Aug 23 2008

Why I still abide Abide With Me

Published by under Talks


Why I still abide Abide With Me
A case study as a test case – David Kitchingman

Writing in the Dunedin Sea of Faith Newsletter, June 2008, Don Feist invited comments on his thoughts on the hymn, Abide with me. He made a case for seeing it and others like it “as not merely harmlessly sentimental, but as positively harmful”. The main charge is that it reflects a “view that this life is essentially a preparation for, and therefore less important than, another life beyond death”. Don leans towards the opinion that such views distort Christianity and that they are at odds with the values of Jesus.

I follow and share much of Don’s argument, but I stop short of his conclusion. If it were only an issue of the fate of one old hymn, it would hardly warrant much discussion. But it strikes me as a very useful example of the difficulty in deciding on how much of traditional Christianity might reasonably survive in a church more attuned to the needs and understanding of the Western world. On that broader basis I think it might be worth sharing another viewpoint.

I must begin by admitting that there is no shortage of other criticisms of Henry Lyte’s hymn, as noted in a 1997 book by Ian Bradley, significantly titled, Abide with me: the World of Victorian Hymns. Bradley cites John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, who focuses on “the deadening effect of the line ‘Change and decay in all around I see’”. Bell maintains that this encouraged a demonizing of the whole notion of change in Christian circles. Among Lyte’s contemporaries, a similar criticism was made by Charles Kingsley: “How often is the tone in which hymns speak of the natural world one of dissatisfaction, distrust, almost contempt. ‘Change and decay in all around I see’ is their keynote.” More generally, D.H. Lawrence, while remarkably complimentary of many Victorian hymns, lumped even Abide with me among “sentimental messes”. The polarizing effects of arguments for and against this and similar hymns are summed up in a 1995 story in The Daily Telegraph under the headline “Choir quits after rector says: Abide with me or leave”.

I must also own up to my own connectedness with the hymn. I am a prime example of how the melding of words and music, especially during childhood, can create an indelible imprint in the heart and brain. I recall it chiefly in evening services (“loved long since, and lost awhile”), and certainly in some funerals and Anzac services, not to mention old vinyl recordings. Newer generations know neither scriptures nor hymnbooks, so it will take more than nostalgia to defend the hymn. Even so, my line of argument will only slowly build from the clearly shaky to the point where I would like to hope that my “defence is sure”.

I need to make a qualification. For the purpose of considering this one particular hymn, it would seem pointless to either challenge or defend its underlying theism. To address that issue would require dealing with virtually the whole of the hymn genre, even in its current forms. Whether, despite its theistic grounding, this hymn might be open to something less doctrinaire is another issue, and one which I shall touch on as the case develops.

1. Abide with me has demonstrated extraordinary resilience.
This year has seen the publication by SCM–Canterbury Press of a wider edition of the new hymnbook of the Church of Scotland under the title Hymns of glory, songs of praise. It has over 850 hymns and psalms, with a wide ranging mix of traditional, modern and new material drawn from across the Christian world, primarily USA and New Zealand. It includes Abide with me. Nothing too surprising about that, except that the editor is John Bell! That must tell us something.

So how does one try to account for the fact that you can’t keep this hymn down? Here are some possible factors:

