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Abide With Me

From the Research Lodge of Otago, No. 161,  N.Z.
November, 1988

How many times has it been said that we learn and dictate our ritual without really knowing what we say.  Likewise, when it comes to the Odes we sing, how many of us really do note the words or even wonder how they originated.

I now present to you the story behind one of one of the most frequently used final Odes.  To do so I would like you to turn your minds to the real game of football . . . .  yes, . . . Soccer.

The F.A. Cup Final at Wembly in April 1927 went down in the record books as the one and only time that the coveted football trophy has ever been won by a non-English club, for Arsenal lost to the Welsh side Cardiff City by the only goal of the match.  But the occasion was noteworthy for another reason that started a tradition which has continued to the present time.

In those distant days, long before the advent of soccer hooliganism, the crowds attending football matches were all well-behaved despite their enthusiasm, and it came as no surprise when King George V decided to confer royal patronage on the sport by attending the Cup Final himself. To entertain the 100,000 spectators prior to the match, the organizers had arranged a programme of community singing   . . . . British songs for British people.  Included in the list of favourites for the first time was a hymn which the King was known to love, ever since he’d heard Dame Clara Butt sing it many years before . . . . .    ABIDE WITH ME.

Until then, most people had thought of it mainly in connection with funerals and sombre occasions.  But the poignant words and haunting tune, which the King himself joined in singing with the massive crowd, proved such a popular choice that it has been sung at Cup Finals ever since.  Nowadays, it is heard by the greater audience of 20million all over the world who watch the Final on television.  Indeed, no other hymn can claim quite the same universal appeal, cutting  as it does across all denominational lines.

Yet although the hymn has been a comfort and consolation to Christians for more than 150 years it took only an hour for a Devon parson to write the words, and a mere ten minutes for a music teacher to compose the tune. The hymn’s writer was Henry Francis Lyte, born at Ednam, a village near Kelso on the Scottish border, in June 1793, the younger son of a military officer who was descended from a long line of English village squires, the Lytes of Lytes Cary in Somerset.

In common with most Service families the children went to school wherever the father was posted. That is how Henry and his less scholarly brother Thomas came to attend a boarding school at Enniskillen, Northern Ireland.  Henry proved to be such a brilliant pupil that, after three years at the school, the headmaster kept him on free of charge.  A scholarship to trinity College, Dublin resulted and young Henry - a frail young fellow - began reading medicine, but later gave it up to try for Holy Orders.