St Michael and All Angels Church, Bedford Park

St Michael & All Angels: Organ and Parish Rooms Appeal

Sponsored Hymnathon February 24th & 25th 2012

From Noon on Friday February 24th till 6.30pm on Saturday 25th, the complete New English Hymnal was sung to raise money for our Organ and Parish Rooms Appeal.
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Richard Broke's blog

Day One

Richard BrokeA twice in a lifetime happening. Every single hymn in the New English Hymnal being sung without a break in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Bedford Park in West London. They did the whole thing once before - exactly 25 years ago and this time it is necessary as the organ is falling to bits. In fact, we cannot know who will crack first in this wonderful, slightly crazy venture - the choir or the organ. The Hymnathon is the brainchild of local architect and former organist at St Michaels, Oliver West. It is going to take 30 hours.

The event opens very quietly with a mere handful of people and a prayer from the curate. So British, so understated. Torin Douglas, who combines a day job as the BBC's Media correspondent with being the local dynamo, is running from one end of the church to the other, and the tempo of the event increases with equal rapidity.  Torin has programmed a whole set of tweets to go off at intervals and these, to his surprise, also turn up on Facebook. I have had about thirty of these, so I ask him why he is being so uncommunicative about the Hymnathon.  Stills cameras abound, one in the highly capable hands of David Beresford, the official St Michael's photographer, and another belonging to Kelvin Murray, who is quite simply world class. Oliver, almost unable to believe what he has wrought, is close to tears. St Michael's choir is augmented by the Arts Educational School from across the road, one or two of them absurdly glamorous and dressed for a disco.  As Father Stephen points out, they sing the hymns as if they were numbers from a musical and really belt them out.  It’s great.

Jonathan Dods, Director of Music at St Michael’s and organist for this first section, gives a mini intro to each hymn - he can't keep that up, surely? - and has a 'moment' with the choir when he insists on a less well known tune. His choice, 'Gonfalon',  wins the argument.

Then, when you think the singers can get no younger, a stampede of tiny people invades the space - the Chiswick and Bedford Park primary school - seemingly hundreds of them. It is Christmas already in the church's liturgical year, as mapped out by these hymns. Miriam Morris, seated in the choir as she will be for much of this marathon, dons a Santa Claus hat. The kids are bemused, as well they might be, by singing ‘Hark, the Herald Angels sing' at lunchtime on a school day in February. But their moment comes as they sing 'Away in a Manger' and we all shut up. Tears are surreptitiously wiped away and the event has real traction now. Coffee and brownies are served, the mother Superior of the convent arrives with some of her flock, the children and their teachers receive applause and file out. And still the singing goes on.  Torin, endlessly mobile, worries about whether wi-fi is working in the church and some of the choir are texting within the folds of their cassocks. The usual suspects are manning the sale of mugs (specially made for the occasion) and rattling the collection buckets. This event is a mixture of being all about God and all about money. These are tables that Jesus would not have thrown over. We are rendering unto Caesar (or at least to our new organ and vestry) the things that are Caesar's.  The total raised so far is around £25,000.  The target is £30,000.

It is 4 pm and there are around forty people in the church. The organ is holding up well, but are we? Answer comes with full-blooded singing from the back of the church, giving me, in a side aisle, a wonderful stereo effect. This is faith in action and is very moving. John Betjeman wrote "But is it true, but is it true?" He knew the answer and would have loved this barmy event. It is not too serious and laughter peals from the male singers at the West end of the church.  The nuns are still here and they also are wreathed in smiles and giggling. Families arrive.  Oliver West cleverly gets the singers to rest their voices by getting some to be silent for some verses. Like Torin, he is scuttling everywhere.  In fact, the sensation within the church is of constant movement. The vicar, Father Kevin has suddenly re-appeared, ferociously texting on his iPhone. His arrival coincides with another influx of little children, immaculate in their uniforms - the Orchard House School this time. The numbers in the church have greatly increased and the singing goes on and on as we head towards the first century.

