music in church

The author of this hymn is Bishop William Walsham How. Bishop How was known as the “omnibus bishop”, a reference to his preferred method of travel around his diocese in the East End of London where he worked among the miserable social conditions of the nineteenth century slums.

He is also a well-loved hymnist. This particular hymn comes from his Children’s Hymns of 1872.  It was later included in the English Hymnal under the “At Catechism” section, but clearly there is something about how the hymn offers theological meaning through childish words, which has earned it a place in the grown-up repertoire too.


What is it then, about the story and the way it is told in this hymn which expresses my own understanding of the meaning of the Crucifixion.

How strange that the very verses which I find so powerful, are the ones cut out in the New English Hymnal. Especially verse 4. As a child and as a woman I still try to think about the cross and see him there and try to imagine the pain in a human way, and then as Bishop How says, “I could but see a little part”. The great love, like a fire, in Jesus’s heart for the whole world but even for me responds to the flame I try to keep kindled in my own heart along the way. For me the Crucifixion story, cluttered about sometimes with images from films and plays and sermons, is made simple and unimaginably redeeming by the childish words of this hymn.

1 It is a thing most wonderful,
Almost too wonderful to be,
That God’s own Son should come from Heav’n,
And die to save a child like me.

2 And yet I know that it is true;
He chose a poor and humble lot,
And wept, and toiled, and mourned, and died,
For love of those who loved Him not.

3 I cannot tell how He could love
A child so weak and full of sin;
His love must be most wonderful,
If He could die my love to win.

4 I sometimes think about the cross,
And shut my eyes, and try to see
The cruel nails and crown of thorns,
And Jesus crucified for me.

5 But even could I see Him die,
I could but see a little part
Of that great love, which, like a fire,
Is always burning in His heart.

6 It is most wonderful to know
His love for me so free and sure;
But ’tis more wonderful to see
My love for Him so faint and poor.

7 And yet I want to love Thee, Lord;
Oh, light the flame within my heart,
And I will love Thee more and more,
Until I see Thee as Thou art.


A number of comments and experiences are connecting for me with Cathedral music. Transforming and spiritual, the mood and atmosphere set in Cathedral buildings can be overwhelming. A recent concert in Chichester with poetry and artwork along with Messaien’s music was such a transporting event. Simply attending the Cathedral services with traditional or modern settings of harmony and the immense reverberation of the organ in a huge space – an experience you would wish to be often repeated. But what happens when we try to transport Cathedral music into smaller churches? So much controversy about inaccessibility, exclusivity. The age-old argument between excellence and social inclusion. We did not decorate our Cathedrals with amateur stonework or transitory popular works of art, so why not keep precious hold of the great works of Howells, Stanford and the like – a blessing in the English church.

a view of Chichester cathedral