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Why would a self-professed atheist like me join a hymn singing marathon? Read on to find out how I spent my weekend…

A twitter friend is the organist of a local church. When she announced a 30 hour “hymnathon” to raise money for organ repairs – singing every hymn in the New English Hymnal – it caught my imagination, as someone who loves choral singing. But I didn’t yet know exactly which hymns the book contained. I signed up anyway, and invited my friends to be “organ donors”. Kathryn wrote an article explaining why it was so necessary to restore the instrument she played.

My research told me that the original English Hymnal was edited by my favourite composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams – himself a non-believer. This had been superceded by the New English Hymnal in 1986.

On Friday I wheeled myself through the door of St Andrew’s. I’d been afraid of a reverent “bless you for coming” but instead the atmosphere was light and informal. I was told about the free food for singers, and invited to buy raffle tickets. I greeted Kathryn, observed the notes for singers (sing in parts as you wish, but in unison for the last verse) and took my place, ready for the three hours that I had volunteered, and promised to my sponsors.

At one point there were as many as 7 of us… at other points it was a duet, and the other girl happily said “I’ll follow you” but I was sight reading… *gulp* – and of course part singing went out the window! Luckily nobody criticised my growling! I am now familiar with ALL the hymns of Easter, Ascension and most of Pentecost. I particularly enjoyed Now The Green Blade Rises, an interesting tune and words that symbolise spring and new life.

Parishioners were present at all times so we had a small audience, which was nice. They were encouraged to sing too, which surprised my husband when he arrived 45 minutes before I finished! (I think he busied himself with his phone.)

Time flew by, and my voice began to tire. At last my three hours were up, and I left – Kathryn still flitting about between singing, playing, and greeting!

On Saturday, I felt a need to attend the finale (pictured). It was partly a wish to see things through, and also a desire to see which hymn had “won”; sponsors had been asked to name their favourite hymn, and whichever took the most money would be used to close the event. I slotted into position, this time next to twelve other singers and a second organist, to learn that there had been a tie. Jerusalem (which my atheist supporters had backed) took the same amount as Be Thou My Vision (obviously significant to others). We sang them both.

And that was it! Kathryn had done a fantastic job organising (and was still speaking coherently after 30 hours) and I was delighted to see that the event had been welcoming to believers, atheists and agnostics; to people of all ethnicities, gender and ages; and made me feel an important part of proceedings. Surely this is the point, speaking as an outsider, if a church is to remain current – it must represent everyone in its parish and make them all feel comfortable to be there. Maybe I’ll pop into the church’s cafe in future.

The total on Monday morning was £5k. Not bad for a handful of musicians, two dozen singers, and other volunteers. But the total needed is £25k, so the fundraising goes on!

My part is over. Now it’s your turn – if you’re able to support the hymnathon, please go to my JustGiving page and give what you can afford. I know that any contribution will be valuable in supporting choral singing within my community.

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