I know that several times I have pointed out that clergy have played an important role as both authors and composers of hymn texts and tunes. Our offertory hymn this week, “God is Love, let heaven adore him” (The Hymnal 1982, hymn 379), is an example of both words and music coming from twentieth-century clergy of the Church of England.
The text of this beautiful hymn was written by Timothy Rees (1874-1939), Bishop of Llandaff, Wales. Shortly after his death, seven hymn texts were found among his papers, including “God is Love.” It was one of the hymns sung at his funeral.
The tune for “God is Love” is called ABBOT’S LEIGH. It was composed on a Sunday morning in 1941 by Cyril Vincent Taylor (1907-1991). He wrote it to be sung with “Glorious things of thee are spoken” as an alternative to the tune AUSTRIA (hymn 522), which had been adopted by the Nazis for “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles.”
Taylor’s tune is named ABBOT’S LEIGH because at that time Canon Taylor, an Anglican priest, was Assistant to the Head of BBC’s Religious Broadcasting in their wartime headquarters in Abbot’s Leigh, a village near Bristol, England. Since then this tune has appeared in almost every major English-language hymnal in the world. It is considered to be one of the most successful hymn tunes of the past century. In The Hymnal 1982 it is paired with two other texts (511 and 523), and in the green hymnal Wonder, Love, and Praise the ABBOT’S LEIGH melody is used twice (780 and 782).
Hymn expert Erik Routley (1917-1982) describes ABBOT’S LEIGH as the first example “of a hymn tune taught to the whole of Britain through broadcasting. Its secret, which gives it a sort of timeless authority that makes one feel as soon as one has heard it that one knew it all one’s life, comes from the fact that its composer remembered what it was like to be in a pew singing.”
“God is Love” is very much a hymn of praise. But notice how stanza 2 speaks hope and comfort to our inner being. When I consider these words in the context of our pandemic-stricken world, I feel a deep yearning to be embraced by God’s love. What powerful and eloquent words for us to hold in our heart and to sing and share with each other!
God is Love, let heaven adore him; God is Love, let earth rejoice;
Let creation sing before him and exalt him with one voice.
God who laid the earth’s foundation, God who spread the heavens above,
God who breathes through all creation: God is Love, eternal Love.
God is Love; and love enfolds us, all the world in one embrace:
With unfailing grasp God holds us, every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking under sorrow’s iron rod,
Then we find that self-same aching deep within the heart of God.
God is Love, and though with blindness sin afflicts all human life,
God’s eternal lovingkindness guides us through our earthly strife.
Sin and death and hell shall never o’er us final triumph gain;
God is Love, so Love forever o’er the universe must reign.