Liturgically we are now in Lent and, in reality, we are also in Lent. The virtual world of the Hymnathon and the actual world of England’s green and pleasant land are as one for a brief period. It won't last. The light  outside the church is fading fast but we still have 174 hymns to go before 'The Day Thou Gavest Lord is ended'.  Time for my second cup of coffee. Why can I not tear myself away? It is hardly history in the making.  Syria is burning and we are merely making music. But, paraphrasing T.S. Eliot, we are here to sing where singing has been valid.

Ater a break of 2 hours I return - to find them on number 111 and suddenly it's Easter and Christ has risen. He has risen indeed and the singing is still at an amazing throttle.  Many, most, of the hymns being sung are ones we never usually hear. Occasionally, that's a mercy - there was a particularly depressing one in the first half hour. How amazed and delighted the writers of these deeply obscure hymns would be if they could be here. It will be at least another 25 years before many of them are ever sung again!

It is like a cocktail party this.  Not at all solemn. Carol Douglas has just strolled up to tell me that Ellie has got firsts in the three exams she just sat and then Philip Wareham dropped by for a chat.  The effect is like being in a movie with a continuous soundtrack, you wonder why they don't turn the music down so you can talk, and then you remember why you are here. And you go on talking.

A large group appears. Who are they I enquire of the passing Helen Wareham. "The Chiswick Choir and they don't need a support group because they are so good. At least they think they are".  No worries there - they are totally brilliant and it has now become a concert.  A slight hiatus as the Chiswick choir take their places. One of their members uses a wheelchair and he and his helpers almost send the big crucifix flying. It remains at a somewhat drunken angle for the remainder of their two hour set.

Oliver is over the moon with the success of the whole thing and clearly very moved. He points out that going from Passiontide hymns straight into Easter, without a break, is very powerful. He is also interesting on the theology of the hymns, saying that you don't really need sermons as it is all there. Later I quote this to Father Kevin, who agrees and says that two verses of ‘There is a green hill far away’ tell you all you need to know about the Christian doctrine of Atonement.

Meanwhile, the marvellous Chiswick Choir are giving us a sublime experience with 'Come down o Love Divine'. It s impossible not to be carried away by all this.

Someone tells me that the much loved Phoebe Woollam, who was meant to be playing the organ part of the time, has been whisked into the Charing Cross hospital with a heart problem.   We all sign a card and wish her well. She should have been here.

The Book Club take over and we seem to have reached Trinity Sunday!  I leave for a meal and then, (it now being about the ninth hour) find myself in The Tabard with the Men's Society who have been ensconced there for a while, and it shows.  Not however in the case of Father Kevin who declares that he is on mineral water for Lent. If you believe that you'll believe anything, but he is stone cold sober and in ebullient mood. I beat a retreat once I learn that they are about to sing JERUSALEM in the pub. Things could turn ugly.

Back at St Michael's they are on 192 - 'Sons of the Holy One, Bright with His Splendour' – a fair description of the men in the Tabard, who stagger across ten minutes later. Their arrival is heralded with 'For All the Saints who from their labours rest' and it is rousing and invigorating.  I, meanwhile, am on strong black coffee kindly provided by Gerald McGregor. What on earth is it going to be like in the watches of the night? I will never know as I can't go on much longer.  I would never have hacked it that evening in Gethsemane, but I'd never have been invited anyway.

It is heading towards midnight and there are still at least fifty people in the church. We are rattling through the saints’ days - 'Holy Days: Proper' according to the book.  Are there improper holy days? The indefatigable Kelvin Murray, who seemed bushed in the Tabard, now seems to have got a whole new lease of life and is still looking for new camera angles.  There are none. He has done the lot already.  For some unexplained reason certain hymns cause the choirs to leap their feet and this they do for 205 - 'Christ is made the Sure Foundation'. 

I leave just before midnight, having clocked up 7 hours on Day One. They are turning out of The Tabard, happily unaware of the unusual event taking place a few feet away.

