Sunday, 20 March 2016

Lord for the Years

If you've has ever wondered where my Twitter profile description of what I do comes from, you're about to find out.

"Teaches and trains, rebukes and inspires" seems to me like a pretty good summary of what a teacher should do, and it is lifted from the second verse of one of my favourite hymns, Lord for the Years.

I am an unapologetic hymn geek. I believe that the (largely) British tradition of hymn singing is one of our finest contributions to world culture, and is often overlooked and even derided because of its association with organised religion, a practice seen by many as stuffy, outdated and irrelevant to the real world. Yet in my view, English hymns have given us some of the finest melodic and lyrical works ever written. It doesn't get much better than Charles Wesley, Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Hubert Parry, to name but three.

It is easy to think of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as some kind of golden age of hymn writing, and indeed many of our finest hymns date from that time. However, some very fine hymns have been written in more recent years, and no, I'm not talking about some of the embarrassing happy-clappy pseudo-rock stuff that some strands of the Christian Church have embraced in a desperate attempt to appeal to a younger generation. That's a big mistake in my view. The Devil, they say, has all the best tunes and when it comes to rock and roll, he sure does - quite rightly and triumphantly so. Let's leave religion out of rock music, and just enjoy the music for what it is. Attempts to sing about God, Jesus, Heaven and all that stuff using the rock idiom are doomed to failure in my view. There are one or two honourable exceptions, but they just prove the rule.

English hymns in the traditional style, with their sturdy, dignified melodies and their often archaic, at times wonderfully incomprehensible words, are I believe  the perfect medium for taking our thoughts to a higher plane. Try hearing, say, Love Divine, all loves excelling sung by a large congregation to the tune Blaenwern and I defy anyone not to be moved. Try quietly listening to the "still small voice of God" as a good choir sings Dear Lord and Father of Mankind and you'll feel that voice talking to you. Or try singing Jerusalem in a crowd if you're English and you'll almost certainly feel good about yourself and your country.

Lord for the Years belongs in the same league: a dignified melody, memorable and singable yet containing some interesting chord progressions, combined with unapologetically orthodox Christian theology expressed in a concise and eloquent manner. It was only written 40 years ago, but sounds like it's been around for a hundred years or more.

It's a hymn I believe I would love anyway, but for me it has a particular appeal because it is the adopted school hymn of the wonderful Kirkham Grammar School, to which I have devoted an entire teaching career.

More than that, I can claim personal responsibility for the fact that it is the School Hymn. I have achieved a lot in my 35 years at the school, but as I approach the end of my career there, I can honestly say that my proudest, and I hope most lasting, legacy to the School is that we have Lord for the Years as our school hymn.

This is how it happened: Back in 1998, I was part of a committee making plans to celebrate the School's 450th anniversary in 1999. Among the ideas being kicked about, the then Headmaster,  very much a traditionalist, suggested that as there was no school hymn, we should perhaps have one. It was suggested that perhaps someone could write one, but for whatever reason, nothing ever came of the idea, and so we were spared the sort of embarrassing doggerel that some schools have been landed with. Now at around the same time, the Director of Music had started using Lord for the Years at our Founders' Day service, having heard it used at a diocesan education service. I was immediately attracted to this hymn, and suggested to the Headmaster and Director of Music that it would fit the bill perfectly as "the school hymn". Nobody had come up with a better idea, and so it came to pass, with no official announcement, that Lord for the Years became the the KGS hymn. Our school year starts and ends with it. It is sung at Speech Day and Founders' Day and other formal events, and has been used at weddings of former pupils. Every year in May, our Sixth Form leavers at their leavers' assembly sing it with gusto in a manner that brings a lump to the throat of even the most hardened, non-believing cynic.

What is it about Lord for the Years? Well, most unusually, both the the melody and the lyrics were written by Bishops, so its Church of England pedigree is impeccable. The melody, composed by former Bishop of Chester Michael Baughen, is quite literally uplifting, ending an octave above where it started, and reaching that conclusion in an interesting and original, yet reassuringly traditional-sounding manner. And the words, by former Bishop of Thetford Timothy Dudley-Smith, says all there is to say about compassionate, caring and grateful Christianity in five four-line verses. Lines like "Spirits oppressed by pleasure wealth and care" and "Loveless in strength and comfortless in pain" speak of the spiritual poverty which afflicts the rich and blinds us to the sufferings of those less fortunate than ourselves, yet in the first verse we are reminded of  the enduring and unconditional power of God's love for us: "Sought us and saved us, pardoned and provided". 

And the last verse contains as good a summary of Christianity as it is possible to give in just nine words: "Self on the cross and Christ upon the Throne".

So there it is. A wonderful piece of writing which has the power to "teach and train, rebuke and inspire" It's what I have tried to do over my teaching career, and what I hope and believe our unpretentious, almost 500-year-old school has done exceptionally well throughout all those years, and will continue to do. We do indeed "bring our thanks today"

Here are the words in full, and if you click on the title, you can hear is sung:-


Lord, for the years your love has kept and guided,
urged and inspired us, cheered us on our way,
sought us and saved us, pardoned and provided:
Lord for the years, we bring our thanks today.

Lord, for that word, the word of life which fires us,
speaks to our hearts and sets our souls ablaze,
teaches and trains, rebukes us and inspires us:
Lord of the word, receive your people's praise.

Lord, for our land in this our generation,
spirits oppressed by pleasure, wealth and care:
for young and old, for commonwealth and nation,
Lord of our land, be pleased to hear our prayer.

Lord, for our world where we disown and doubt him,
loveless in strength, and comfortless in pain,
hungry and helpless, lost indeed without him:
Lord of the world, we pray that Christ may reign.

 Lord for ourselves; in living power remake us-
self on the cross, and Christ upon the throne,
past put behind us, for the future take us:
Lord of our lives, to live for Christ alone