Sunday, December 31, 2006

For he is our childhood's pattern

In the English Hymnal, in the children's section called At catechism, there is a hymn that begins "Once in Royal David's City...". It's become rather well known as a result of the fact that it's sung at the beginning of the Nine Lessons and Carols from King's on Christmas Eve every year [prompt for another rant, about the fraudulent service put out on TV on Christmas Eve under the description "Carols from King's", but I'll save that for another day, or perhaps another venue].

My rant here is about the hymn in the New English Hymnal, number 34, which pretends to be Mrs C.F. Alexander's hymn "Once in Royal David's City". It only has one dagger, which implies that very little damage has been done to it. But I suggest we take a look at it and you can see what you think. Is it minor damage? Or is it interference of a political nature? My view is that it is politically and theologically motivated bowdlerisation of a rather severe sort.

We should start by noticing that the hymn is no longer prescribed for children. This might be because the NEH doesn't have a section for children. Or it might be because the Editors have got something against recommending hymns as suitable for children, especially when they describe the childhood of Christ in terms that might suggest he was a role model for Christians to aspire to in their youth.

Certainly, Mrs Alexander had chosen that motif as the key theme for her hymn. The point of the central verses of the hymn is that Jesus came to earth in a very lowly and unpretentious form, and that though he came to "Royal David's City" it was not as a royal child that he grew up, but rather as one just like us. And, furthermore, he did not issue the commands but obeyed them: he was mild, loving and obedient. It was, on the one hand a "wondrous childhood" and on the other hand it was one just like ours. Indeed it was wondrous perhaps only in how extremely ordinary it was; how Jesus too grew up loving and watching his mother and doing what she told him to do, even though he was in fact something much greater than that behaviour would suggest. This theme picks up on the idea of kenosis: Christ emptied himself of all that power and superiority, and became as if he were subservient first to his parents and ultimately to those who put him to death. The theme is especially appropriate to the reading of the passage about Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem at the temple (the Gospel reading we had today), which finishes with that oh-so-resonant sentence "And he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them." (Luke 2:51).

Mrs Alexander combines that motif of kenosis with the idea that the childhood of Christ is also a pattern for us to follow. It is at the same time startling that one who is God and Lord of all should be obedient to his human parents, and also inspiring. For because he was a child like us, we can see how it is possible for us to follow in his footsteps, accepting our limitations and being as sanguine about it as he was. For he is our childhood's pattern. Day by day like us he grew. It is that fact, the fact that he was genuinely human and had to grow up as human children do, that makes him not just a Deus ex machina saviour, but one who shows us the way to become like God ourselves. We do this by learning to model our lives on his from our earliest days.

Those were the themes of Mrs Alexander's excellent and theologically sophisticated hymn.

Unfortunately most of that has been removed or lost in the current version in the New English Hymnal.

Here's what we used to get (two verses following on from "with the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our saviour holy"):

And, through all His wondrous childhood,
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly maiden,
In whose gentle arms He lay:
Christian children all must be
Mild, obedient, good as He.

For He is our childhood’s pattern;
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

And here instead is what we get in the NEH:

And, through all His wondrous childhood,
Day by day, like us He grew;
He was little, weak and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew;
And He feeleth for our sadness,
And He shareth in our gladness.

Obedience has gone (so it's not at all clear why we continue to sing this hymn on the Sunday when we get that wonderful reading from Luke about the boy Jesus). So has all the imagery of him loving and admiring his virgin mother: this is a sad loss not only in terms of Christology but also in terms of the theology of our devotion to the Mother of God (for which this idea that we are modelling ourselves on Christ's own childhood devotion to his mother is aetiologically helpful). And we have also lost the motif of Christ's childhood as an archetype of what a Christian childhood might be like.

Instead we get a focus only on the fact that Christ grew up like us and experienced tears and smiles as we do too. These observations were useful in the original context, when what was important was that in emptying himself of his godhead Christ had become weak like us and submitted to human authority.

In the absence of verse 3, however, these thoughts become simply sentimental. The kenotic theology has all but gone. We tend not to see anything here in the bowdlerised version except a soft-centred attempt to domesticate the wonder of the Incarnation. All the tough thoughts have gone (both the tough thoughts about how far the God of heaven had to submit to weaknesses and obligations quite alien to his powerful nature, and the tough thoughts about the necessity of obedience in our own lives, which can sometimes be required even when in theory we might be in a position to know better than those whose authority we are asked to accept, as Christ's example tellingly shows).

Why did they commit this iconoclasm on a hymn that is a classic part of the nation's residual Christian heritage, and which many of us know by heart? Could it be that the editors were afflicted with some kind of ideological anxt? My suspicion is this: that they are very much against the idea that christian children should be told to be mild, obedient or meek. This is not politically correct is it? There are two things that make them afraid to say that. One is that meekness and mildness has a bad press (at least as a message to give to children). We are not allowed to say that because it is supposed to be a Victorian ideal that has been grafted onto a Christian theology that didn't extol the virtues of meekness and mildness. So all whiffs of Victorian values must be cut mustn't they?

Must they? Funnily enough, of course, we are still allowed to see that Jesus told his disciples to put up their swords when he was taken in the Garden, and gave his back to the smiters. As Mrs Alexander shows so deftly, that is all part and parcel of the same obedience with which he returned to Nazareth, and with which he accepted the bitter cup in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is not an easy obedience, nor a comfortable mildness. It is done in the hardest of places and in the hardest of ways. I do not see why our children should not be brought up to respect, to admire, and to try to imitate that open-eyed and sacrificial obedience.

There's another fear as well I think: the second thing that drives the political correction of this hymn. This is the assumption that children will grow up into nice human beings if they are left to be themselves, and should not be told by adults how to behave or what it is to be a Christian. In fact, even adult theology should not be delivered to them, because their innate spirituality will lead them to become more authentic believers if we don't tell them what to think or how to lead their lives.

So (according to that kind of political correctness) we mustn't say that the ideal childhood is one in which children listen to adults and respect their authority. No: children must be left to wander and experiment in the darkness, until by some chance they stumble across the things that make sense of Christianity (the things that it has taken educated Christians twenty centuries of philosophical theology to work out).

Well, we'll see if that's a sound way to build up intelligent believers who can maintain the great traditions of the Church and teach their flocks in the next generation.

Personally, I'd prefer to give the children the resources to engage in intelligent critique from a position of understanding.

And I also think that a degree of obedience and discipline is an enormous advantage (not just in the imitation of Christ, but also for achieving one's potential as a thinker and as a devout believer).

So we shouldn't be so coy about obedience. A child who has no one to respect and obey is a deprived child. Surely Mrs Alexander is right that part of what Jesus did in taking our manhood was to become like a child, and part of being like a child is needing someone to tell you what to do, and then finding sometimes that it is a struggle to obey. Was Gethsemane the first and only time that Jesus found he was obliged to do something that was uncomfortable, and even perhaps not obviously helpful? I think not. In fact, one could start by investigating the story of the wedding at Cana.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Hills of the North Rejoice

The English Hymnal didn't have Charles Edward Oakley's hymn "Hills of the North Rejoice" in it.

Nor does the New English Hymnal have it.

But the New English Hymnal has a kind of fraudulent version that is apt to catch you unawares. There's a hymn in that book that begins "Hills of the North Rejoice" and if you're not on your guard, you'll think you're going to be lucky, when hymn 7 is announced, and that you're going to be treated to those lovely bits about "river and mountain spring", "deep in your coral caves", "lulled be your restless waves", "soon shall your sons be free", and "Shout while ye journey home!".

But look out! Don't let them sell you a counterfeit. The version you'll get if you're in a NEH church won't give you any of that. All those lines have been torn out (and not just those). In fact what you'll get from the NEH is not Oakley's hymn at all, but a kind of low grade pastiche, written by the EDITORS. (According to the book it's based on something by Oakley, and indeed the first line of every verse is plagiarised from Oakley's "Hills of the North", but nothing else remains of that hymn, apart from a very badly distorted version of the last verse).

