prepared to make the occasional visit to those in need of personal counsel. I admired the vicar of our own church for the diligent and approachable way in which he did those things.

But then the truth was revealed. A son of ours became one.

Every week we see a copy of his ‘to do’ diary, covering every activity in the two parishes for which he is Vicar. (Or, in his own case, Rector – fundamentally the same thing but with certain fine historical distinctions.)

He has one day off in a week. In the mornings, afternoons or evenings of the six working days he will be either leading or supervising events in both parishes. These will include the various informal church groups, those for the very young, the teenagers, the parents and the elderly people. Intertwined with all these there are organisational meetings for the discussion and confirming of church matters, generally and specifically.

People come to him – parents, single people, young couples, each one asking for advice or help in matters of all kinds.

And, yes, the services of wedding, funeral and christening, all of them being given the personal touch. Then come the Sunday services with the preparation of sermons, of talks for the children (these sometimes illustrated with his remarkably astute puppet called Bonzo who argues the toss with him – very popular) and the hymns and songs.

But in his own family he has the sort of practical support that makes all the difference: a wife who looks after correspondence and shares leadership in the events, and two brilliant children who willingly, during some of their free time, take on any jobs that come their way.

So what about Blue Pearl and Arctic Blue? They are two popular types of granite used for headstones. Headstones in churchyards are required to complement the surroundings, so Blue Pearl might be appropriate in one but Arctic Blue in another. And it’s the Vicar who has to know which one is which when an application lands on his desk. He will be held responsible for mistakes.

All of what I’ve written is about just one Rev’s activities. There may be other, different examples. I suppose you could have one who doesn’t bother about all these things but I doubt if that one would last for long. Unless there was a bullying young puppet to crack the whip, of course.

Christmas Donkeys

I’ve always liked donkeys. It probably began when my favourite aunt paid for me to ride on one on Ramsgate Sands back in the 1930s. So, when I was writing new Christmas carols a few years ago, donkeys presented themselves before me and insisted that I should write something about them. ‘After all’, they said, ‘we’re part of the Christmas story’.

I fell to imagining three of them in their retirement, standing happily together in a field somewhere, chatting about their memories. The oldest one said he remembered carrying a young woman up to Bethlehem. She was about to have a baby.

The second one nodded slowly. He said yes, he remembered carrying that baby when he’d grown to a 12-year-old boy. His name was Jesus. And the third, the youngest, said he could remember carrying that same boy Jesus after he’d grown to a man. Lots of crowds in Jerusalem, he said, all cheering him.

I wrote the carol especially for children’s choirs, with composer John Barnard setting the words to music. Listen to it now, while you read. NOTE:  The version below is the present one; the singers here had a slightly earlier version – a couple of words were changed but the meaning is the same.

[audio:|titles=Three Donkeys]
I dreamed that I saw three donkeys

I dreamed that I saw three donkeys 
	all resting by Galilee 
and telling me tales of Jesus Christ 
	who was born on the earth for me. 

‘I carried a girl called Mary 
	and heavy with child was she; 
I carried her up to Bethlehem 
	that a-mothering she could be.’

‘I carried the son of Mary, 
	he rode like a prince, did he;
we travelled the streets of Nazareth 
	and a carpenter’s boy was he.’

‘I carried the Lord of Mary 
	to shouts of a jubilee; 
I carried him to Jerusalem, 
	for the King of the Jews was he.’ 

I’m glad that I saw three donkeys 
	all resting by Galilee; 
they tell me that I must be like him 
	who was born on the earth for me.

Tom Cunningham