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Troubled Times: A Lockdown Hymn

Words © Gordon Giles (b. 1966)
Music © Jonathan Marten (b. 1947)

The Rev'd Canon Gordon Giles

God our Father give your blessing

The Psalmist in exile asked, ‘how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ (Psalm 137.4), and a few months ago we began to ask – and are still asking – how shall we sing the Lord’s song during a coronavirus lockdown? Closed churches, creative online worship, social distancing have become keywords and face masks, hand sanitiser and zoom the paraphernalia of 2020. Whatever our vision for 2020 may have been as we turned the millennium and created 2020 visions for the then future, it didn’t look like this. Now, as we begin to emerge from some of the draconian impacts of the initial lockdown, the debate continues about the dangers or otherwise of singing, and some choirs have met ‘virtually’ and inspired those at home with creativity and technological dexterity. Notwithstanding some ludicrous suggestions that organs, as ‘wind’ instruments are in some sense ‘dangerous’, the jury is still very much out on whether communal, ecclesiastical singing can be permitted. There is a lot at stake, financially and pastorally.

Many hymns speak to us at this time, drawing on scriptural passages that resonate with the experience of lockdown. At Easter Jesus appears ‘behind closed doors’ to the fearful and doubtful disciples (John 20:19), and we might be reminded that on the 40th day of lockdown, in April, the Revised Common Lectionary serendipitously gave us Noah’s Ark as the Old Testament reading that Sunday. If ever there was a Biblical Lockdown, it was Noah and his family in the Ark. The First Passover, after all, was only one night. Yet for Noah and his family it did not all suddenly end on the forty-first day. Noah’s easing out of maritime isolation was gradual as the waters receded. The flood actually carried on for another 150 days (Genesis 7:24), which is five months. It was not until the seventh month that the ark ‘landed’ on Mount Ararat (Genesis 8:4), and the duration of the Noah family’s isolation in the Ark at sea and then land was around eleven months (Genesis 8:14-16).

Back in March I was Vicar of St Mary Magdalene’s in Enfield, a parish in which I had lived and worshipped for over seventeen years. Since then, during this period of lockdown, my family and I have moved to Rochester Cathedral, unable to ‘leave’ properly, nor indeed to ‘arrive’ in any normal sense of the word. Part of the leave-taking was done online, and the organist and I felt that asking the choir to help create to a ‘lockdown hymn’ might not only be a creative enterprise, but an opportunity to express real feelings and make resonances, as a people locked down, forcibly exiled as we all were, from the normality and human interaction of church and family life. This hymn, words and music, is the result: the lockdown hymn of St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, April 2020. It is no Cwm Rhondda, but it is heartfelt, collaborative and expresses the grief, pain and hope of the situation in which we all found ourselves back then, so recently. It is not over yet.

The tune was written first, and was given to the congregation as 8585 (which we later doubled to create eight-line stanzas). No verse that anyone submitted made it into the finished product in its entirety, but the result encompasses, includes and summarises the feelings, hopes and thoughts expressed by a variety of people, all of whom will no doubt recognise some of their sentiments. Alice, Kitty and Caroline deserve particular mention. Some contributions were not metrical, and most did not rhyme. Many people had not attempted to write anything hymnodic before, yet expressed raw thoughts which I hope I have been able to refine through the conventional discipline of rhyme and metre. Jonathan Marten’s family made the initial recording, and the choir joined virtually to make a subsequent one, and both have been circulated locally. We are of course delighted to share it, tell its story and invite its further use, practically or reflectively. We hope at the very least, that it is a hymn of its time, a time which we connect to scriptural precedent, a time which resonates with the anguish of the psalmist, the bravery and faith of Noah and the hope of Christ who appeared to disciples behind closed doors and threw them open to an unsuspecting, fearful world, caught unawares by a heady mix of grief and hope.

Lord Jesus, as the initial tide of infection ebbs away, we hold before you in prayer all who grieve still, and all who had had lives damaged or destroyed by viral infection. May we never forget; learn; and always give thanks for the gifts of science, wisdom and integrity on which we depend. Give us faith, hope and love to persevere in the knowledge that all lives matter to you, and your love and mercy available in all circumstances. Amen.

Sung by members of the St Mary Magdalene choir and friends.

A Hymn for Lockdown

God our Father give your blessing
To your troubled earth;
Locked-down people call out to you
Longing for new mirth.
Distanced from our most beloved,
In forced solitude:
Doorsteps only crossed in kindness
By those bringing food.

As old Noah locked his ark down,
We must brave the waves,
Mourning those who drown so lonely,
Sinking to their graves.
Guide us through the flood of danger
show us what to do,
In our time of fearful living,
Lord we look to you.

In our fears and anxious longing
Give thanks for love shown.
Help us, Father, to remember
We are not alone.
As the days and nights pass we now
Groan for our release.
New redemption blooms around us
Bringing us your peace.

Darkness fades and sunrays glimmer
As the clouds depart;
Rising joy fills every corner
Of our grateful hearts.
So as time rolls ever onward,
We draw courage strong,
Hope and faith sustain our living,
love inspires our song.

Words © Gordon Giles (b. 1966)

Music © Jonathan Marten (b. 1947)

Troubled Times tune Windmill Hill