A few hours in Timothy Dudley-Smith’s company, through the medium of his recent A Functional Art: Reflections of a Hymn Writer, is extremely well spent. Now in his 90s, it is wonderful to find that his acuity, humanity and insight are all intact. He writes with concision and humour, bearing the weight of a lifetime’s appreciation of prose and poetry lightly and accessibly. So time in this most personal of books (it is subtitled ‘reflections of a hymn writer’ after all) is valuable for its own sake for any who value the power and beauty of language.

Some may bemoan the state of hymnody today – and in the age of worship songs and albums, even the word ‘hymnody’ seems rather quaint and eccentric. But for all the doomsayers and countless poor examples, Dudley-Smith is optimistic about the future of the art. There will always be the need (in the words of Erik Routley) for “songs for unmusical people to sing together” with the purpose of “codifying doctrine, unifying the body, and glorifying God.” Dudley-Smith amends the order in his rephrasing to “praising God, confirming faith, and uniting us in fellowship.” (p3) “What we are singing is clearly important; we need hymns of quality, orthodoxy, and substance.” (p37)

He is neither prejudiced in his treatment of contemporary songs, fully recognising their cultural relevance; nor is he afraid to hold them to higher standards. Of course, some will think he is too dismissive, but I have to say that it’s hard to object when he exposes the superficial, simplistic, banal, or even absurd. He is not alone in expressing concern at the slide from participation into performance, and even celebrity culture, in many modern church contexts.

image c/o RSCM

As one would expect in someone with decades of poetic experience, Dudley-Smith has his heroes. It is no surprise to find Charles Wesley at the top of his tree, followed closely by other divines like Isaac Watts, William Cowper and John Newton. More unexpected perhaps is the importance for him of the angularity of Philip Larkin, the wonder of Robert Frost or the dramatic genius of Stephen Sondheim, to name but three of many influences. He has sat at their feet, distilling what made them so great and so significant for his own development. It is inspiring to be able to sit at his feet in turn.

I particularly appreciated the section on rhyme, for example, as one who occasionally puts pen to paper to write very derivative verse and yet assiduously avoids using it. It just seems too hard to avoid being predictable or cringey. Too many so-called worship songs have the rhyming quality of a badly punning dad joke. Instead, “in Sondheim’s view a perfect rhyme ‘snaps the word, and with it the thought, vigorously into place, rendering it easily intelligible; a near rhyme blurs it.” (p111) I like Dudley-Smith’s gardening analogy here:

Just as a word can be defined as a flower in the wrong place, so it is possible to have unwanted rhymes, where a word that sense demands rhymes with another in a way that is unintended, jars on the ear, or spoils the symmetry of construction. Sometimes, indeed, a possible rhyme is rejected by the writer in order to underline what he or she is saying. (p112)

This book obviously does not offer an anthology of Dudley-Smith’s many published hymns – these are available elsewhere. But it is interspersed with worked examples of his art. Thus like any effective mentor, he inspires us with the greats, explains his inner working, and illustrates from his own output. It has certainly provoked me to be more intentional about trying to write hymns, though it remains to be seen whether or not it will come to much. But I am very grateful for this book – and hope that it can guide and shape poets in service of the body for many years to come.

At one point, Dudley-Smith notes that the crucial question is not “do you have a voice?” but “do you have a song?” (p67) Well thanks to this particular bishop, our generation and those to come, really do have some more great songs to sing.

[review originally written for Churchman magazine]


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