O come, all ye faithless

NS Christmas - Hymns - and carols - could save the Church of England from demise

By the time you read this the Yuletide television adverts may be starting to grate. Which blameless carols have the likes of Woolworths and Dixons chosen for their hard-sell commercials this year? Will it be "O Come, All Ye Faithful", complete with tinselled reindeer? Or will it be some ding-dong handbell version of "Hark the Herald" that gets broadcast hundreds of times, to the point where you want to throw mince pies at the TV set?

Or maybe they'll plump for "While Shepherds Watched", which, given the low, mercantile purpose, might as well be that schoolboy variation, "While Shepherds Washed Their Socks By Night".

Carols are the rump of Christmas religiousness. Without them there would be hardly anything spiritual about the 21st-century Christmas served up by our broadcasters and their collaborators in big business. So thank God, literally, for our tradition of singing and listening to carols. The way these songs have survived should be a lesson to the Church of England for the rest of the year.

Churchgoing is often understated by militant atheists, an odd breed who proselytise their non-belief with almost religious fervour. According to a recent Times poll, 12 per cent of the population still attend church once a week or more often, and another 5 per cent shuffle along to divine service once a month. Yet it is depressingly true that millions of Britons will not step inside a church, or say a prayer, or even pause to think about their Maker, between now and the Epiphany. Christmas carols - think, for instance, of the haunting first notes of "Once in Royal David's City" - provide these quasi- heathens with their one semi-spiritual hit.

Many of today's most popular carols are not really churchy, and certainly would not have passed muster with Parson James Woodforde, the 18th-century diarist and churchman who viewed carols as little better than vulgar ballads. Until the Wesley brothers came along in the mid-1700s, and stirred the emotions of their Meth-odist congregants with some wonderful hymn tunes, church music consisted of little more than chanted canticles.

Carols such as "Good King Wenceslas", "The First Noel", "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "The Holly and the Ivy" are still not found in the English Hymnal or in Hymns Ancient and Modern (Rev-ised). It has only been in the past couple of centuries that they developed from secular songs into something more official.

Before the Victorian era, companionable bands of "waits", or Christmas minstrels, would gather at public places to belt out a few uplifting tunes. Carols were certainly an outdoor activity in the Derbyshire/ Yorkshire area in 1819, when an Ameri-can writer, Washington Irving, described hearing late-night waits "introducing peace and goodwill to mankind".

In 1878 the new diocese of Truro made an innovation and introduced a 10pm Christmas Eve church service of carols, such singing previously having been considered an outdoor activity. Other churches and cathedrals saw what a success the service was and followed suit. The "traditional" carol service, as now defined by the choir of King's College, Cambridge, had been born.

Today's hymn books contain surprisingly few Christmas carols, and even some of those are nowadays seldom heard. It is rare to come across "Of the Father's Love Begotten", "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "A Great and Mighty Wonder", all of them perfectly good Christmas hymns, but sadly not fashionable.

Hymnals actually offer a richer choice of material for Advent (the eastern-tinged "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel"), Harvest-tide ("Come, Ye Thankful People, Come", or that German oompah number, "We Plough the Fields and Scatter") and Whitsun (Ralph Vaughan Williams's peerless "Down Ampney" setting for "Come Down, O Love Divine"). Leaf through the "general" hymns and you come across magnificent songs such as "Christ is Made the Sure Foundation", "Ye Watcher and Ye Holy Ones", and "Lord, Enthroned in Heavenly Splendour".

Why does the Anglican Church not use these hymns the way carols have been used? Why does it not encourage the use of hymn tunes in television adverts, or even as pop cover versions? Why, instead of spending money on retreats and evangelical missions and drippy newsletters, does it not devote its energies to getting bands of modern-day waits out into the shopping centres and high streets and airports to sing hymns every week of the year and remind lapsed churchgoers of what they are missing?

The Rev Gillean Craig, vicar of St Mary Abbots, Kensington, says: "Many schools no longer teach hymnody, having scrap-ped the daily assembly at which they sang hymns. It means that irregular congregants in the future will not have that deep-rooted familiarity with hymns. Hymns are such an important part of our life." The Church in general has in recent decades neglected its hymn heritage. It has allowed church organs to fall into disrepair and the standard of music in many small parishes is dire, the singing hesitant. There are depressingly few vicars who, like Craig, realise the pulling power of a good belter of a hymn.

All those Christmas carols on the telly adverts at present may be maddening, but at least they are maintaining an aural tradition. So alleluia for carols - even from the high priests of capitalism on ITV.