  • Its poetic quality. Lyte, for what it is worth, won the English poetry prize three times during his studies at Trinity College. According to Francis Palgrave, when the poet laureate, Alfred Tennyson, was introduced to the hymn, he was deeply impressed by its solemn beauty, remarking that it wanted very little to take rank among the really perfect poems of the language. Poetic tastes are fickle, but it does have appeal for many.
  • Its folk lore status. It consistently rates in the top ten favourite hymns. Even a recent Australian survey showing classic ballads and popular songs increasingly displacing hymns at funerals still found room in the top ten funeral songs for Amazing grace and Abide with me.Since 1927 it has been sung at the FA Cup Final in England. That fact alone surely extends its life expectancy for several more generations. Bradley cites a top comprehensive school in Britain where it is sung at the annual Remembrance Day service, followed by one minute’s silence, thus confounding the local vicar’s contention that massed “teenagers will neither sing out nor stay completely quiet”. So, like it or not, it is going to be around as a folk song-cum-hymn for some time yet.
  • Its tune and phenomenological distinction. The fact that it has always only had the one tune associated with it, William Henry Monk’s Eventide, has no doubt boosted its power. A fascinating tribute to the combined appeal of its words and music came in an article in the Journal of geriatric psychiatry. Two researchers (Warner and Aziz) conducted a study in Wales of older people who have musical hallucinations. These experiences are the real thing – very rare, but heard as if really being performed. Of all the melodies, Abide with me was the most frequently heard. The researchers attributed this to the effects of repetitive exposure and/or emotional significance. They speculate that Lyte could be overtaken by the Beatles in the future.
  • Its association with one of the greatest Bible stories. The Emmaus story in Luke is clearly evoked at the beginning, even if a plural pronoun has been changed to the singular, and even though modern translations have departed from the key word (Abide). The standard translation is now, “Stay with us”.
  • Its association with evening. No matter that it was not intended to be an evening hymn. There are sufficient allusions to the evening of each day to have made it an evensong favourite. The name of Monk’s tune, Eventide, cements the connection which has helped the hymn to permeate the collective consciousness in a way that could never have happened if the imagery were strictly funereal.
    Its primal confrontation with death. It treads fairly lightly initially but speaks plainly at the end. When Lyte wrote it he was suffering from the advanced stages of tuberculosis, the lingering disease responsible for about a quarter of all deaths in his time. He died 2 ½ months later. The words “Abide with me” may sound smooth enough, but they came out of a struggling spirit.
  • Its expression of faith and hope. In Eric Routley’s Hymns and the faith (1955), he presented reflections on 49 popular hymns, each under a word or phrase which he felt best epitomized the hymn’s theme. Under the heading of “Death” one might have expected him to have placed Abide with me, but for that he chose Praise to the holiest in the height. Likewise, for “Heaven” the honour went to Jerusalem the golden and for “Sleep” to Glory to thee, my God, this night. Abide with me was assigned the theme of “Companionship”. Perhaps he got it right. The hymn is an assertion that darkness and aloneness must not be the last words.

2. Abide with me avoids the worst excesses of pie-in-the-sky, etc.
To imply that it could be worse may seem a very weak defence, but I think it is a point worth making. Most of the hymn remains focused on this life, albeit on its closing stages. Compared with the turgidity of many Victorian hymn writers, Lyte’s style was relatively restrained. Apart from enlisting two defiant questions from St Paul (“Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?”), he confined his afterlife references to “the skies” and “Heaven’s morning”. Contrast these hints with the explicitness of Jerusalem the golden, noted above:

The Prince is ever in them;
The daylight is serene;
The pastures of the blessèd
Are decked in glorious sheen…

And they who, with their Leader,
Have conquered in the fight,
For ever and for ever
Are clad in robes of white.

That’s just too much, surely, but must we eliminate every bit of hyperbole from the religious repository? A recent newspaper property insert was bannered “Pick of the bunch: Ohope’s slice of heaven”. The word is part of normal currency, and during the ravages of TB it may well be OK to yearn for a better state by such a name.

Similar arguments could, I think, be made in defence of other phraseology in the hymn. “The tempter’s power” is a bit of personification (like John Bell’s own use of “demonizing”), but even Lyte preferred it to “the Devil’s power”.

“Change and decay…” in its time was probably a fresh, apt and accurate line. Ironically that may have helped it to attract a bad press. It seems to me that both Charles Kingsley and John Bell took an observation of the scientifically undeniable (even more so now than in the 19th century) and condemned it somewhat out of context. I doubt if Lyte would have disagreed with Bell that “the proof that we have been grasped by the changeless love of God is that we never remain the same, but are transformed, converted, turned upside down, inside out”.