Day Two

I arrive back at the church at exactly 6 am. Pitch dark still , the pews are empty, but the weary-looking choir are still going. Not going strong exactly but going. Amazingly, after 18 hours of singing they are bang on schedule. Apparently they got ahead in the night ("with no congregation to slow us down") and allowed themselves a 13 minute break.  I want to be there for the first of my own choices - 'God be in my Head'. Anna and Bella sang it a capella at my mother’s memorial service.  I never thought I would hear it at five past six in the morning.  I think of mum and also of Phoebe Woollam who had trained my daughters for the occasion.

Father Stephen sits down next to me for a chat. The cocktail party atmosphere is still the order of this new day, it seems. He tells me about the convent at Tyburn Cross, where you can go at any time of day or night. There are always two nuns praying in front of the sacrament. Stephen says he pops in before subjecting himself to the horrors of Oxford Street. He speculates that the Bishop may have had to give a special dispensation for the word 'Alleluia' to be used during Lent.

Amanda Bradley, in pyjamas and dressing gown, walks past us towards the choir stalls. Then Cathy Millin, clothed more conventionally for church, bearing a huge cup of steaming coffee. Jonathan Dods is back to delivering little talks before each new hymn, to re-vitalise the singers.  Oliver West is still here. Has he ever left, I wonder?  The pews are gradually filling up and it's not even 7 o'clock. The vicar re-surfaces.

The choir constantly shoot glances at the body of the church, checking that we are still here, supporting them. The Player King in Tom Stoppard's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' confesses that his worst nightmare is to realise that they have no audience at all: "We are actors - the opposite of people".  The choir in St Michael's know they have an audience, immortal, invisible, but they still quite like to have us around as well.

Dawn breaks through the East window. Sarah Lenton and Margaret Stonborough in one of her magnificent hats re-charge the candles and take turns to update the hymn board. We are into yet another obscure, beautiful hymn with the words 'With thee all night I mean to stay And wrestle till the break of day'.  Quite so. It has to be Charles Wesley - one of the stars of this show. Charles doesn’t let us off lightly.

Then another moving moment for me as we sing 'Eternal Father, Strong to Save' - for Elaine's late mother, who served in the Wrens in the war. “Hear us as we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea”.

Breakfast in the Michael Room, cooked by Alan Trigle and his Men’s Society cohorts.  I sit with Cathie James and David Beresford so there is plenty to talk about over the bacon and eggs.  Torin has reserved a table for 12 - for visitors from All Hallows, Twickenham.  What is this - The Wolseley all of a sudden?   A leading member of the choir, who has been singing all night, fails to realise that you need to book (you don’t of course!) and there is a mini moment. It passes. Everybody is too nice and the occasion too special.

Down again in time for one of the major highlights - 'Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer'.  We take the roof off and the hymn gets its own round of applause! We go on to sing ‘He who would valiant be' (alas without references to the ‘hobgoblin and foul fiend’).  I think of my dad, who loved it. Father Stephen wonders how John Bunyan and Percy Dearmer managed their collaboration, given that they lived 200 years apart.  Hasn't he heard of email?  This is followed by a rather mysterious occurrence as we are told that 'How Shall I sing that majesty?' is to be sung twice - to two different tunes because the sponsor has insisted on ‘Coefen’ but the plan, for some inexplicable reason, is to sing it to another tune.  The sponsor, who tells me he has dug deep to get what he wants, is completely right.  The other tune is impenetrable and we struggle.

We get to another of my own choices - number 375 'Lord of the Dance'. Cathie swiftly departs as she finds it ‘creepy’. It is a bit odd perhaps, but it chimes with my own feebleness "It's hard to dance with the devil on your back", but then has Jesus making a very decent proposal "I'll live in you if you live in me".  Some priests won't allow this hymn to be sung in their churches as it doesn’t ‘invoke the Almighty' and its author Sydney Carter made no pretence to be a Christian. He just liked the story and why not. Plus it is a great tune which Aaron Copland also used in his Appalachian Spring.

9.30 am and the place is really filling up. Great music at the the front and a bazaar at the back. Torin describes it as like an indoor version of Green Days and that's it.

