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My favourite hymn

Each month a member of our church will give their thoughts on a favourite hymn. If you would like to contribute, send it to mark [at] holytrinityyork.org

This week it is the turn of Mark Wharfedale with the hymn The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended.

Choosing a favourite hymn for this article was easy, as ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended,’ has been my favourite – and indeed, a constant companion, for as long as I can remember. Beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelations, it is a perfect marriage of text, written by Canon John Ellerton and tune (St. Clement). 

Born in Middlesex in 1826, Ellerton was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was ordained in 1850. He served curacies at Sussex before becoming Vicar at Crewe Green in   Cheshire, Hinstock in Shropshire, Barnes in London, and finally White Roding in Essex. 

Written during his time at Chester, the hymn, Ellerton once explained, was written on one of his nightly walks, on the way to teach at a Mechanics’ Institute. Rather than intending it to be an evening, or indeed funeral hymn, as it is often now used, his intention was that this should be a missionary hymn, used particularly at missionary meetings. 

The tune is attributed to the Rev. Clement Scholefield (educated at Pocklington Grammar School) and was commissioned by none other than Arthur Sullivan, the musical half of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership. Some experts now believe that Sullivan may have had more of a role in the the writing of this tune and its harmonisation. Scholefield’s other compositions being sometimes described as ‘weak’.

For me, this is a strong and confident tune – perhaps one that could only have been written during the Victorian era, a time of social revolution, progress, and innovation. Phrases such as ‘church unsleeping’ and ‘the voice of prayer is never silent’ remind me of the worldwide church that we take for granted, but, at the time of the hymn’s writing, that church would be for the some more about the day-to-day challenge of spreading the gospel to areas of the world where little was known and the difficulties more than we can imagine. 

The final verse is for me the high point. ‘So be it, Lord; thy throne shall never like earth's proud empires, pass away;Thy Kingdom stands, and grows for ever, Till all thy creatures own thy sway. Regardless of whom or what we are, a person, an empire, maybe even an idea or a philosophy, we pass away, unlike God’s Kingdom which is eternal.  

The hymn has not been without its critics! Ralph Vaughan Williams hated it, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang once described it as having ‘a feeble waltz tune’. 

For me, the fact that Queen Victoria herself chose this hymn to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, and, 100 years later, it was used at the Hong Kong handover ceremony as the United Kingdom gave back this territory to the Chinese government, secures its place as a jewel in the Anglican hymn crown! 

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