3. If Abide with me is really off key, so would be a large entourage.
By that I mean not just the “Rocks of Ages”, but, surprising as it may seem, some of the most highly esteemed hymns in the contemporary progressive scene. Consider Shirley Murray. She has written many fine hymns on the important themes that Don Feist has listed, such as justice and care for the earth. She has also written specifically for life stages and events, including funerals.

One such hymn is When human voices cannot sing/and human hearts are breaking (Alleluia Aotearoa: hymns and songs for all churches, 1993, no. 151). For copyright reasons the hymn cannot be reproduced here, so I have taken the liberty of creating a table of motifs shared by both this hymn and Abide with me.

Comparing When human voices cannot sing and Abide with me

Motif Shirley Murray’s words Henry Lyte’s words
sadness hearts are breaking
grief, sorrow
Turning to God as comforter [verse 1] [verse 1]
Fear all fear I fear
Darkness gloom, shadows cloud of dark unknowing eventide, darkness, cloud,
Light light, Christ-light sunshine, shine
Death stone of death death’s sting, grave,
Thy cross, death
Resurrection set free,
Easter morning
victory, triumph
Support make real,
your holding love
abide, Thy presence,
my stay, at hand
follow, travel
show the pathway, my guide, point me

Another Shirley Murray hymn in the same hymnbook, Give thanks for life (no. 45), touches on the “change and decay” theme with the words “mortal we pass through / beauty that decays”.

Similar comparisons could be made with hymns by Colin Gibson. On just the theme of heaven and afterlife, consider one of his hymns, Where the road runs out (Alleluia Aotearoa, no. 156):

We look to you, our ending,
our hope for heaven and earth…

be the sailor’s friend, be the dolphin Christ,
lead us on to eternity.

These examples should suffice to indicate that we cannot deal with the acceptability of Abide with me in isolation from many other hymns, not only of its time, but also in our own time. Passing judgement may be straightforward enough at the outer edges but there is a vast middle ground where traditional terminology and imagery show remarkable persistence and reinvention.

This discussion so far has been confined to hymns, but much the same might be said of the language in other forms of Christian observance. Taking examples just from those that include references to heaven or an afterlife would rule out a substantial body of devotional and scriptural resources. From the heritage of prayer one would have to begin by removing the Lord’s Prayer with its two references to heaven. These may well not be original to Jesus (being in any case missing in the Lucan version), but to delete them from liturgical use would be too fine a point. It would seem rather like omitting “The trumpet shall sound” from Handel’s Messiah.  

Among the parables attributed to Jesus, two stand out in the way that their insistence on just and generous living is presented through graphic stories of a last judgment and afterlife. Again, neither the story of the rich man and Lazarus nor the final judgment may be directly traceable to Jesus, but they illustrate how difficult it is to disentangle the message from the medium in so much of Christianity and even the teachings of Jesus.

4. The essence of the hymn has an abiding depth and breadth.
Abide with me is primarily a prayer for the divine “presence every passing hour”. The plea is made in the simplest possible way, at the beginning, at the end, and five other times. Twice it is linked with the word “Lord” which in context means the risen Christ as part of the Godhead. Specifically it is an appeal to the Lord for help and comfort in life and death.

Devotionally, however, the three words, “Abide with me”, are so short, so plain, and so direct that they have taken on the nature of a prayer mantra. The bare mantra has almost acquired a life of its own. This may largely account for the hymn’s popularity and its penetration of the subconscious. It fits in closely with the practice of Christian meditation as summed up by John Main: “In meditation we open ourselves fully to God’s abiding presence in the simple faith that that presence is the All-in-All.”

