By the time you read this, I will have sung the Christmas carol, “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night”. More than once. I have to admit – just between you and me – that it’s not my favourite hymn. Sung to the tune most often used (in this country at least), ‘Winchester Old’, I think it’s a rather pedestrian telling of the story of the angelic annunciation to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). And it doesn’t help knowing that half the congregation are fighting the urge to sing, “While shepherds washed their socks…” (I also get a picture of a very large reggae singer when I see the words “Mighty Dread”.)
I agree it ends well, with the Gloria:
All glory be to God on high
And to the earth be peace;
Goodwill henceforth from heaven to men
Begin and never cease.
The words were written by Nahum Tate, the Irish writer who became England’s poet laureate in 1692. (Although the satirist Alexander Pope cites Tate as being under the influence of the goddess Dullness in his work ‘The Dunciad’). Tate’s great contribution to the church’s worship was his collaboration with Nicholas Brady on a metrical version of the Psalms, some of which we still sing as hymns, such as their setting of Psalm 42, “As pants the hart for cooling streams.”
“While Shepherds Watched” first appears in Tate and Brady’s supplement to their collection of psalms, published in 1700. But wait a minute! The story of the shepherds from the Gospel of Luke isn’t a psalm, is it? Nope! But this is how the hymn gained its popularity: at the time, hymns were not sung in Anglican churches. Let me say that again: hymns were not sung in Anglican churches! The only approved texts were the canticles (e.g. the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis) and the psalms, which were sung at Matins and Evensong. If you look at the 1662 Book of Common Prayer you will see no mention of hymns being sung. At Morning and Evening Prayer, the BCP allows the following:
In Quires and Places where they sing
here followeth the Anthem.
Tate’s “While Shepherds Watched”, having been snuck into a book of psalms to be sung in churches, became popular because it is really a versified paraphrase of a scriptural text, the words being very close to those of Luke 2:8-14. So, at the time, “While Shepherds Watched” was the only Christmas hymn that could be sung in the Church of England! No wonder it became popular! Many of the hymns and carols that we sing today were not used in churches until as recently as the second half of the 19th Century (which makes them a modern innovation, not a tradition!) (In my humble opinion, carols were meant to be sung in pubs, not churches, but that’s a conversation for another occasion…)
The uniqueness of “While Shepherds Watched” also accounts for the fact that it has been sung to many different tunes in its lifetime. Many churchgoers seem to believe that for most hymns there is one ‘proper’ tune and they get very uncomfortable when the vicar or organist suggests singing them to a different tune. But over the years, the words of “While Shepherds Watched” have been sung to at least a dozen different tunes, perhaps more. In America, they use a tune based on one from an opera by Handel. It has also been sung to the tune ‘Lyngham’, which we more often associate with the words “O For A Thousand Tongues To Sing”, by Charles Wesley. There are regional variations too around Britain: in Cornwall it is sung to a tune called ‘Northrop’ and in Yorkshire and Derbyshire, it is sung, with a refrain, as song called “Sweet Bells“. At this point, I’d like to recommend that you listen to one of the Christmas albums by Kate Rusby, a folk singer from Barnsley. Or better still, go to see one of her Christmas shows: the song, “While Shepherds Watched” turns up in various guises, including to the tune we normally associate with the Yorkshire song “On Ilkla Moor Baht ‘at”. Before you throw your hands up in horror, let me point out that the tune – ‘Cranbrook‘ – to which ‘the national anthem of Yorkshire’ is sung, was originally written as a hymn tune, and in some places, is still the most popular tune for “While Shepherds Watched”.
Each year at St Matthew’s we hold a Christmas Tree Festival. This year we are taking the theme “While Shepherds Watch…” I’m trying to remember how we chose it… I think someone had heard of the “Messy Nativity” project in Liverpool in 2010: sheep knitted by members of the Mothers Union popped up in the shops at Liverpool One, and other places, during the Advent season and were used to tell the Christmas story. So, if you are coming to St Matthew’s during Advent and Christmas, look out for the sheep: see how many you can count. Remember the shepherds who were the first to hear the good news. Think of Jesus saying that he is The Good Shepherd and his stories of shepherds looking for their lost sheep. And join me in singing “While Shepherds Watched” with gusto (to the tune ‘Cranbrook’).