Let's do a few comparisons:
Verse 1. Here's what we should get:
Hills of the North, rejoice;
River and mountain spring,
Hark to the advent voice;
Valley and lowland, sing;
Though absent long, your Lord is nigh;
He judgment brings and victory.

Here's what we get instead from the EDITORS:
Hills of the North Rejoice
Echoing songs arise,
Hail with united voice
Him who made earth and skies:
He comes in righteousness and love,
He brings salvation from above.

Now why do that? The point of "river and mountain spring" was that it was supposed to be something typical of the northern lands (as the rest of the verses had something typical of the other corners of the compass). Cut that out and the whole point of the hymn is lost. Well, guess what? The editors have cut all those out. So why, I ask you, are we singing about hills of the north and so on? Why?

And here's another puzzle. Why have they cut out the reference to the advent voice? And why have they cut out the reference to the "absent long" and to the judgement? Don't they understand that advent is about the Lord coming in judgement? Why do we substitute righteousness, love and salvation for judgement and victory? Is it that the editors, doubtless themselves inhabitants of these northern hills, don't much fancy having the Lord come in judgement? No, I should think they don't...

Now take a look at verse 2. Here's what it should say:

Isles of the southern seas,
Deep in your coral caves
Pent be each warring breeze,
Lulled be your restless waves:
He comes to reign with boundless sway,
And makes your wastes His great highway.
Here's the Editors' rather sad pastiche in place of verse 2:

Isles of the Southern seas,
Sing to the listening earth,
Carry on every breeze
Hope of a world's new birth:
In Christ shall all be made anew,
His word is sure, his promise true.
Gone are the coral caves. But what does it mean "sing to the listening earth"? What? And what has happened to the idea that Christ at his coming in judgement will still the waves and stop the winds? Wasn't that rather a picturesque and imaginative motif? And notice the loss of that biblical image of making the waste places plain and the highway for the coming of the Lord.

Well, I could go through verse by verse. Let's just observe that Oakley's authentic verses about the East ("on your dark hills, long cold and grey...") and the West ("ye that have waited long, unvisited unblest") get their delicate beauty partly from the neat way in which they sum up something of the history of Christianity and its transmission to lands that had a prior history before the arrival of Christianity. They get their beauty from the combination of that senstivity to the history of these lands, combined with a sense that the Second Coming will be to all, and that all will be gathered into the City of God without prejudice concerning their origin or how late they came to Christianity. All of that is, of course lost, in the new version, and no doubt those features have been deliberately lost, probably because the editors couldn't understand the meaning and thought it expressed a kind of racism.

Yet it wasn't Oakley who was racist. It's the NEH editors. Just take a look at the last verse.

Here's verse 5 in the NEH version:

Shout, as you journey on,
Songs be in every mouth,
Lo, from the North they come,
From East and West and South.
In Jesus all shall find their rest,
In him the sons of earth be blest.

Aside from the sexist language "sons of earth" which was not there in Oakley's original, and the fact that they can't do punctuation, you'll see that in this verse the words are spoken by a third party observer. As we sing this hymn we do not identify with the people coming from the four corners of the earth: rather we stand apart and comment that "they" are coming from funny far away places. And we order them to shout. But we, we are somehow out of it. Superior? People from the ancient lands that got there first? Or what?

Not so in Oakley's. No, for Oakley we belong to a great fellowship of members from all corners of the globe and we are all summoned together into God's kingdom, despite the fact that we were (all of us) so late receiving the gospel. In Oakley's version it is "we" who journey home, not "they", and the you in "shout while ye journey home" is us addressing each other; it is thus "we" who have songs in our mouth, not "you" or "they". We are all arriving together; we are drawn from all corners into Christ's undivided kingdom. "Lo from the North we come, from East and West and South". This is precisely not racist: we are all in it together and we all become free from having been bondsman:

Shout, while ye journey home;
Songs be in every mouth;
Lo, from the North we come,
From East, and West, and South.
City of God, the bond are free,
We come to live and reign in thee!

I have to say that I can't really imagine why this bizarre surgery has been carried out on an innocent hymn, which was very much a favourite with many ordinary sound and upright Christians. But this much is clear: the finished product is not only entirely lacking in the poetic imagery of its superior model, and in any theological significance or content, but has also introduced a quite offensive selection of racist and sexist thinking, that was entirely lacking from its predecessor's rather elegant egalitarianism.

And I should say that although Little St Mary's is a church that generally uses the NEH, we have now resorted to supplying a printed sheet with the real words for "Hills of the North Rejoice", on the relevant Sunday in Advent. There are limits to the rubbish we are prepared to sing. Some day we'll get rid of it all, but this one is so bad we've scrapped it already.

For the real thing, you need only go here:

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ye servants of the Lord, each in his office wait

Last week we sang "Ye servants of the Lord". It's number 18, in the advent section of the NEH.

Double dagger, however.

That's because the words which were written by Philip Doddridge in the eighteenth century are no longer presented in their original form.

"Each in his office wait" has been changed to "Each for your master wait". I guess there are two reasons. One is that it sounds as if we all work in an office block and we have to wait in our offices for the Lord to come round and see if we're hard at work at the computer. The other is that "his" changes from meaning "the servant's" (the servant waits in his office) to meaning "the Lord's" (Observant of his heavenly word and watchful at his gate). That's a trifle confusing.

OED definitions of "office": 1 something done toward anyone: a service, kindness, attention (first occurrence 1382); 2 that which one ought or has to do in the way of service; that which is required or expected: (a) duty towards others, moral obligation; (b) duty attaching ot one's position or station (first occurrence 1300); 3 that which is done or is intended to be done by a particular thing; that which anything is fitted to perform or performs customarily (first occurrence 1340); 4 a position or place to which certain duties are attached; a position of trust, authority or service under constituted authority (first occurrence 1250); 5 Ceremonial duty or service (first occurrence 1387); 6 an authorised form of divine worship (first occurrence 1387); 7 an official inquest (first occurrence 1430); 8 a place for the transaction of or public private business, often including the staff (first occurrence 1386, in Chaucer); 9 the kitchen and other domestic parts of the house (first occurrence 1386 in Chaucer), plus three further meanings I won't bore you with.

So it's an old word and the ambiguity goes right back to Chaucer. I take it the supposed problem that leads the editors to interfere is the perceived risk of confusing meaning 4 with meaning 8. But clearly these meanings have always been around, and it's not quite clear why people have become so incapable of reading English and understanding the ambiguity of office just now.

Perhaps because they don't get to sing hymns with real words often enough to ensure that the words stay in comon usage and remain understanded of the people.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, sawn asunder, slain with sword

Ah lovely words, how they capture the true agony and all the gory details of the lives and deaths of the saints we celebrate around this time!

How could anyone think that the hymn "Hark the sound of holy voices" is better without these graphic images? It beats me.

But these are, I am afraid, among the many wonderful things that we have lost in the so-called "progess" of changing to the New English Hymnal.

Here's what we used to sing:

They have come from tribulation and have washed their robes in blood,
Washed them in the blood of Jesus; tried they were, and firm they stood;
Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, sawn asunder, slain with sword,
They have conquered death and Satan by the might of Christ the Lord.

Marching with thy Cross their banner, they have triumphed following
Thee, the captain of salvation, thee, their Saviour and their King;
Gladly, Lord, with thee they suffered; gladly, Lord, with thee they died,
And by death to life immortal they were born and glorified.
Fine words, written by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth (1807-85), author of Songs of Thankfulness and praise, and Gracious Spirit Holy Ghost among others. They're important words too. Partly they are important because they remind us that being a saint is not all fun, and that it requires a certain degree of courage and, indeed, determination. But also important poetically and for the sense because, look, "Gladly Lord with thee they suffered, gladly, Lord, with thee they died" is meant to alert us to the fact that despite the terrible sufferings and terrifying kinds of death they endured (about which we have just sung in the previous verse) nevertheless they were, in a curious way, doing so gladly, and that was because they did it "with thee", following the banner of Christ who had suffered just such a gruesome and terrifying death and thus provided the leadership. But really, we lose the sense of how miraculous this is, how it constitutes a triumph, if we don't actually mention the terrible things they were afflicted with.