But there could be more to it than that, though not consciously intended in Lyte’s hymn. In the Emmaus story, Cleopas and his friend had not recognised the stranger when they met up on the road. Their invitation, “Abide with us”, was an act of consideration to another human being – it was getting dark. Only later, after giving him hospitality did they sense that they had had an encounter with an incognito Lord. Besides, if it is accepted, as argued by the Jesus Seminar, that Luke’s account itself may have embellished a nucleus from the oral tradition, it is not unreasonable to expand the scope of later Christian texts such as famous hymns.

Luke’s story resonates remarkably with Martin Buber’s I and Thou. The divine is a presence and it is found in living human relationships. It is wholly other, yet wholly present. For Lyte, the time had come “when other helpers fail”, but without human helpers during his life he could never have discovered a “help of the helpless”. Recently New Zealand society has had occasion to take measure of real helplessness, especially of the elderly in institutional care. The words “Abide with me” are addressable to whom it does or should concern, whether stranger, friend or Lord.

Take another example of someone confronting mortality and wrestling with her destiny. In The Collected Letters of Katherine Mansfield: Volume Five, we are given insights into Mansfield’s state of mind as her own tuberculosis was taking its final toll:

I want, by understanding myself, to understand others. I want to be all that I am capable of becoming so that I may be – (there’s only one phrase that will do) a child of the sun…
What is important is to try & learn to live, and in relation to everything – not isolated. This isolation is death to me…
If I were allowed one single cry to God that cry would be I want to be REAL.

Mansfield’s “prayer” was expressed very differently from Lyte’s hymn, but her yearning for relationship and the fear of isolation echo the words “Abide with me”. For her the “Thou” was less consciously the “wholly other” and more the “other self”, more the s-u-n than the capital S-o-n. But would that distinction have made her aspiration fundamentally different? One approach to such a question is offered by Lloyd Geering, in his discussion on Colin McCahon and Christianity (in The Lloyd Geering Reader). Drawing upon Karl Jung, Ludwig Feuerbach and Rudolf Bultmann, Geering discerns:

…a close correlation between the way a person conceives God and…the way each of us in life is seeking to become a unique self. God is an unconscious projection on to a cosmic backdrop of the evolving human self… All our talk about God, properly understood, is really an exercise in self-understanding… The quest for God and the quest for self-fulfilment are one and the same.

5. Abide with me and a world of darkness, change and decay.
Leaving aside the plea for the divine presence, there are these other aspects of Lyte’s hymn that are open to challenge today – how it deals with the world itself. I have already tried to defend the “change and decay” phrase, and reference to the dimmed joys of earth is surely understandable in Lyte’s terminal circumstances. As I sense it, his attitude was much more one of resignation than contempt (as alleged by Kingsley). A point to always bear in mind is that any composition before the age of the urban light bulb is likely to have been more keenly aware of enshrouding darkness than we are. Nonetheless a certain negativity about the earth in other phrases as well may rankle by today’s outlook. How serious a blemish is that?

By way of an answer, let me refer again to Buber’s I and Thou. His philosophical-religious poem, first published in 1937, became one of the seminal works of the 20th century. Here are some of his initial references to the “world”:

Man [sic] experiences his world… The man who experiences has no part in the world… The world has no part in the experience. It permits itself to be experienced, but has no concern in the matter. For it does nothing to the experience, and the experience does nothing to it. As experience, the world belongs to the primary I-It…

In the realm of It he includes things perceived, imagined, felt, thought. “It is the eternal chrysalis, the Thou the eternal butterfly.” My question would be this. If Buber had been writing his book today would he have couched these references to the world in exactly the same language? I suspect that the Gaia hypothesis and current threats to the ecosystem would have tinged his work in a number of ways. The main thrust of his thesis would have remained.

So, it seems to me, it is possible to acknowledge any deficiencies in Lyte’s view of the earth, while allowing his surer instincts to be sustained. As Cecil Northcott said (inHymns in Christian Worship), “Most hymn singers would be unable to defend what they sing line by line but the total product of the ‘great’ hymn is the heart of their belief”.

