Sunday, November 6, 2016

Cathedral vs. family Anglican worship

At most U.S. Anglican churches, today was the observance of All Saints Day. Upon reflection, it seems as though the two obvious hymns — “For all the saints” and “I sing a song of the saints of God” — represent conflicting worship goals.

I didn’t realize it when I woke up this morning, but this was also the conclusion of a 1994 article on “Episcopalians Celebrate All Saints” by Ruth Myers:
Distinct in style and content, these hymns express different theological aspects of the feast of All Saints. “For all the saints” celebrates the great communion of saints by acknowledging their earthly struggles and rejoicing in their eschatological triumph. In contrast, “I sing a song of the saints of God” was written for children “to impress the fact that sainthood is a living possibility today.”
However, I was focusing on a slightly different dichotomy: between high-church (cathedral-style) worship and reaching out to children.

Cathedral Hymnody

Although part of the American Hymnal 1892, what we know today as “For all the saints” is the version from The English Hymnal (1906), with a new tune by (TEH music editor) Ralph Vaughan Williams and eight of the 11 verses by Bishop How.

It has a bit of an ecumenical flavor. The (Missouri Synod) Lutheran talk show Issues Etc. last week ran a 54-minute interview with a Lutheran seminary professor, talking about the history of the hymn. It’s featured in the Presbyterian and Baptist hymnals, and last week my daughter sang it during the official freshman chapel at her Baptist university. In my (recently acquired) 1975 U.S. Catholic Hymnal, Worship II, it’s listed as Hymn #80 (although alas without four-part harmony on the middle verses).

As the clergy processed in this morning, I could tell who the cradle Anglicans (or Episcopalians) and long-time parishioners were, as they belted it out with great enthusiasm. Apparently I’m not the only one who looks forward to this day every year — for the words, for the music, and for the memories it evokes of my days as a choirboy at San Diego’s proto-cathedral. This is a hymn that cries out for the majesty of dozens (if not hundreds) of voices, a strong choir and a blaring organ.

Still, it’s not for everyone. After church, I went up to one of our newer parishioners, who (as it turns out) has a Pentecostal background but has been seeking a deeper liturgical experience. I asked him how he liked the hymn, and he said it was unfamiliar.

At the same time, except for the syncopated entry, it seems like a pretty straightforward hymn to sing. Yes, I’m not the most objective judge, having sung it in church 25+ times in my life. But objectively, it’s certainly a lot easier than Vaughan Williams’ second most famous hymn, the Easter/Ascension/Pentecost favorite “Hall thee, festival day?”

Children’s Hymnody

The other All Saints’ hymn seems at the other extreme: “I sing a song of the saints of God”. The text was published as a children’s hymn in the 1920s, while the version we sing was introduced to the world by Hymnal 1940 (#243) with a new tune written expressly for this purpose. It appears in Hymnal 1982 and some Presbyterian and Methodist hymnals. However — despite the British text (“at tea”) — the combined hymn has not crossed the pond to any Church of England hymnal. According to, appears in only 22 hymnals (vs. 473 for the more famous Vaughan Williams cathedral hymn.)

Both my wife and I remember it vividly from our childhood in the proto-cathedral. Our sermon today called it out today as well, as the clergyman had similar memories. Afterwards, we told him it was one of three we scheduled for our daughter’s baptism. (In fact, she heard it today by the children’s choir at her parish, but at our church the children’s choir was on hiatus and so it wasn’t scheduled). Similar recollections were voiced at a Virginia Theological Seminary blog.

Children’s vs. Cathedral Music

While these two styles are very divergent, I see them as more orthogonal than contradictory. Many of us learned “For all the saints” as children, and have loved it ever since (as my teenager daughter does). At the same time, there are many of us in the second half of life who eagerly await hearing the Lesbia Scott every November.

So the former hymn provides an opportunity to model enthusiastic festal worship for parishioners young and old, while the latter reminds us the importance of teaching the faithful the meaning of these feast days.


Meyers, Ruth A. (1994). "Episcopalians Celebrate All Saints." In Journal of the Liturgical Conference, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 9-13.

No comments: