The ‘long eighteenth century’ in the Anglican church is sometimes portrayed, incorrectly it should be said, as a time of spiritual dearth. The style of worship, and of church life was often very different from today but there is ample evidence of careful observance of Christian life, devotion and worship. From this time, no doubt influenced by the rise of Methodism, Anglican hymnody begins to grow. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century hymns were not officially approved in worship in churches, but began to be frequently used in informal gatherings.
Not quite of the eighteenth century, but in spirit belonging to it, is Bishop Reginald Heber’s lovely hymn ‘Virgin born, we bow before thee.’ For sixteen years Heber (1783 – 1826) was a kind and patient country vicar, influenced by the evangelical movement in the Church of England. In 1823 he took the courageous step of accepting the post of Bishop of Calcutta. He worked assiduously in India, dying suddenly at Trichinopoly after only three years as bishop, at the age of 42. Although bishop for only a short time he made a considerable impression.
Following his death his Hymns written and adapted to the Weekly Church Service of the Year was published in 1827. It is from this collection that the hymn ‘Virgin born’ comes. It is a deceptively simple hymn which says so much in so few words and which reflects an approach to Mary found at the heart of much Anglican spirituality and theology. The centrality of God’s Incarnation is emphasised in this hymn, but also the human aspect of the birth of Jesus and the role of his mother. “Blessèd was the womb that bore thee; Mary, mother meek and mild, blessèd was she in her child.” In the hymn we see the seeds of a devotion to Mary which was to grow in nineteenth century Anglicanism, through the Oxford Movement.
Heber’s hymns continue to be very popular. To this day this hymn is regularly found in Anglican hymn books. At St Chrysostom’s it is sung from the New English Hymnal (187) to the beautiful tune MON DIEU, PRETE MOI L’OREILLE. (A recording of this sung by Wakefield Cathedral Choir is here.)
During May, on our church blog, we are posting a variety of blog posts about Mary in the Anglican tradition. We will look at different interpretations of Mary in word and image, as found in the Anglican church. A print version of these and other articles is being prepared and will be for sale at our special evening ‘Mary in the Anglican Tradition’ on Sunday June 16th at 5pm at St Chrysostom’s.