6. Summing up the status and merits of Abide with me.
This hymn is of course a product of its time. Some of its language and attitude is now dated, but, wedded to W H Monk’s Eventide tune, it remains among the most well known and loved hymns ever written. In its somewhat otherworldly aspect it is by no means alone, even in contemporary hymnody. Its primary focus on asking for the presence and companionship of God in life and in death, employing a simple mantra-like phrase as a leitmotif, is its greatest strength.

As with all iconic works, its use is multidimensional. For those with traditional church connections it remains in favour as an evening and funeral hymn. In a more private, meditative state it may approximate to a form of interior conversation. “Hold it. Hang on in there.” In contemplation of the fragility of both the earth and of all life upon it, it might even equate with an appeal to “global consciousness”. Sung in a football stadium by scores of thousands, it is probably an amalgam of all these tones and undertones.

Its genuine comfort and inspiration for many individuals should, I think, outweigh any risks it has of exploiting nostalgia and avoiding responsibility. Taken literally line by line, it might do harm as well as good. Celebrated as a taonga of the traditional Christian faith, the good should be able to prevail. It may well wither in time, but better to let things take their course than try to hasten its demise.

7. Beyond the case study of a hymn to the bigger issues of Christian communication.
In the long run it matters little how we rate the pros and cons of one piece of Christian devotion, even if it be such a notable hymn as Abide with me. We need to ask if any of the issues raised have a bearing on the larger question of how churches concerned with being relevant to their age should go about the use of any resource. In considering the selection and style of any element for use in worship – music, hymns, prayers, meditations, stories, scriptures, visual materials, activities, etc. – what guidelines should apply? Here are three suggestions:

  • Reckon with the whole gamut of the Christian compendium – and much more besides.
    This paper has put a case for the retention of one well-known traditional hymn, contending that it still has a kernel of faith expression which makes it suitable for at least certain groups and occasions. To generalise from it, as long as traditional expressions remain in vogue there is a prima facie case for their retention, encouraging reinterpretation rather than rejection.In a sense, this is one reason why we keep the Bible itself in contention. Much of its world view has been left behind. But a deeper layer of the human condition that it explores makes it still as relevant as ever. At the same time, a rather curious tendency can arise among churches that are geared to demythologizing the Bible – they may do so at will with scant apology, but hesitate to apply the same ready treatment to later expressions of the Faith.       

    Another inconsistency is illustrated by the habitual use of lectionaries. Ostensibly these guarantee the balanced coverage of the scriptures, whilst ignoring large chunks of the Canon. Yet anything like a regular coverage of later Christian classics at even a subsidiary level is avoided as if disrespectful in some way to the Bible’s preeminence. As for drawing on the wisdom of non-Christian faiths, that really is a bridge too far for all but the smallest minority of churches.

    The need for a balanced but unfettered use of resources, sacred and secular, Christian and non-Christian, old and new, radical and conservative, has been well expressed by Ian Harris in a recent column for the Otago Daily Times (8 July 2008). I have underlined the key polarities.

    The shared sense of meaning which Christianity once offered in the West has fragmented under the twin pressures of secularisation and the growing presence of other faiths. So New Zealand now lacks that sense of shared values and common purpose which, for most people, the churches once supplied… All this sets up a completely new context for the churches in today’s world.

    The 4000 years of Judaeo-Christian heritage they nurture remains a rich quarry

    for the nation at large and, for most, a culturally congenial one, because it is out of that tradition that our secular society has emerged. But if that is to happen, the churches must first acknowledge that

    new times demand new ways of formulating the questions, new ways of relating to the society they are part of, and new ways of expressing faith,

    growing out of the secular culture they all share.But if potential resources, from Bibles to blogs, are virtually limitless, how is each to be evaluated? This brings us to a second guideline:

