In which Ruth ponders Black Prayers

I’ve been rummaging through old church magazines again and found this interesting article about music in Lent, from March 1925.

There was an ancient custom in some churches that was very widely observed in England up to the middle of last century of giving up all music during the week-days of Lent, and having ‘black prayers’, so called because the white singing robes were laid aside and the choir appeared in black cassocks, as they still do on Good Fridays, monotoning chants, psalms, and responses, while hymns, except on Sundays were unheard. Since music is among the joys of life and has its place with feasting and all fair things, this custom seems more impressive that the singing of hymns about fasting, which on the lips of the majority are wholly insincere. It seems to encourage rather a dangerous habit of mind to sing of the Church’s call to fasting, while in practice we substitute some trifling self-denial of your own choosing, because in these days we have come to the conclusion that after all man does not live by bread alone!

…The modern English hymns for Lent are only two, but they are very good ones. ‘Forty days and forty nights’ was written by Rev George Smyttan and slightly altered by Rev F Pott; and ‘Lord, in this Thy mercy’s day’ is by Rev Isaac Williams, one of the saintly leaders of the Oxford movement.

Imagine that! Only two hymns for Lent. Did they have them every week, do you think? One assumes that they did sing other non-Lenten hymns at this time. I love hymns for Lent and Passiontide. There is something about the pace and the sorrow which makes them terribly powerful. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that of all my favourite hymns most are for Lent or Communion. Yet I seem such a happy soul!

I like the idea of ‘black prayers’, mind you. Not that we have a daily mass with choir, you understand. But there is something about changing the pace, aurally and visibly, which appeals to the stage-manager in me. Our choir don’t wear cassocks and cottas so that won’t work… the Servers without cottas, perhaps? Hmmm. Then that would show all the safety pins and things which hold these ancient garments together, all usually hidden under the crisp white folds of the cotta. Perhaps not then.

And your favourite Lent hymn? Do share.

sad songs


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