Come down to earth: a new hymn for the Catholic and Anglican Dioceses of Melbourne

by Philip Nicholls.

Midway through 2021, Dean Andreas Loewe noted that both the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne would share a 175th birthday quite close to each other in 2022.

Plans are afoot for combined choral worship services at St Paul’s Cathedral on Sunday 26 June at 4pm and St Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday 21 August at 3.30pm. A committee comprising the Deans and Directors of Music of both cathedrals meets quarterly, and we conspired to commission a hymn to celebrate this anniversary.

We settled on an Anglican poet, Dr Katherine Firth, to compose the text, and a Catholic musician, Revd Dr Christopher Willcock, to compose the music. Both professionals took to their task energetically, with Dr Firth providing the very fine text within a matter of weeks, and Dr Willcock was then able to approach the musical setting comfortably, and without feeling the need to rush. In the end, he took about two weeks too!

The poem prays that God might come down to earth in welcome, wisdom, hoping, sorrow, and living; blessing the church’s people and sacraments in their buildings and nature; acknowledging First Nations custodianship and calling for treaty; encouraging us all to pass on the Gospel of hospitality and love to others; and invoking the Trinitarian God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The twist in the tail comes in the last verse of the text. Many hymns are called ‘regular’ as they have the same number of syllables and stresses in each line and, respectively, in each verse: a ‘regular metre’. Dr Firth’s text alters the metre in the last verse, unsettling us all when singing the hymn, but drawing our attention to the primacy of the Trinity. I’m no composer, but I do know enough about crafting hymn tunes that a change in metre is the most unsettling to the composer! The beautiful melody crafted for the first five verses is seamlessly extended to cover the metre change in the sixth, so much so that singers hardly realise it has happened. Both the change in metre itself and the music composed to set it are masterful.

The hymn, titled Come Down to Earth, was first sung at the 8am Holy Communion service on Sunday 6 March 2022. I’ve commissioned a lot of hymns in my time, and welcomed entries for a lot of hymn competitions, but almost never before have I been able to trust the text and music to be so approachable that the first singing could be unaccompanied, and congregational. The congregation of about 50 were all able to join in, following my vocal lead, and hailing the hymn as ‘lovely’, ‘easy to sing’, ‘theologically sound’, and ‘pleasing melodically’. It was repeated at the 10am service with organ, choir, and descant, and received similar accolades.

Thank you, Katherine and Christopher, for sharing your incredible gifts with us. The hymn will be sung throughout the dioceses I suspect for many years to come.

Mr Philip Nicholls is Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral.