Dearmer, Percy


b Kilburn, Middx (N London) 1867, d Westminster, London 1936. Streatham Sch and Westminster Sch, London; the Lutheran Sch at Vevey, Switzerland (all quite briefly); then in 1886 to Christ Ch Oxford to read History, where his naturally flamboyant style became well known. After being deeply influenced by Chas Gore during his stay at the fledgling Pusey House, he was ordained (CofE) in 1891 to a curacy in S Lambeth, where he met the realities of London poverty and served as the London Sec in the early days of the Christian Social Union, 1891–1912. In 1899 he wrote the widely-used The Parson’s Handbook, which included his advocacy of beauty, art and ceremony to accompany Prayer Bk services. Occupied though it was with much liturgical minutiae, with several revisions, U-turns, and sometimes tenuous connections with the BCP, it ran to 13 edns, like all his work as much anti-Romanising as anti-ugliness, and even more pro-English usage. He became the methodical but innovative Vicar of St Mary’s Primrose Hill (Hampstead, N London), 1901–15, introducing radical changes from day one and many unpublished hymns and tunes which became classics. The thoughtless use of bad hymns exercised him greatly, and during this time he was General Editor of The English Hymnal, whose Preface announced itself in 1906 as ‘a collection of the best hymns in the English language’. In reality this was an assertively Anglo-catholic or ‘high church’ hymnal and a quality book, with Vaughan Williams as Music Editor, serving a particular constituency seen by some as extreme but still (and almost uniquely) in use 100 years on.

In 1904 Dearmer became the first chairman of the Guild of Health, promoting what came to be known as the holistic Christian approach; he also assisted with his first wife Mabel’s dramatic productions including her fresh approaches to Morality and Mystery Plays. He became an Oxford DD in 1911. In 1915 he volunteered as an army chaplain (as Mabel discovered by his announcement from the pulpit), working with the British Red Cross in Serbia, where she also worked as a hospital orderly but died of typhoid 3 months later. His work went on, and included lecturing in several countries to branches of the YMCA.

After remarriage to Nan (who wrote his first biography in 1940) and some global travels together, Percy was appointed in 1919 as the first Prof of Ecclesiastical Art (on which he wrote copiously) at King’s Coll, London, at £50 per annum, and in 1924 for his architectural expertise he was made an Hon ARIBA. In liturgical matters he moved from ‘Prayer Book fundamentalism’ to wanting a more ‘human’ revision of some services, and opposed the rigid Anglo-catholic rule of ‘fasting Communion’. Apparently out of favour with the ecclesiastical establishment, he nevertheless advised on the new archbishop’s ‘enthronement’ service in 1928.

Finally on May Day 1931 he joined the Westminster Abbey staff as Canon Librarian, to a mixed reception. He attacked sweepstakes and all forms of gambling, and (more controversially then) the ban on contraception, and thence the RC church as ‘a great political machine’; he also enrolled his family in the opportunities given by religious broadcasting for children. Meanwhile in 1926 he had edited the very different (from EH) but for its time effective Songs of Praise, reflecting his (by now) more liberal outlook and commandeering much borderline verse as hymn texts, with Martin Shaw and VW (again) as Music Editors and G W Briggs (qv) among what was very much his own team. If EH was blamed for adding to Christian doctrines, SoP was accused of subtracting from them and including ‘hymns’ by avowed atheists; but in school assemblies this lasted well beyond its usefulness for adult congregations, and some of its original hymns have survived. An enlarged edn came in 1932 and the Oxford Book of Carols, also with Shaw and RVW, in 1928—which was not limited to Christmas, and musically jolly and quaintly comic; its Preface was brutally frank about ‘the most inconceivable depravity’ of some contemporary Sunday afternoon religious music. However, whatever we think of the late or retarded Victorians, the textually bizarre contents of much of OBC tends to undermine the main editor’s subsequent scorn of Bunyan’s ‘hobgoblins’ and Watts’s ‘worms’: ‘Poor Satan, you can hear him,/ is raging down in hell,/ for now there’s none to fear him,/ and none to wish him well…’! Also in 1932 PD annexed Mrs Alexander’s title for Prayers and Hymns for Little Children, a small collection for the 4s-7s prepared with Vaughan Williams, M Shaw and G W Briggs, reaching a 4th impression in 1953. In 1933 Dearmer published the informative and highly quotable ‘companion’, Songs of Praise Discussed revealing both prejudice and blind spots (Watts, Toplady etc) as well as ‘wit and wisdom’. But in July 1935 his damaged heart brought a breakdown, and though he recovered some activity, he collapsed and died, aged 69, in the following May. 18 of his own texts and versions appeared in EH (and only one less in the 1986 New English Hymnal) and 23 in SoP, several of which have made their way into later books, mainly Anglican but 7 (eg) in the 1951 Congregational Praise. A&M did not feature his work until 1983 and 2000 (with 4 and 7 hymns respectively). His most famous text is his adaptation of the ‘Pilgrim Song’ by Jn Bunyan qv, as included here. He also wrote The Art of Public Worship, books about Oxford, Wells and Normandy, and on liturgy and much else. A recent biography is Donald Gray’s Percy Dearmer: A Parson’s Pilgrimage (2000). No.884*.

Hymns and songs by Dearmer, Percy

Number Hymn Name
884 He who would valiant be