For we don't really mention them—not so as to conjure up what they were really like—in the New English Hymnal. That's because we sing this (with four lines missing, two from verse 3 and two from verse 4):

They have come from tribulation and have washed their robes in blood,
Washed them in the blood of Jesus; tried they were, and firm they stood;

Gladly, Lord, with thee they suffered; gladly, Lord, with thee they died,
And by death to life immortal they were born and glorified.

We don't mention the details because they are too gruesome? We want our saints cleaned up? We'd rather not remember how the Church was built upon the blood of the martyrs? And, presumably, we don't like the military imagery of "marching with thy cross their banner". (Let's throw out all the traditional imagery shall we? rid Christianity of all its fervour and imagination....? and then wonder why the pews are empty and everyone is going to the evangelical churches where fervour and commitment is allowed?)

And anyway, even if those lines were not vital to the sense, what is this Hymnal doing eliminating all the most entertaining bits of poetry, that bring a smile of wonder to the face as one sings? I mean could anyone in the world beat that magnificent line "Mocked, imprisoned, stoned, tormented, sawn asunder, slain with sword"? If we never get to sing that any more, won't we have lost one of the greatest bits of tragi-comedy in the hymn book?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

The hornèd moon to shine by night

Today was what passes for Harvest Thanksgiving at Little St Mary's. Thankfully not too much of it.

We did sing some of those jolly hymns about how we plough the fields and scatter the seed (singing this hymn is the nearest I've ever got to actually ploughing any fields, and I don't suppose many of the rest of the congregation do these things very often either, but I'm sure the 'we' there is collective for the human race in general and how we as a race gather our food by toiling on the land).

One of those hymns that belongs to this season of praise and thanksgiving is "Let us with a gladsome mind, praise the Lord for he is kind".

There's a verse in that hymn (which is by John Milton, yes I mean the real one) which goes

"The hornèd moon to shine by night, Mid her spangled sisters bright."

The expression "to shine" follows on from the previous verse where we were told "He the golden-tressed sun caused all day his course to run." So we understand that (He caused) the horned moon to shine by night, as he caused the sun to run his course by day.

Unfortunately the editors of the NEH didn't like Milton's poetry. They have tried to improve it.
Here is what they have decided to offer for verse 5:

And the hornèd moon by night
Mid her spangled sisters bright.
Well, you know why they did that... because they thought they needed to "make a minor adjustment to secure a better musical accentuation." In other words we used to have to squeeze in an extra quaver before the first beat of the first bar for the word "the" on that verse, so as to sing 'horn' on the first crotchet. A feat we all learned quite early in life, as I recall. No great effort.

Well, you might say. Perhaps there is a virtue in a line that fits the rhythm of the music? Well no. Not if it is gibberish and ungrammatical. Just take a look at that verse they've constructed. It has no verb. Not only does it have no subject, but it has no verb either. Now the subject can be supplied from the verse before; it is "He", namely God. And we also supply a verb, namely "caused" from the previous verse. But now what did he cause the moon to do? That is no longer specified (according to Milton she was to shine, but according to these editors, what is she to do?). Well, what is she to do? I ask you.

Perhaps we are to supply yet another verb from the previous verse? If so, then what she is to do is to run her course (by night, as the sun ran his by day). But now we have lost the essence of this beautiful motif of the horned moon shining amidst her spangled sisters the stars. For the motif is not supposed to be of running a course, but of giving out light. And even if it did mean run her course, it's ungrammatical without supplying "her course", because you can't supply "his course" and not change the gender for the female moon.

Bad grammar and an acute loss of pictorial imagery. No no no.... Just don't do it, see?

Milton, he wrote poetry. Editors, you write rubbish. Got it?

Thus conspire we to adore him

Friday was Michaelmas day. At the sung mass we had a number of wonderful angelic hymns, lots of my favourites.

Among them was NEH 343, Bright the Vision that Delighted.

This hymn is by Richard Mant (or at least it once was). The NEH hasn't put a dagger on it, but it's not as it should be.

The problem is in verse 5. Here's what it should say:

With his seraph train before him,
With his holy Church below,
Thus conspire we to adore him,
Bid we thus our anthem flow:
It is interesting that the vicar preached that evening about 'conspiracy' and the meaning of the word 'conspire' (along with some other words about doing things together). He pointed out that to conspire is to breathe together and to be inspired together, and that we can be in a holy conspiracy in this sense.

It's almost as if he was preaching about the words we'd just sung in this hymn. Only, funnily enough we hadn't just sung them (except those of us who insist on singing the right words regardless of what's written in the hymn book).

No, funnily enough we'd sung this trite and awkward drivel:

With his seraph train before him,
With his holy Church below,
Thus unite we to adore him,
Bid we thus our anthem flow:
Too bad. Don't you think?

Sunday, September 03, 2006

My God accept my heart this day

I wasn't in Church at the Gradual Hymn today, because I was out in the parish room catechising the children. But if I had been in Church I would have had to sing hymn 318 in the New English Hymnal.

Hymn 318 begins "My God accept my heart this day and make it always thine..."

According to the New English Hymnal it is by "Matthew Bridges and EDITORS."

Matthew Bridges lived in the 19th Century (1800-94). He started out as an Anglican but converted to Roman Catholicism in 1848, the same year as he published the first edition of Hymns of the Heart.

It seems that Matthew Bridges's hymn had five verses. However, only four of his verses appear in any of the Anglican hymn books so far consulted. The English Hymnal and some others print four verses and then add a doxology as a fifth verse, one of the standard doxologies that fit all common metre tunes:
All glory to the Father be,
All glory to the Son,
All glory, Holy Ghost, to thee,
While endless ages run.
Bridges didn't write that. Rather the hymn book editors tacked it on to make four verses into five.

The editors of the New English Hymnal had another idea about how to make the hymn up to five verses. How about writing a new verse to put on the end instead of the doxology? Writing new verses seems to be what they like best.

This is what they made up:

The vision of thy glory there
Shall be my hope and song,
That where thou dost a place prepare,
I may at length belong.
As a piece of doggerel, this looks fair enough until you think about it. "There" refers to heaven which was mentioned at the end of the previous verse.

But isn't there something odd about the tense? Because it is my hope now, isn't it, that I may at length belong in heaven? So it's not that it shall be my hope, but that it is now my hope, and it is now my song. So I suppose we want to say "The vision of thy glory there, let it now be my hope and song" (though that's a rather odd way to put it). The mood of "shall" in the third person is presumably imperative, but, I think, also future tense.

I suppose the best bet for making this make theological sense would be to suppose that we mean "it shall be my hope and song for the rest of my life, until I get to death". Indeed perhaps the phrase is supposed to be dependent upon the phrase "Let every thought and work and deed" at the start of verse 4. Perhaps we are supposed to be saying (verse 4) "Then life shall be thy service Lord...", and (verse 5) "the vision of thy glory shall be my hope and song". But more on this anon.

One might think that the new verse 5 was oddly constructed grammatically, because in the first two lines the content of the hope and song seem to be "the vision of thy glory there"
The vision of thy glory there
Shall be my hope and song.
Full stop, as it were.
and then we get another expression, "that where thou dost..." which also seems to be grammatically dependent on "hope and song". hope and song,
that where thou dost a place prepare,
I may at length belong.
But presumably, the "that..." clause is meant to unpack what it means to say that the vision of thy glory is to be my hope and my song, namely it means that I shall hope and sing that where thou dost a place prepare I may at length belong.