  • Seldom ask, is it harmful? Often ask, is it helpful? Always ask, is it hospitable?
    Perhaps the use of Abide with me as a test case will have shown that identifying what is undesirable in a text or other form of expression is a delicate and laborious task. Once one has fastened on a particular aspect that is false or misleading it can be difficult to draw the line. Shades of the baby/bath water syndrome. Equally, in any one work it is hard to sign off every image and association as fully acceptable.There is much wisdom in the parable of the weeds and the wheat (Matthew 13: 24-30, 36-43), even if not original to Jesus, and even if the early church and Matthew distorted its original thrust with an allegorical interpretation. Some things are best left together till the time is more ripe for discrimination. Ironically, that even applies to the interpretation itself as given in the Gospel, with its apocalyptic vision of the furnace of fire, wailing and gnashing of teeth, and the righteous shining like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. That overlay is still there and doubtless has to remain, but it doesn’t stop the parable itself being open to its call for patience and withholding of judgment – “wait, let both grow together”.       

    Take a further analogy from the food industry’s two categories of date labelling. “Best before” dates relate to food quality. Food may have lost some of its quality and taste if eaten after the date. “Use by” dates relate to safety. Food shouldn’t be eaten and can’t be sold after the date. What things churchwise might have passed their safety “use by” date? Might others be in transition from “Best before” to “Use by”? For what things, if any, would neither category be applicable, and if so why?

    Because the bread of life, so to speak, is much more complex than physical food, this second rule of thumb suggests a cautious approach to ruling anything in or out. Before making either judgment, it may always pay to first consider how open anything is to alternative interpretations in certain situations. Though harmful for some, perhaps, might it be hospitable to the needs of some people in different circumstances?

    And now for a third and final guideline, this one sparked off the classifications that censors employ:

  • Censor almost nothing; warn about everything.
    Churches might generally react to this as heretical nonsense. I offer it as a “counsel of perfection” – though not, I hasten to add, one of the counsels of perfection, namely poverty, chastity and obedience. The very fact that I must first clarify what I mean by such a phrase proves the point I am about to make – how troublesome language can be, and how especially so religious language.So what would the warning amount to? Whenever a church today operates in any verbal context it should post a warning – the words in use may not communicate what is intended, and when they do they may be based on presuppositions which are alien to the listeners’ understanding and experience.       

    An example is required. The word “God” should suffice. No longer should any church with a concern for interaction with our culture take for granted that it can use the word without acknowledgement of the difficulty it poses for many. That doesn’t mean that it must be apologised for and explained at every turn. What it should mean, however, is that it is made plain in some prefatory or prominent way that it is not taken for granted that everybody will share the same connotation in regard to “God”. This might mean indicating that the congregation is about to engage in dealing with a mystery deeper than any words we can speak. Or it might mean conceding that, for some, “God” will be but one of the stories, though surely the greatest, about to be woven into an act of worship.

    Once allowance has been made at such a fundamental level, the rest almost takes care of itself. Lesser matters are subsumed under the general alert. No need to apologise individually for thought forms to which many would no longer subscribe. Conscious screening of what is acceptable and what is not becomes almost a non-issue.

    By contrast, it can be quite incongruous at times when only some minor concession is expressed. It might be indicated, for example, that the hymn about to be sung is of such and such a vintage. The implication is that allowance will need to be made for its theology, as if theological debate could not rage as well about the latest hymn to have been written, the reading from Romans, and the prayers of confession and intercession, not to mention the Benediction.


Time to sign off. But what if it were time to really sign off? What to choose for a funeral service? Maybe readings, including some Bible verses. Maybe songs, including a hymn. The full range, spoken and sung, might provide a judicious balance. As for a hymn, not necessarily an old one. Something as recent as the 19th century might be fine, perhaps Abide with me. Why? Because it invokes companionship with the spirit of a particular person, and a link with former generations. And also because it resonates with the rhythms and flux of the earth – its darkness and daylight, its shadows and sunshine, its gloom and its glories.
David Kitchingman
July 2008

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