STLT#358, Rank by Rank Again We Stand

I don’t even know where to begin, so I guess I’ll begin with this morning’s experience of singing.

As frequent readers know, I’m an Anglophile – a lover of British television, British film, the British Isles, and at least once, a British person. Knowing this was today’s hymn before I cracked open the hymnal, I started humming the tune (by English composer Walford Davies) in the shower, and it felt – feels – quintessentially British. I was transported to the Proms, and a scene from a Merchant-Ivory film, and it reminded me of Holst and Elgar and that early 20th century English classical music that seems an antidote to the romanticism of the French.

And as I shampooed, I remembered that the lyrics are troubling at best. Here’s what we have from the original by John Huntley Skrine, abridged and new words added by our man Carl Seaburg:

Rank by rank again we stand,
from the four winds gathered hither.
Loud the hallowed walls demand
whence we come and how, and whither.
From their stillness breaking clear,
echoes wake to warn or cheer;
higher truth from saint and seer
call to us assembled here.

Ours the years’ memorial store,
honored days and names we reckon,
days of comrades gone before,
lives that speak and deeds that beckon.
From the dreaming of the night
to the labors of the day,
shines their everlasting light,
guiding us upon our way.

Though the path be hard and long,
still we strive in expectation;
join we now their ageless song
one with them in aspiration.
One in name, in honor one,
guard we well the crown they won;
what they dreamed be ours to do,
hope their hopes, and seal them true.

Trust me, you don’t want to know Skrine’s original lyrics – which were written at the height of British Imperialism at the end of the 19th century. Seaburg did an okay job of softening the Empire language, and lines like “what they dreamed be ours to do” is inspiring. Sometime in the last 20 years, an additional verse was added by Kendyl Gibbons:

Never from that summons swerve;
Hark the prophets’ living chorus!
Truth and freedom still to serve
Show the present path before us.
As we dream, so shall we dare;
Hands to service, hearts to prayer.
Clouds of witness call us on,
That a nobler day may dawn.

It’s not bad, and “as we dream so shall we dare” is also a kick-ass line.

But oh, the problems. Empire. Abelism. And a song written, likely, for convocation (this appears in a handbook of songs for the University of Wales, compiled by Davies – with this tune, Reunion, written for this purpose). And of course at the time, we have men going to university in part to continue ruling the British Empire, which is already beginning to show signs of cracking in the wake of World War I. It’s not wonder this somewhat militarized tune and language would be used; even though in that context ‘rank by rank’ alluded to the various academic levels, rank also alludes to the military.

Surprisingly, information on this – especially the tune – was hard to find. A quick search for the tune turned up empty, and it took a while to even find reference to this song outside of our annual Service of the Living Tradition. I finally found a PDF of the hymnal it comes from (for those who want to follow along, click here – it’s on page 303 of the book and 345 of the PDF itself). The lyrics show up on Hymnary, but not the tune, which was a later addition. I finally found a recording of the tune here, in an obscure section of a folksinger’s website (Mary Ellen Wessels). I should also note that this was in Hymns of the Spirit and Hymns for the Celebration of Life, so it has a long history in our liberal religious tradition.

But the search, and my experience with this hymn, is frustrating and complex. And this is a hymn most of us sing once or twice a year. Has anyone sung this when they’re not processing at an ordination, installation, or Service of the Living Tradition? And most of us dislike the song but love the pomp and circumstance. A few still love it, and so it stays as part of our tradition. Can we redeem it? It seems that every year after General Assembly, we talk on Facebook about different lyrics – suggestions include

Rank by rank again we meet,
from the four winds gathered hither.
Loud the hallowed walls entreat
whence we come and how, and whither.

or

Rank by rank come we once more,
from the four winds gathered hither.
Loud the hallowed walls implore
whence we come and how, and whither.

or

We can get rid of it altogether for these handful of times a year, because while it is an historic part of our living tradition, we are easily able to preserve it (see the piles of old hymnals we have) and – because our living tradition CHANGES – we can choose something new. When I hear about how different the Service of the Living Tradition was not that long ago, it seems strange that we have such a fuss over changing the music we use. And if it makes us better as a result, why not?

And… I will still hum this tune now and then because it’s pretty good for a school processional.

Photo (via UU World) is of Rev. Cheryl Walker preaching at the 2017 Service of the Living Tradition.

3 Comments

  1. When Nick Cardell was our minister at May Memorial, we sang this at every intergenerational service, but he changed the words up quite a bit, starting with “Side by side again we stand” and then taking words from each verse and mashing them together in a different order. I never saw it in the hymnal until years later (because the words were always printed in the Order of Service) and was surprised at the difference!

  2. I like it. I associate it with first Sunday in fall. (I’m a professor so I have never grown out of academic years.) But I also think that we have a strong tradition of literally standing and walking (or sitting and rolling, as the case may be) together — look at Charlotte, look at Boston, go to Fort Benning in November, look back to Selma. Is it really too ableist to sing about something a lot of us actually do? (Maybe it is; I don’t know.) I my mind rank by rank = row by row, as one is, true, in a military formation or at a convocation, but also as we often are in church or at a march.

    • I entirely agree with you that there’s not reason not to change the Service of the Living Tradition. I’m mostly, I guess, explaining why I like the hymn for my own use (often just in my head).

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