Sun, Sea, and S.S. Wesley

Our August reflection comes from John Mansfield and picks a summer theme.

This is the time of year for holidays and for some that means going to the seaside. Perhaps the place you visit brings a favourite hymn to mind. There is, after all, a tune called Cornwall, written by none other than Samuel Sebastian Wesley. The tune got its name as it was supposed to have been composed at Land’s End. That was later found to be untrue but the name stuck.

Wherever it was composed, it is (in the words of the Companion to Rejoice and Sing) one of S.S. Wesley’s most graceful tunes (he had a special way with hymn tunes and wrote several that you could describe as graceful).

Becoming technical for a moment I must admit that I have no idea where the magic comes from, but the tune is unusual in not changing key to what we call the dominant (in the key of D major the dominant key is A major and it is quite normal for a tune to change key to the dominant at some stage); instead it changes key twice to F sharp minor and E minor respectively, and it might be these minor tonalities that give the tune such an air of wistful longing; but I am not convinced that that accounts for all the attraction of the tune.

“Not far beyond the sea” is the work of the distinguished New Testament Scholar Dr George Caird, who became Principal of Mansfield College, Oxford and, later, Dean Ireland’s Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. The hymn takes up the idea of an older hymn which talks of the authority of the Word of God “discerned under the guidance of the Holy Spirit”.

Caird’s hymn explores what the New Testament itself says about the unfolding Word of God. His widow Mollie wrote that “as a Biblical scholar my husband was rather proud of the fact that he had incorporated no less than 17 distinct Biblical quotations into this hymn.” Five of the references are listed in the index to Rejoice and Sing, but you will have to seek out the other 12 yourselves!

But with or without showing the exact source for every quotation the hymn has much to say to us and much to put into our mouths to sing in praise to God – the purpose of hymns, after all.

So wherever you find yourself on holiday, God is there: not far above the sea nor high above the heavens; and feeding us babes in Christ with milk sufficient for our need … the more I read the hymn the truer it seems to be to me. Do take a few moments to read the hymn through and make it the basis of your holiday prayer.