Henry Francis Lyte wrote the words of “ABIDE WITH ME” one Sunday in 1847, a day when he felt utterly alone.
Once a popular vicar at All Saints Anglican Church and beloved throughout Brixham, Lyte had fought against slavery and ministered to hardworking fishermen and their families. He was an expert flute player, spoke French fluently, and knew the names of all the wildflowers. He assembled one of the most extensive libraries in western England at Berry Head House, the old military hospital he bought and renovated for his wife and five children.
But on the day he wrote the words of his famous hymn, all he could see around him was change and decay, a hopeless dead end. Tuberculosis had taken his strength, and his once thriving congregation had drifted away.
After he preached his last sermon to a small handful of remaining faithful, Lyte walked along the harbor where fishing boats were anchored. At age 54, he felt the darkness deepening and knew that his life’s little day was coming to a close.
He sat on the Devon shore and composed the hymn lyrics which would be remembered long after his death… “When other helpers fail and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”
OLD EARTH HYMNS FOR NEW EARTH GRIDLOCK
“Abide with Me” and another beloved old hymn were used to great effect on “Gridlock,” a 2007 episode of Doctor Who, the campy cult-favorite BBC sci-fi show.
On this episode, Doctor Who, the adorable Time Lord who wonders at the universe, and the astonishing Martha Jones, his travel-mate du jour, tumble and bounce down the long time vortex of the cosmos, dodging lightning bolts and advocating tolerance and nonviolence in their tough little TARDIS, a blue police box which is vastly bigger on the inside.
They land on New Earth on a day billions of years in the future and are appalled to find that the residents of New New York have been stuck in a decades’ long traffic jam, going nowhere fast on a multi-lane, multi-layered motorway. All exits are closed.
It’s a metaphor that makes us cringe. We know about long commutes. We also know the isolation of life on the “information highway.”
Every few minutes, an overly cheerful hologram appears on their computer screens with a traffic report and words of encouragement. Mid-episode, all the radios suddenly begin broadcasting “THE OLD RUGGED CROSS.” The commuters in their self-contained flying mini-vans start to sing, every last one growing weepy at the words, “I will cling to the old rugged cross and exchange it some day for a crown.”
Here is Marx’s religion as “the opiate of the masses.” The hymn is used to placate an entire civilization into passively accepting their exhaust fume existence until Someone Big fixes things.
The Doctor eventually leads everyone up into the sunlight, aided by the sacrifice of a god-like “big old face” (literally, a big, old face) whose dying words are “You are not alone.”
The episode ends with homesick Doctor Who confiding in Martha (and us) about his loneliness since the loss of his home planet. Savvy viewers, knowing that our own planet is teetering on the verge of cataclysmic change, can’t help but relate. Our hearts break as he talks:
We lost. Everyone lost. They’re all gone now. My family. My friends. Even that sky. Ah, you should have seen it, that old planet. The second sun would rise in the south and the mountains would shine. The leaves on the trees were silver. When they caught the light every morning, it looked like a forest on fire….
As the forsaken Doctor reminisces, we hear in the background “ABIDE WITH ME” (sung by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to the traditional tune “Eventide” by William Henry Monk). “Change and decay in all around I see, O Thou who changest not, abide with me.” The informed use of this hymn conjures an entirely different use of religion than the earlier one suggested by “The Old Rugged Cross.”
HYMN DIVIDE ON DOCTOR WHO?
Is it possible that someone on the 2007 Doctor Who production team knew about Rev. Lyte and the story behind this hymn? I suspect there were some vigorous theological debates on set (or is this just a hymn-nerd fantasy?).
David Tennant, who played Doctor Who at the time, was the son of a Church of Scotland pastor. He grew up singing hymns in Sunday worship and would have recognized “Abide with Me,” penned by Scottish-born Lyte, a hymn of comfort most frequently sung at funerals,
The screenwriter of “Gridlock” was Russell T. Davies, Welsh, Oxford-educated, and openly-gay. Not only has Davies written for shows like Queer as Folk and Cucumber, but he also penned some of the screenplays for Revelations, a soap opera featuring a lesbian vicar and described as a “tongue-in-cheek deconstruction of organized religion.” It is not surprising that “Gridlock” includes the first married lesbian couple to appear on the show or that we see a population paralyzed into inaction by the singing of “The Old Rugged Cross.”
Oh, to be a time traveling fly on the wall of the little blue TARDIS when these two were talking hymns!
“ABIDE” AS ROUSING FOOTBALL HYMN!
But let’s keep going down the Doctor’s time vortex or Alice In Wonderland’s rabbit hole (both very British) and see where this leads.
“Abide with Me” was beloved of both Gandhi and King George V, recorded by Thelonious Monk, Doris Day, Elton John, and Paul McCartney, and played by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards on pipes and drums. It is performed by military bands at official ceremonies in Australia, Canada, and India. It has been used on TV shows other than Doctor Who, including Twilight Zone, Lost, and Doc Martin and in films, from A Bridge Too Far to The Full Monty.
Strangest of all, British viewers know this hymn as a “rousing football song.” What?!! It is sung at every Rugby League Challenge Cup final and always before the kickoff to the FA (Soccer) Cup Finals.
Okay, I think this is deeply weird. And, although I don’t get it at all, check out the video below of Katherine Jenkins (who, incidentally, appeared as a main character on the Doctor Who Christmas Special, 2010) singing “Abide with Me” before a game. It’s downright inspirational.
TO GO DEEPER
“History of Hymns: Abide with Me” by Darrell St. Romain on UMC Discipleship Ministries web page
“Abide with me” lyrics, music, and background on the Cyber Hymnal site
“Doctor Who: Time Travel through Faith” by Andrew Crome, on BBC website, 11/22/13
“Doctor Who Gridlock Scene 6 (which provides a fair overview of the gridlock situation)
“Old Rugged Cross” comforts those stuck in a decade’s long traffic jam (1:35 mins)
Doctor Who Soundtrack: “Abide with Me” (performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales
“The Story of the FA Cup’s Anthem: Abide with Me” (BBC report, includes the hymn story)
“Katherine Jenkins — Interview and Abide with Me at Soccer Aid 2014” (in which “Abide with Me” is referred to as “a rousing football hymn”!!) [Anyone from the UK care to explain this to me?]