9.45 and the roof is raised yet again by 'Let All the World in every corner sing, My God and King'. The event, coloured by our happy fatigue, is  now becoming overwhelming. Everyone knackered but morale sky high. It resembles the movie 'They Shoot Horses, Don't They?' except that it’s joyful, positive and good-humoured.  I glance at Facebook on my iPad to find that Amanda Bradley has been messaging all night on the hour. She has compared her feelings at 2 am as like visiting a Chinese dentist. I am in awe of their stamina and dedication - not just the choir but all the 'through the night' crowd. Amanda has personally raised over £1,000 in sponsorship of her own efforts.

I take another couple of hours off and only just resist the temptation to tell everyone on my bus what is going on.  On my return, I find that Cathie James and her serving team are in the hot seats and are accompanied by two violinists (David Juritz and Louise Grattan) which is classy.  I assume that Cathie has organised this but she says it is just a happy coincidence.

This thing is becoming like a drug and is dominating my weekend.  It resembles an Indian wedding, going on for days. Good gossip with Sarah Radcliffe who chose a hymn for Mark which it seems he loathes. So she has had to choose another.  A bit more for the coffers.

I pop out for some lunch. A brilliantly sunny day and warm. People in the streets are oblivious to what is going on in their midst. Or they are at home watching the rugby. I run into a shop-owner from the Terrace. I tell him what I'm doing and he says 'I wondered what was going on'.  No matter how much Torin shouts from the rooftop and puts banners up outside the church, there are still those who don't get the message. "He that hath ears to hear, let him hear", I suppose. When I get back they are singing a typical late Victorian number composed by my father's housemaster at school.  When compared to the muscular and slightly scary Charles Wesley these hymns appear outdated and I remember why I have never been a great fan of many 19th century numbers in the New English Hymnal. I don't expect Lennon and McCartney but "Living stones by God appointed, Each to his allotted place" is so uninspiring. But then, just to confound me, along comes the marvellous "Ye watchers and Ye holy ones" from the pen of the gloriously named Athelstan Riley and, even better, "Thy hand O God has guided thy flock from age to age" with its rousing refrain "One Church, One Faith, One Lord". Both Victorian so I am wrong to damn them all!  Talking of weird names, with Alan Bennett I have long been a fan of Augustus Toplady. They don't do monikers like that any more.

Another odd moment as Tim, landlord of The Tabard, comes and sits in the front row with his huge black dog.  He stays for two hymns, or ‘songs’ as Classic FM is calling them in its news bulletins, then goes saying ‘I’ve got a pub to run’.  The world still turns, it seems.

Excitement builds as we approach two superstars of the event: 'Jerusalem' which is belted out and gets a round of applause, and the National Anthem with, to the slight dismay of some of us, the omission of 'Confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks' because it’s not in the New English Hymnal.  A bit weedy of the Editors, that.

This excitement is followed by some low key and rather beautiful hymns, taking us to number 500.  My God, we are nearly there. The last 42 are plainsong, not exactly foot-tapping stuff, and Cathie James says it must be time for tea which in this unseasonal weather is alfresco.  There are far too many cakes, which the indefatigable Jane Trigle (you try catering for 30 hours non-stop) and Carol Douglas then have to try and sell. Back in the church, with the Advent Prose as background, a new excitement builds.  Which hymn is going to be the top performer in terms of money pledged?  There are two way ahead of the field: ‘Guide Me, O Thou great Redeemer’ and ‘O Praise Ye the Lord’. Each has its adherents and Oliver West, the maestro of the whole event, is determined to stop 'Redeemer' winning. With sixty seconds to go he pledges enough money to give victory to 'Praise Ye' only for Cathie James to top him by just 1p. However, Chris Bradley, at the receipt of custom, hasn't heard her final bid!  Jane Blanckenhagen, seated next to him, has heard.  Time for the wisdom of Torin: a dead heat is declared and Oliver and Cathie embrace. The Oscars are tomorrow but who cares.  At St Michael's you can have two winners.  Or even 542 winners come to that.

It is finished.

The final word, after a triumphant rendition of the joint winners, climaxing with a mighty double Amen that threatens to take off the roof, much applause, a few tears and some fizz, goes to Father Kevin. He says “It would have been a great event even if it hadn't made a penny towards the organ fund”. I’ll drink to that and no doubt, when Lent is over, so will he.