Well, sort of all right, if a bit prosaic and pedantic. But now here's another question: do I hope that I may belong there? Probably I hope that I do belong there, no?

In fact what I hope for at length is not so much that I shall belong there, but that I shall be there. Belonging there is not something that needs to be delayed until later, though being there probably does.

Does one get the sense that "belong" is there just to rhyme with "song"?

And actually, come to think of it, don't you think that "song" is there just to rhyme with "belong"? Because really this is all about hope and nothing at all about song.

But anyway, why why why did we want to say any of this at all?

Because isn't it obvious that the end of verse 4 has to be the end of the hymn?

I mean, the end of verse 4 is just fantastic and neat, and sums up everything we needed to say with perfect closure:
Then life shall be thy service, Lord,
And death the gate of heaven.
We've already got it all there. Death as the gate of heaven neatly says everything that the editors are trying to achieve in their clumsy verse 5. But by adding verse 5 they have not only given us an otiose repeat of what verse 4 was saying, but actually undermined the effect of that closure. I have no doubt that Bridges knew what he was doing when he made "And death the gate of heaven" the closing line of his hymn. Let's just leave it that way, shall we?

But it seems that the hymn book editors think we need five verses not four.

Well, so be it. But, as I said, it seems that there were five verses in the original as Bridges wrote it, so we don't actually need the editors' help in turning it into a five verse hymn.

What is now verse 4 for us was, I think, verse 5 in Bridges's poem. It was indeed the last verse. But it was preceded by this verse:
May the dear blood once shed for me
My blest atonement prove
That I from first to last may be
The purchase of Thy love!
I don't quite know what's wrong with this verse. I think I would favour restoring that, in preference to the pseudo- composition of the NEH editors.

Oh, and actually I see that they've done more of their dastardly work earlier in the hymn. Compare this (probably what Bridges wrote, if Cyberhymnal is a reliable source):

Anoint me with Thy heavenly grace,
Adopt me for Thine own,
That I may see Thy glorious face,
And worship at Thy throne.
with this (what the NEH has):

Anoint me with Thy heavenly grace,
And seal me for thine own,
That I may run this earthly race,
In thy strong might alone.
The "seal me" bit was already in the English Hymnal, and before that in Hymns A and M but the rest is new work by the NEH.

Comments please...

Sunday, August 20, 2006

From glory to glory advancing

The hymn From glory to glory advancing we praise thee, O Lord is a translation into English (or perhaps rather a paraphrase) from the Greek, of a prayer from the Liturgy of St James. The Liturgy of St James is an ancient liturgy of the Orthodox Churches, relatively rare (in most places it is celebrated only on St James's day). Unfortunately I don't have a copy of the Greek text to hand (I'd need to go to a library to find one) so I'm not going to comment on the quality of the translation in detail (though I will append for interest the relevant words from one of the current English translations of the liturgy). I just thought I'd remark on one fact about the English translation or paraphrase which is what we know as "From Glory to Glory".

The translation is by Charles Humphreys 1840-1921 (noted as "tr. C.W.H." in the English Hymnal). There's no dagger to indicate that the text has been changed in the New English Hymnal, but then they don't seem very concerned to note changes to the words of translated hymns. Apart from the fact that they've written the four two line stanzas as two four line stanzas, they've made one other significant change, and that is to change the order of the words in line 7.

Humphreys wrote (I suppose)
Evermore, O Lord, to thy servants thy presence be nigh...

The editors now insist that we must sing
O Lord, evermore to thy servants thy presence be nigh...

Now you might think that these two versions say the same thing. Presumably the editors thought that they said roughly the same thing. And you might think that the second version fits the music better (in the English Hymnal we used to have to subdivide the minim at the start of that line and then slur the next two minims, because the rhythm of "evermore O" doesn't match that of "From strength unto" at the equivalent place in the first verse.

I expect that this is one of the cases which the editors have in mind when they say in their introduction "Occasionally minor adjustments have been made to secure a better musical accentuation". (For another example, compare their work on "Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go").

But is it a minor adjustment?

It seems to me that "O Lord, evermore to thy servants thy presence be nigh" says something rather different from "Evermore, O Lord, to thy servants thy presence be nigh".

Putting "Evermore" up front indicates that it is the evermore that one is asking the Lord for.

Putting "O Lord" up front removes that, so we don't know what the important part of the request is.

In fact it makes the appeal "O Lord" the most important part. It reads a bit like an exclamation, the sort of thought ("O Lord!") one might have when one realises, in the middle of the sermon, that one has forgotten to turn on the oven to cook the dinner. It certainly seems to me to undermine the poetry of the line

—just as it would if you did the same to "Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go."

Try making that "O Lord, I go forth in thy name".

Why is "forth" up front there when it wouldn't be in ordinary prose? Precisely because in poetry you do that sort of thing to achieve a certain kind of effect. And that is what Charles Humphrey kindly did for us by writing a poetic line beginning "evermore" in his translation of the Liturgy of St James, until the NEH editors saw fit to eliminate his poetry so that we wouldn't have to sing two crotchets instead of a minim.

Ah well. There we are. Another sad case.

Here's the English version of the relevant prayers in the Liturgy of St James:

Dismission prayer, spoken by the Deacon: Going on from glory to glory, we praise Thee, the Saviour of our souls. Glory to Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit now and ever, and to all eternity. We praise Thee, the Saviour of our souls.

XLIX. The Priest says a prayer from the altar to the sacristy: Going on from strength to strength, and having fulfilled all the divine service in Thy temple, even now we beseech Thee, O Lord our God, make us worthy of perfect loving-kindness; make straight our path: root us in Thy fear, and make us worthy of the heavenly kingdom, in Christ Jesus our Lord, with whom Thou art blessed, together with Thy all-holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and always, and for ever.

(Translation taken from The Ante Nicene Fathers vol 7)

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Jerusalem, my happy home

On Tuesday, which was St James's day, we sang a hymn (number 228 in the New English Hymnal) which begins "Jerusalem thou city blest".

The words, according to the foot of the page, are by the EDITORS.

In the English Hymnal there was a hymn in three parts with 26 verses, for a saint's day procession, which began "Jerusalem my happy home." It seems clear that the NEH editors were trying to model their work on that, since they have retained one verse intact:

In thee no sickness may be seen,
no hurt, no ache, no sore;
In thee there is no dread of death,
But life for evermore.

... write the editors of the New English Hymnal, echoing the editors of the English Hymnal.

That verse, however, had already been revised before it made into the EH. This is what F.B.P. wrote:

In thee no sickness may be seen,
no hurt, no ache, no sore;
there is no death nor ugly devil,
there is life for evermore.

F.B.P is the otherwise unknown author of the 16th century manuscript from which the words were taken. They are said to be based on stuff in St Augustine. But the NEH has not much left of F.B.P. Among the gems that have gone missing are the following:

Thy walls are made of precious stones,
thy bulwarks diamonds square;
thy gates are of right orient pearl;
exceeding rich and rare;

thy turrets and thy pinnacles
with carbuncles do shine;
thy very streets are paved with gold,
surpassing clear and fine;

thy houses are of ivory,
thy windows crystal clear;
thy tiles are made of beaten gold--
O God that I were there!

Within thy gates nothing doth come
that is not passing clean,
no spider's web, no dirt, no dust,
no filth may there be seen.

and a bit further on, these:

We that are here in banishment
continually do mourn:
we sigh and sob, we weep and wail,
perpetually we groan.

and these:

There's nectar and ambrosia made,
there's musk and civet sweet;
there many a fair and dainty drug
is trodden under feet.

There cinnamon, there sugar grows,
there nard and balm abound.
What tongue can tell or heart conceive
the joys that there are found?

And some mention of the saints one might encounter there:

There David stands with harp in hand
as master of the choir:
ten thousand times that man were blessed
that might this music hear.

Our Lady sings Magnificat
with tune surpassing sweet,
and all the virgins bear their parts,
sitting about her feet.

