Looking Back, Series

Looking Back: A Thousand Tongues!

By Nick Twinamatsiko, Uganda:

I mentioned, in the last installment, that, because every family had to bring to church the chairs they were to use on Sundays, the church furniture was almost as varied as the worshippers and sitting positions were permanent. The chair one sat on in church was a fairly reliable index to their financial standing. There were some comfy chairs with soft cushions, there were some wooden forms, and there were some foldable ones which were carried away by owners after services. Some people simply carried mats, which they laid on a reserved area, in front of the pulpit. That the poorest should be positioned closest to the pulpit, from where the word of God radiated, was probably inadvertently decided, but, looking back now, it strikes me as powerfully symbolic.

At around 10 am, the voice of the catechist would ring out from the entrance of the vestry, marking the commencement of the service. He would say the opening prayer – a standard prayer written in the Common-Prayer book which, thanks to the power of repetition, he could now say from memory with all due gravity. The opening prayer would be followed by the processional hymn: the voices of all congregants would rise up in song as the clergy made their way down the aisle. It's then that a keen observer would notice that the voices of worshippers distinguished them to a finer degree than the chairs on which they sat.

The opening hymn might be “O for a thousand tongues to sing God's praise”, and one noticed, as the hymn went up in the air, that the voices singing God's praise were as varied as their owners. All the voice types rose together: the soprano, the mezzo-soprano, the contralto, the counter-tenor, the tenor, the baritone and the bass. Not only that: the bass of Mr. Mugizi was different from that of Mr. Kiiza, the soprano of Mrs. Kyorikwenda was different from that of Mrs. Tumwine. The voices were so distinctive that, in my mind, they soon became the most reliable mark of identity. When I met a person on the village footpath, I instinctively recalled the voice with which they sang in church. The singing voice was amongst the personal characteristics that came to mind most readily.

A person's identity became sharper when the memory of their singing voice was attached to a particular hymn. People sang different hymns with different degrees of emotional involvement. And so, sometimes, when I met people on the footpath, my memory was not limited to the voice with which they sang, but drew in the hymn that lifted them to the peak of passion. I visualized them doing the closest to a jig that one could do in the conservative Anglican Church, or recalled the contortions of emotion that became their faces as they surrendered their souls in song.

I soon realized that I was not alone in associating people with specific songs. When someone died, one of the mourners mentioned the hymn of which the deceased had been particularly fond, and it usually turned out to be the hymn that my consciousness, young as it was, associated with the deceased. The mourners would sing that beloved hymn over and over, and some would cry as they did so, for the hymn evoked their fondest, purest and divinest memories of the deceased.

When Charles Wesley wrote his hymn, “O for a thousand tongues to sing God's praise”, he probably had no idea that it would be translated into a thousand tongues, and that together with the other hymns, some of which preceded him by centuries, it would be sang, even centuries later, in the uttermost ends of the earth, and that villages whose existence he was unaware of would not only use hymns to identity their members, but have their entire culture deeply influenced by hymnody.

Poems are powerful things, but hymns – perhaps because they entail music and lift our eyes heavenward – are infinitely more powerful and more enduring.

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