For thirty-seven years I was involved in parish ministry as a parish priest, and for ten years (since retirement) as a parish church organist. During much of that time, with a strong pastoral heart as well as a love of music, I was concerned to choose hymns and songs which were congregation-friendly. This doesn’t mean just repeating popular tunes over and over, as I had (for example) a positive policy of introducing, after a brief pre-service practice, “this month’s new hymn”. (Once or twice, I note, Canon Johannes has introduced new congregational music in this way at some special services at the Cathedral).
So what about an announcement that the anthem today will be “O thou, the central orb”?
Not exactly words that would be immediately understood by the majority of the men and women in the pews when I was working in a north London back street parish behind King’s Cross, or on the council estates of East Worthing, or among the miners of the Leicestershire coalfield. Orb is hardly a word in common use, except in derivative forms as in orbital motorways and the orbit of satellites.
However, the anthem is greatly loved by choirs that are up to it. It was included in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee service last year in St Paul’s. It was sung by a strong choir at our Cathedral on the recent Harvest Sunday, and most recently formed the climax to the quite remarkable ‘Legacy Concert’, also at the Cathedral. But what do the words actually mean? Are the words just a platform for the music? I hope not!
The first stanza is not too difficult to understand and begins with an unusual rhyming pattern – ABBA:
O thou, the central orb of righteous love,
Pure beam of the most High, eternal Light
Of this our wintry world, Thy radiance bright
Awakes new joy in faith. Hope soars above.
The poet was H R Bramley (1833-1926), a priest and Oxford academic at the height of the Oxford Movement, and later Canon Precentor of Lincoln. He has been described as a “high church conservative”. Be that as it may, my first thought is that perhaps this text may be comparable to the great metaphysical poets such as John Donne and George Herbert of two centuries earlier? Comments welcome.
The ‘central orb’ must be the poet’s way of describing Jesus, who was foretold to be the Sun of righteousness, shining forth the eternal light of God the Father. An orb symbolizes kingship, both ‘King Jesus’ and also, presumably, is the reason why the anthem is sung on royal occasions. The Holy Spirit is not specifically mentioned, but the Trinity is completed implicitly by reference to the greatest of spiritual gifts: faith, hope and love.
The wintry world and the following verb to awake strongly suggests an Advent theme, as does the truly lovely rhyming couplet (quite Shakespearean) that follows, although the use of the word heaven here is surprising. Maybe we are sometimes blest with glimpses of heaven even in this darksome world.
Come, quickly come, and let thy glory shine,
Gilding our darksome heaven with rays Divine.
So far, so good. But it is the next stanza is more difficult. At least it is clear that we have moved backwards in the calendar from Advent to All Saints Day:
Thy saints with holy lustre round Thee move,
As stars about thy throne…
But then I think I get a bit lost in a haze of metaphysical obscurity!
…set in the height
Of God’s ordaining counsel, as Thy sight
Gives measured grace to each, Thy power to prove.
Any suggestions? I wonder why grace is here described as measured. It is abundance which is frequently associated with grace in the New Testament. Fortunately it ends returning to the Advent theme, in words that I can both understand and be thankful for:
Let Thy bright beams disperse the gloom of sin,
Our nature all shall feel eternal day
In fellowship with thee, transforming day
To souls erewhile unclean, now pure within. Amen.
Charles Wood’s (1866-1926) setting must be a delight to sing: it is certainly a joy to listen to. I have a recording by Magdalen College Choir, Oxford, (by co-incidence H R Bramley’s old college) from their English Anthem Collection. But the text truly came alive when sung ‘live’ to us by the choir in the context of the Cathedral Eucharist on this recent Harvest Sunday. I put this wonderful, memorable service, to which the music contributed so much, on my ‘thank-you’ list for that day.
But what about the culture/obscurity problem I began with? I’m still working on that.
© Canon John Seymour