Te deum doth Saint Ambrose sing,
Saint Austin doth the like;
Old Simeon and Zachary
Have not their songs to seek.

There Magdalen hath left her moan,
and cheerfully doth sing
with blessèd saints, whose harmony
in every street doth ring.

So what do we have in the NEH to displace all those vivid individuals and their peculiar joys in heaven? Well we have this:

And praise and honour be to him
Whom earth and heaven obey
For that blest saint whose festival
Doth glorify this day.

Enough said.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

The son of consolation

St Barnabas's day was June 11th. I'm sorry it's taken me so long to get round to finishing this post, but I started it some time after the day in question (because I'd forgotten about it, and then I had to put it aside due to other things, and since then I've been away).

The New English Hymnal provides a hymn for St Barnabas, which begins "The 'Son of Consolation', St Barnabas the good". We sang it on June 11th. The words are said to be by "Maud Coote 1852-1935 and EDITORS".

At the foot of the hymn there is a piece of advice to the reader as follows:
See Acts 11.24 'he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.'

Presumably that's to help us to understand why the hymn goes (in lines 2-4) "St Barnabas the good,/ filled with the Holy Spirit/ And faith in Christ the Lord." Those lines do indeed seem to be a slightly prosaic paraphrase of Acts 11.24.

What the hymn book fails to explain for its readers is the first line of each of the three verses of the hymn as presented in the NEH. These lines go "The 'Son of Consolation'" in verse 1; "The Son of Consolation" in verse 2; "All sons of consolation" in verse 3). What is all this about the "Son of Consolation"? Well the answer is that the reference we really needed, in order to understand the hymn, was Acts 4.36:

Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation), a Levite.

That is, the name "Barnabas" was the nickname that the Apostles gave to Joses, and it meant Son of Consolation ("son" is the "Bar" bit, as in Barabbas, Bartimaeus and so on, all of which are patronymics).

It would have been helpful (it seems to me) if the hymn book had supplied that reference. After all, it seems to be the most crucial key to understanding this hymn.

Why did they give the other text, not this one?

Was it merely an oversight?

No, I think not.

It was, I rather think, because they have a guilty conscience...

They're ashamed of what they've done to this hymn and they're trying to justify it, by showing that their new text is a paraphrase—pedantic and prosaic, but paraphrase all the same— of a biblical text... As though any bad poetry is okay if it can be shown to be an allusion to the bible.

The good old English Hymnal had the whole of this hymn (five verses), all of them in Mrs Coote's own words. Verse 1 of the original begins thus:

The Son of Consolation!
Of Levi’s priestly line,
Filled with the Holy Spirit,
And fervent faith divine,
With lowly self-oblation,
For Christ an offering meet,
He laid his earthly riches
At the apostles’ feet.

The second line here, "Of Levi's priestly line", is also (like "Son of Consolation") alluding to the bit from Acts 4.36 that we quoted above:
Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation), a Levite.

That is, Barnabas was a Levite, one of Levi's priestly line.

For some reason, best known to themselves, the Editors of the NEH have replaced that with
St Barnabas the good

and then justified that revision by supplying the reference to Acts 11.24 where Barnabas is said to be "a good man". I suppose that they thought that we needed to be told in the hymn itself that we were singing about St Barnabas. But that's surely not necessary, since the page is headed "St Barnabas". It seems to me that if you've taken the trouble to go to church on St Barnabas's day, and you find yourself singing a hymn headed "St Barnabas, June 11th", you'd have to be very stupid not to realise that the person the hymn was talking about was St Barnabas. On the other hand, it's quite useful to be reminded that he was a Levite (in case you don't know the Book of Acts off by heart).

This is the most significant change in verse 1. The rest of that verse has been subjected to a variety of small alterations of an apparently pointless sort. Verse 2 has gone completely. Mrs Coote wrote as follows about the comforting significance of Barnabas's nick name, and about his ministry to the gentiles:

The Son of Consolation!
O name of soothing balm!
It fell on sick and weary
Like breath of Heaven’s own calm!
And the blest Son of Comfort
With fearless loving hand
The Gentiles’ great apostle
Led to the faithful band.

It seems to me that the omission of that verse is a great mistake, since it is that verse that meditates on the name "Son of Consolation" and asks why it is appropriate. Without that verse, the repetition of that name at the start of each verse is kind of vacuous.

Verse 3 in Maud Coote's original was about Barnabas's martyrdom:

The Son of Consolation!
Drawn near unto his Lord,
He won the martyr’s glory,
And passed to his reward;
With him is faith now ended,
For ever lost in sight,
But love, made perfect, fills him
With praise, and joy, and light.

It survives in the NEH, with trivial alterations, as verse 2.

Maud Coote's fourth verse has, however, been cut out. This verse reflected on the significance of the "Son of Consolation" title, this time as something for us to aspire to. Once again, we might observe that without it, the whole conceit on which the original poem was grounded has been cut away and become empty. It went as follows:

The Son of Consolation!
Lord, hear our humble prayer,
That each of us Thy children
This blessèd name may bear;
That we, sweet comfort shedding
O’er homes of pain and woe,
’Midst sickness and in prisons,
May seek Thee here below.

Finally, the last verse (following on from that idea that we might aspire to the title "son of consolation") thinks about how we too (if we do take on that role) can look forward to eternal life, receiving the same reward as the martyr Barnabas. A version of this last verse survives, badly mutilated in the NEH. But unfortunately its point is completely lost, because the preceding verse that explained how there could be many "Sons of Consolation", and that they would be us, once we'd taken on Barnabas as our role model, has been omitted.

Here's what Coote wrote:

The Sons of Consolation!
O what their bliss shall be
When Christ the King shall tell them,
“Ye did it unto Me!”
The merciful and loving
The Lord of life shall own,
And as His priceless jewels,
Shall set them round His throne.

Here's what the NEH EDITORS have substituted:

All sons of consolation,
How great their joys will be
When Christ the King shall tell them
'You did it unto me':
The merciful and loving
The loving Lord shall own,
And set them as his jewels
Around the Father's throne.

Well, it means much the same (so much so that you can't really see what's the point of interfering), but the real tragedy is that we've lost the point of the hymn altogether. If you think about it, the hymn was designed to reflect on Barnabas, under the description "Son of Consolation", as a role model for us. But without the verses the engineer that set of thoughts, it no longer does that for us.

In the NEH the last verse appears to be about some other people, sons of consolation. These will be Barnabas, we suppose, and anyone else, presumably male, who goes by that name. It doesn't seem to be about us.

In Coote's original by contrast, even though that too was in the third person plural, we already knew that it might and should include us, because we'd already reflected on how one could acquire the name "son of consolation" in virtue of the deeds of love that one might do.

But we've lost all that in the omission of the two crucial verses.

So it doesn't say what it needs to say any more.

Oh dear. How sad.

There, dear Lord, we shall receive thee in the solemn sacrament

On Thursday, which was Corpus Christi, we sang All for Jesus, All for Jesus.

It's a splendid catholic hymn (or was), which comes from Stainer's Crucifixion. The words are (or were) by W.J. Sparrow-Simpson. It wasn't in the English Hymnal, but a version of it is in the New English Hymnal.

Here's how it should go:

All for Jesus—all for Jesus,
this our song shall ever be;
for we have no hope, nor Saviour,
if we have not hope in thee.

All for Jesus—thou wilt give us
strength to serve thee, hour by hour,
none can move us from thy presence,
while we trust thy love and power.

All for Jesus—at thine altar
thou wilt give us sweet content;
there, dear Lord, we shall receive thee
in the solemn sacrament.

All for Jesus—thou hast loved us;
all for Jesus—thou hast died;
all for Jesus—thou art with us;
all for Jesus crucified.

All for Jesus—all for Jesus--
this the Church's song must be;
till, at last, her sons are gathered
one in love and one in thee.

