Every year before the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium, the pre-match programme includes the hymn Abide with Me. This is one of the oldest rituals in the British football calendar, having been introduced at the 1927 final.
Led in recent decades by a soloist on the Wembley pitch, the performance of this 19th-century hymn is more than just empty tradition – it is a moment of great pathos. The partisan passions of the day are suspended and the stadium is more or less united in a celebration of the occasion.
The massive global television audience is also part of this emotional drama, and lots of viewers feel a lump in the throat as the cameras pan the crowd. Many of those captured briefly on screen over the years are seen mumbling half-known lines; some look slightly baffled, while others are barely restraining themselves until the moment when they can shout and wave their arms again. But the music prevails, and people either acquiesce or immerse themselves in this spectacle of shared sentiment.
A Victorian relic
It is an impressive ritual, a revered part of the Cup Final, and an expected ingredient of this annual televised narrative of British football. The cameras focus on the crowd, zoning in on their palpable emotion, and briefly the audience, rather than either team, or the match itself, is at the centre of attention.
It is odd, once you think about it, that 21st-century crowds and audiences in all their post-modern diversity find this moment so compelling – that a Christian hymn written by a Victorian clergyman has acquired a key place in the build up to a national sporting event. It is especially interesting that the game is so clearly an affirmation of the life of the body, whilst the hymn in question is a sustained meditation on death.
The Anglican vicar Henry Lyte wrote the poem Abide with Me in 1847 when seriously ill with tuberculosis. Within months of completing it he had died. The tune to which his words have been most famously set was supplied by the composer William Monk, whose three-year old daughter had recently died.
Abide with Me became a popular choice at funerals especially amongst the working class. So by the time it was introduced at the Cup Final – as part of a short-lived, media-led enthusiasm for “community singing” – it would have been well-established in popular consciousness as music of death and mourning.
From grave to pitch
The literal message of the verses of the hymn is a mournful mastery of death. In Henry Lyte’s hymnal poetry it is God who gives succour to the dying. But for today’s secular crowds and audiences, God is not available. So where is the Thee of the hymn?
I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
For the singers of today, looking down on a football pitch instead of a grave or an altar, it is the experience of being part of a unified social group, rather than the presence of God, which draws “death’s sting” for the not-yet-dying. The audience in the stadium take part in an affirmation of human community, and the television audience joins in.
The identities of the opposing teams, and all of life’s other rivalries and tensions, are temporarily subordinated to an assertion of a shared humanity. There are many ways of making such assertions – and all sporting occasions are potential expressions of the coherence and success of human society. But there is something especially intense and meaningful about invoking an experience of inclusive community in this explicit confrontation with death and mourning, however transient or archaic it may seem.
So although this short ritual has its detractors, let’s hope that – unlike the individual human life – its day is not “swift to its close”, and that it outlives all those who will enjoy it this Saturday.