It's a pity that the editors of the NEH can't leave a good piece of sentimental slush alone. It's fine as it stands. But they've been unable to resist two or three destructive interventions.

First, in verse three they've rewritten the verse in the present tense instead of the future. So instead of "thou wilt give us sweet content" we have "thou dost give us sweet content", and in order to change "we shall receive thee" to "we receive thee" they've had to change "Lord" to "Saviour" to fill out the metre. So we have "There, dear Saviour, we receive thee" instead of "There dear Lord we shall receive thee."

I presume the idea is to adjust the tenses so that the hymn can be used in the communion slot at a Eucharistic service. It would, doubtless, be a little odd to sing "There dear Lord we shall receive thee" on one's way back from the altar. But does that make it okay just to muck it all up? Why not just put a note on it to say that it's a hymn for earlier in the service or for benediction?

But what is perhaps even worse is the last line of that verse, where, for no apparent reason "In the solemn sacrament" (nice) has become "In thy holy sacrament" (boring!).

Finally, there is the last verse. Here, alas, the editors have made one of their rare forays into political correctness (at least I suppose it's that). "Till at last her sons are gathered" has become "Till at last the flock is gathered". "Her sons" was "the Church's sons" (that is all of us). I rather like it when we remember to think of the church as our mother, and to refer to her in the feminine, so I must say I deeply lament the passing of that nice thought, that the Church is a she and we are her sons. I can't say I've ever had any difficulty identifying myself as one of those sons. It has, in fact, a rather nice inclusive feel, because it is clear that one's gender is quite irrelevant to one's status as a "son" in this context. So I think it would be more inclusive to keep that than to eliminate it.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The lack of Greek headings

I noticed this morning again, looking at hymn 421 "O King Enthroned on High", that the NEH doesn't give the Greek for the first line of hymns translated from the Greek, as the EH used to do.

It does for Latin, but not for Greek. Not for Syriac either, nor Slavonic, nor Irish, nor Welsh. Since the Welsh wouldn't involve a funny script, it's presumably not for reasons of typesetting. So why?

Dumbing down? They don't see why we want to know? Well I can tell you there are lots of reasons why one might need to know, and the lack of an index of the original first lines of translated hymns is a real indication of the failure on the part of the NEH editors to understand what things might matter in searching for a particular hymn in a hymn book. Since the EH had one, presumably they consciously chose not to have one, just to make things less helpful?

What is rigid gently bend

Yet another preacher after my own heart!

Today we had a sermon from the Revd Canon Donald Gray (Canon Emeritus of Westminster and former Speaker's Chaplain).

It being Whitsun we'd been singing the Whitsun hymns, including Veni Sancte Spiritus, aka the Golden Sequence, which appears in the New English Hymnal at 139 and also at 520 where it has its proper plainsong tune (pity we didn't sing that if you ask me).

But to get to the point.

Canon Gray observed that the New English Hymnal has (alas) substituted for J.M. Neale's much loved translation (familiarly known by its first line "Come thou Holy Paraclete"), a translation said to be by J.M. Neale and EDITORS. Bad news, that "and EDITORS" you might say, and indeed Canon Gray was lamenting parts of J.M. Neale's translation that have gone missing, lost in a quagmire of editorial "improvements" in verse 4. Since I'd just been contemplating (during the first hymn) writing on the loss of J.M. Neale's verse 4 in this blog this afternoon (as indeed, here I am doing so), my heart warmed to Canon Gray at once.

Here's what he was lamenting. The first three lines of verse 4 used to go like this in the English Hymnal:

What is soilèd, make thou pure;
What is wounded, work its cure;
What is parchèd fructify.

It was the word 'fructify' in particular that seemed to Canon Gray so rich, and so evocative, and not adequately captured in the new version ("bring to life the arid soul") that has been substituted in the NEH. The sermon was, effectively, on how important it is that we be fructified by the Holy Spirit when parched.

But let's look a little more closely at what's happened here.

Here's what the Latin says:

Lava quod est sordidum,
riga quod est aridum,
sana quod est saucium

Literally: "wash what is dirty, irrigate what is dry, heal what is wounded" The rhythm of the short lines with "quod est" in each of them is captured by Neale in the repeated structure "what is ... " which is an exact translation of the phrases. The original Latin leaves open what these items that are dirty, dry or wounded might be. Our imagination can, of course, easily supply possible examples, but I assume that the Holy Spirit is free to apply this treatment to anything and everything that fits the description "what is dirty, what is dry, what is wounded."

Getting rid of the heavy handed repetition of "what is ..." at the beginning of Neale's lines may seem initially attractive. But it does not make for an accurate nor a memorable series of thoughts. For one thing, the NEH editors have seen fit to specify what items the Spirit is to apply his attentions to:

Sinful hearts (not what is dirty) do thou make whole (not clean)
Bring to life (not water) the arid soul (not what is dry)

And (later, postponed to the end of the verse)

Wounded souls (not what is wounded) their hurt allay (not heal).

So instead of a general prayer to the Holy Spirit to treat whatever can respond to these treatments, we now identify that the items are sinful hearts, arid souls, wounded souls. Does this matter? Well, yes, first because it's prosaic, pedantic, boring and dull. And also because it prescribes thoughts, rather than inviting them. The original left us to think theologically and to see applications in all aspects of our lives.

The Golden Sequence comes in sets of three lines. There are three more lines that have gone into verse 4 in the English version. Here they are in Latin:

Flecte quod est rigidum,
fove quod est frigidum,
rege quod est devium.

Literally, "Bend what is rigid, warm what is cold, correct what is wayward."

J.M. Neale continued his rather heavyhanded lines that begin with the "what is..." phrase as follows for these lines:

What is rigid gently bend;
what is frozen warmly tend;
Straighten what goes erringly.

Now it has to be said that these lines have been a source of much mirth in their day. Many a Pentecost have I seen the King's Choral Scholars crippled with the giggles, even though Neale did not, as he might have done, choose to write "what is frigid warmly tend". But still, I do feel that the substitute in the NEH is not really fit for the job. Here it is:

Make the stubborn heart unbend,
To the faint, new hope extend,

And (going back to the middle line of the verse, because they've done them out of order)

Guide the feet that go astray.

Once again, the editors have seen fit to specify what the object to be treated by the Spirit is: the stubborn heart (for "what is rigid"), the faint, presumably faint people (for what is cold, but why and how is faint a good translation for cold?), and the feet that go astray (for what is wayward).

But "feet"?

Why "feet"?

It's not literally feet that the Spirit is interested in, surely? I mean we're not talking about redirecting us when we've taken a wrong turning on the roads. We're talking about redirecting us when we've taken a wrong turning in life. But it's not our feet that do that, is it? What is it? Wouldn't it be better not to try to cash out the metaphor? Wouldn't it be better to leave the work to the imaginiation?

I presume we couldn't have hearts or souls again because we'd already had those twice each in the wretched new translation, so for the sake of variatio they chose "feet" as the kind of thing that could go astray?

And now again,

Why did they transpose the third and sixth lines of the verse?

I'm mystified.

Since the two lines rhyme with each other and make perfectly good sense in their proper position, this seem a completely random and unmotivated decision. Why? I don't know why.

This week's competition:

Rewrite J.M. Neale's lines for verse 4 in such a way as to avoid using "what is..." as the first words of each line, avoiding the awkward invertion of object and verb, and avoiding the artificial articulation of -éd on past tenses that are normally pronounced as one syllable.
Do that without stipulating what the items that are to be treated are.

The prize: glory everlasting.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

New thread on the BBC message board

Please join in the discussion of the English Hymnal on the Radio Three message board by clicking the link on the title of this post.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Feed the faint and hungry heathen

Today we sang Judge Eternal, Throned in Splendour. It's one of the hymns that has suffered at the hands of misguided political correctness, with rather unfortunate effects.

The hymn was written in 1902 by Henry Scott Holland. He was not just a committed Christian Socialist but also an academic theologian, and at the end of his life was Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford from 1910 until his death in 1918—when he seems to have been 71, so I suppose he must have been appointed to the chair at the age of 63—he'd done a few other things first, including being precentor of St Paul's Cathedral.

The hymn Judge Eternal Throned in Splendour—probably the only one he ever wrote—appeared in the journal that he edited for twenty-two years, called the Commonwealth. The journal (and the hymn too) was devoted to the social application of the Christian faith.

The hymn is about "this realm" its cities, its homesteads, its woodlands, and about the weary folk in them who are pining for release from "bitter things". Doubtless the bitter things are the social problems that afflict them. The hymn is a call to Christians to do something about it, cast in the form of a prayer to God to purge "this realm" of the social evils that afflict it. Perhaps, writing in the early twentieth century, Henry Scott Holland may have had in mind England, or Britain, in particular as the 'realm' that needed to be purged. But notice that he says "this realm", "this empire" not "our realm" or "our empire". So he might just mean this earthly realm as opposed to the heavenly realm, though doubtless the choice of vocabulary is meant to bring to mind the vocabulary of British sovereignty as a kind of image with which to reflect on the way in which the world depends upon God for its common weal—, but even if he did mean Britain or the British Empire more specifically, I think one could sing it about any land and any state and find that its message applied then and still applies now. Only the "woodlands" sound a bit too English to be freely transferable to any and every country. Similarly the "wide dominion" in verse 1 (solace all its wide dominion with the healing of thy wings) might be inviting us to think in terms of the areas under the dominion of Britain; but does it do that literally, or does it continue the metaphor of treating the whole world as a kind of empire under one dominion (the dominion of God). Either way, it applies the hymn's social message to more than just the island we happen to live on.

The verse that causes offence and the foolish interference on the part of recent editors is verse 3. This is what Henry wrote:

Crown, O God, Thine own endeavour;
Cleave our darkness with Thy sword;
Feed the faint and hungry heathen
With the richness of Thy word;
Cleanse the body of this Empire
Through the glory of the Lord.

For some reason that I don't quite understand it's not acceptable to call anyone a heathen these days, even if they are heathens. So that word has to go, even though we do really want to feed the heathen with the riches of God's word. At least I think we do. But it's not clear what the hymn book editors think we want to do. They make us sing this:

Feed the faithless and the hungry
With the richness of thy word.

It appears that they think we want to feed the hungry, people who are literally hungry, but feed them not with food but with the word of God. That seems to me to be inappropriate. If people are hungry they should be fed food. The word of God is no substitute for bread. So I'm certainly happy to ask God to feed the hungry, but not to specify that it should be feeding them metaphorically, with words instead of bread.

But it's not just that they're unclear on whether we want to feed the hungry. It's that they've missed why we described the heathen as faint and hungry: it's as if they thought that Henry Scott Holland meant that the heathen were literally faint and hungry, as though being heathen and being hungry were somehow connected. But it's not food they hunger for, it's the word of God. That's what it is to be heathen: to be lacking in this spiritual nourishment that is the remedy for the kind of pining and misery that Scott Holland had been describing in the earlier verses. So feeding the faint and hungry heathen with the word of God is to give them what they hunger for. To give it to the hungry is not.

But they've also removed the word 'heathen' and replaced it with 'faithless'. I suppose they think that 'faithless' means the same thing only without the derogatory overtones of 'heathen'. So they do sort of grant that we might care about the heathen and not just about believers; they do sort of grant that the social problems include the fact that some folk have never heard the word of God. But those people are not "the faithless". That term just does not mean people who have not been taught the faith, which is what Scott Holland meant. "Faithless" means someone who breaks faith, someone who lets you down. Now that is derogatory: to call someone faithless just because they've never been told the good news is deeply unfair. There's another hymn that uses that term correctly ("And we, shall we be faithless, shall hearts fail, hands hang down...?"). But it's quite simply JUST THE WRONG WORD HERE.

But are we perhaps in denial? Is it that the editors think they speak for us when they try to pretend that there are no heathen in this country, no one whose hunger for spiritual nourishment we should satisfy? Surely we need to ask ourselves whether we have made any progress, since Scott Holland wrote this, towards ensuring that the young people (even in this country, let alone in the rest of the world) have ever heard the word of God. I rather suspect there are more heathen in this country than there were when he wrote it, and that it would be a good thing if singing this hymn with its proper words were to remind us of what a shameful fact that is (shameful for us, I mean).

There's a question, I think, about what Scott Holland meant by "this Empire" in the last verse. It's the same question as the one in the first verse about the scope of "realm" and the scope of "its dominion". Is he specifically referring to British territory, and the need to clean up our act on British soil, or is he using the metaphor of Empire to refer to the whole world as an empire under one sovereign? I'm not sure. But the metaphorical reading is perfectly good, and makes good sense of the hymn. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the New English Hymnal quite destroys it by substituting "nation" for Empire in the last verse. I don't see that we can think of the world as a nation. One thing that God's world is not is a nation. So that by doing that the editors exclude the non-nationalistic reading and force us to take the hymn nationalistically, narrowly, politically.

Suppose we keep Empire. There are two ways of reading the hymn then, if we still want to sing it in the twenty-first century in Church.

Either we can sing it (as we do many others that invoke traditional motifs) as a relic of a historic period in which Britain had a political responsibility to ensure the social welfare of a wide dominion. Singing old poetry that speaks in a language we wouldn't standardly use to day is not a problem. It's part of what adds to our sense of belonging to a communion that stretches back through time.
Or alternatively we can read it metaphorically, taking ourselves as belonging to an empire, God's empire, in which God will try to bring succour to all his subject peoples.

Both readings help us to enter into the spirit of this hymn.

But to change the words is to destroy what is distinctive about the hymn and to undermine its imagery.

So for heaven's sake! Just give us the words the poet wrote, not some garbled version... Give us a hymn book in which we can actually read the words that the poet wrote. If people don't understand it, then they shouldn't sing it. Or better still, they should learn to understand it. How better than by singing it and learning to think reflectively, through its quaint words, about our place in the world and in history?

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

A little light entertainment

This 21st century updated version of "The day thou gavest" is by Amy Robinson, passed on to me by Annie Osborne.


The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended
The darkness falls at thy behest
To thee my morning prayers should have ascended
But I was grumpy and sleepy and stressed.

I'm sorry, Lord, that I have stumbled
Through today without your word;
And any prayer I might have mumbled
I'd be surprised if you have heard.

And I will soon be deep in slumber
My night time prayers cut off midway,
I wouldn't like to count the number
Of things that I'll forget to say.

But wait here, Lord, while I am sleeping,
You know the troubles of my heart,
And when my snooze alarm starts beeping,
Help me to make a better start.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

I believe and trust in him

Well I said this blog is about other sad tales as well...

Today's entry is not about the damage done to hymn books but about baptism.

Baptism is the rite of initiation into the Church. It involves the believer making a commitment, the basic minimum commitment that counts for making you a Christian. To mark that commitment the person is baptised, with water, in the name of the three persons of the Trinity (which is what he or she has committed herself to), and thereby becomes a member of the Church. If the person is too little to utter her trust in God, someone else utters it on her behalf. At the font the priest asks the candidate "Do you believe and trust in God...?" He or she asks this three times, once for each person of the Trinity.

There are, it seems to me, roughly three clear uses of the verb "to believe". Unfortunately this can lead to confusion.

One use of the verb "believe" is in epistemic contexts, where the content of the belief can be expressed using a sentence introduced by "that...". I believe that the world is round. I believe that three is a prime number. I believe that God created the world. Some beliefs are false, and some beliefs are true. One can also know that three is a prime number, but not everyone who believes it knows it. One can think that three is a prime number, or be of the opinion that it is. "To believe" is very much like "to think" in this sense, when believe or think is followed by a clause beginning "that...". "I think that lunch is ready" means much the same as "I believe that lunch is ready".

Another use of the verb "believe" is followed by "in such and such" and is a bit like a belief that such and such exists. "I don't believe in fairies" or "I don't believe in Father Christmas" means (roughly) I don't believe that there are any fairies, or I don't believe that Father Christmas exists.

A third use of the verb "believe" is also followed by "in such and such" but it isn't about the existence of the object specified, but about whether that thing is something to which one assigns importance and value in one's life—whether one owes commitment, allegiance and trust to it; whether one fights valiantly on its behalf against all that threatens or opposes it. The grammatical construction of this expression (I don't believe in wasting energy) is exactly the same as the one about existence, but it doesn't mean the same.

I remember walking up Warwick Street in Oxford, accompanied by a small child called Sarah, one day in the early 1990s. The street was lined with parked cars either side. Sarah looked up at me and asked quizzically "Why don't you have a car?". "We don't believe in cars," said I. "You don't believe in cars? But look! There are cars over there, and there and there!" said Sarah. "Oh no," I said "I don't mean we don't believe they exist. I mean we don't believe they are a good thing." What I really meant was that we didn't put having a car as a priority in our lives: on the contrary we put not having a car as a high priority.

"I don't believe in God" can be used in either of these last two senses. It's quite commonly used in the sense that is about existence, because most of the people who don't believe that God exists never get as far as asking themselves whether they believe in him in the sense of owing allegiance to him. That's not accidental, perhaps, because if God exists he is important to you, but if he doesn't he isn't.

The result is that when you say you do believe in God, you might be meaning it in either of these two senses. You might be saying that you believe that God exists, or you might be saying that this God has a significant place in your life— the place that God occupies in the life of a believer. Anyone who says it in one sense will also, if asked, say it in the other sense. This means that it's very easy to confuse the two.

The Church is interested in all three of these senses of "to believe".

It is interested in the first sense when it is concerned about teaching and doctrine. In its more dogmatic moments the Church finds it necessary to formulate various facts and propositions about God and about other things, which it takes to be true and thinks that the believer should learn to affirm. It insists, for example, that the world was made by God the Father. This is one of the doctrines to which we are expected to assent if we are being tested for heresy (since some of the gnostic heretics used, plausibly enough, to suppose that the world was too grotty and uncomfortable to have been made by a good god, so the real god was not the creator). Another of these facts that we are required to believe is that Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day. This too we have to be prepared to assent to if necessary, since it is heretical to hold that Jesus merely appeared to die but was actually spirited away out of the body first. These are matters that had to be clarified in the early years of the Church, in order to decide which branches of the Church were thinking on the right lines. The creeds that we still recite today formulate a set of anti-heretical propositions designed to test a person for accurate doctrines should there be a challenge to that person's orthodoxy.

The Church is interested in the second sense of belief when it is dealing with philosophy of religion, and particularly in arguments against sceptics. The most obvious challenge is from the idea that there is no god at all, but there are other questions of existence: do you believe in life after death? Do you believe in heaven? Do you believe in the devil? Do you believe in the virgin birth? These are about whether the entities or the events exist or occurred as described. These are closely related to beliefs of the first sort, in that belief in the virgin birth might be described either as "belief in the virgin birth" or "believing that Jesus was born of a virgin". So belief in the existence of something can also be a mark of orthodoxy.

But it is the third sense of belief that is at issue in the baptism service. We are asked whether we turn to Christ, whether we renounce evil, whether we believe and trust in the three persons of the Trinity. These are questions about the allegiance we owe, the trust we place. After we make the declaration of allegiance, we are greeted by other members whose values and commitments are the same: they greet us and encourage us to hold fast, to fight valiantly against sin the world and the devil. These commitments are about placing God as a person with over-riding significance in one's life. They are not about what doctrinal statements one affirms.

Consider this conversation:

John: Do you believe and trust in Rowan Williams, the current Archbishop of Canterbury?

Mary: I believe that he was born in Wales, graduated from Cambridge, took his PhD from Oxford, was for some time at Mirfield and then in Cambridge, became Professor in Oxford in 1987 and Bishop of Monmouth in 1991, and was chosen as Archbishop of Canterbury a few years ago.

John: Yes, I know all that. But do you believe in him?

Mary doesn't answer John's question. His question is about Mary's attitude to the Archbishop, and she never offers any account of that. She talks past John.

Doesn't something rather similar happen when (in the new rite that passes as a baptismal rite in the C of E) the priest holds this conversation with the candidate and her godparents:

Priest: Do you believe and trust in God the Father who made the world?

Candidate: I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.

Priest: Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ?

Candidate: I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

"Well," you might say, "the candidate is just defining who it is she believes in, just to make quite sure that we're talking about the same person." After all presumably that was why the Priest asked about "God the Father who made the world" just to make sure that we're clear who he's asking about. So the candidate says "yes, if this is who you mean, that's who I'm committing my trust to".

But I don't think that defence will work.

First because the candidate omits the crucial word "trust". Her reply bypasses the priest's question, just as Mary's answer bypassed John's question about belief in the Archbishop. The priest should say to the candidate: "Yes, I know who you mean, but do you believe and trust in him? You've only told me what I already know about the facts of his life."

And second, because the next exchange shows clearly that the candidate has got completely the wrong end of the stick:

Priest: Do you believe and trust in the Holy Ghost?

Candidate: I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. 

This is a list of completely irrelevant items. Mary might as well have said to John: "And I believe in Father Christmas and the day after tomorrow" when asked whether she trusts the Archbishop.

Aside from the fact that these items have no place in a baptismal rite, it looks as though at least some of these claims to "believe in" certain items are statements of the second sort of belief, that is belief in the existence of things that might be in doubt. Although a belief in the holy catholic Church looks plausibly like a statement of trust or allegiance, the others look more like intellectual affirmations of the truth of certain doctrines or the occurrence of certain events.

So the priest asks for an utterance that expresses allegiance to the Trinity. He gets a series of disconnected utterances that describe the items about which he asked, and a few others about which he did not ask. He doesn't get an expression of trust, which is what he asked for.

Why does he need to ask? One feature of the third sort of belief is that you don't need to ask a person, and the person doesn't need to utter their belief, because "belief in" someone is manifested in one's way of life, in one's behaviour towards the person whom one trusts (in the fact that one turns to Christ, in the fact that one fights valiantly, in the fact that one renounces evil). When Peter says "You know that I love you" to the risen Lord, he doesn't mean that he had told him before. He means that Jesus already understands that even though Peter had uttered a denial, that denial was not after all a true expression of his level of commitment —and Jesus knows that not just because Jesus can see into Peter's heart in a way we can't. Jesus knows that Peter loves him because of how Peter behaves.

So this sort of belief in someone is open to children and animals: you don't need to be able to talk; you don't need to be able to think that x or y is true. It is not an intellectual assent to doctrines: it is an attitude to something or someone in whom one trusts. When the candidate is asked to utter an expression of it, the point of that is to affirm it openly before the congregation, but the utterance isn't in itself the belief, nor is it necessarily the best way to express the belief. Far from it: the belief is best expressed in the act of turning to Christ, in the process of growing up to be one of his. The utterance is a bit of evidence that one is a believer, but the real evidence of that kind of trust is in one's way of life.

It seems to me, therefore, that it is crucially important to keep the baptism service clear of any formulae that look like credal statements of doctrine, and keep it as a service that asks for a simple expression of trust. We need to realise that when the Priest names the three persons of the Trinity he is pointing, each time, to a person and asking "Do you place your trust in that person?". The only answer required is "yes". Nothing more. Baptism marks that act of faith.

So when I am asked to "renew my baptismal vows" I'm afraid I repeat just the words that were said for me at my baptism: "I believe and trust in him". Since I didn't make any other vows then, I don't see how, logically, I can renew them now.

Bring back trust I say: the simple trust of little children.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Hail thee festival day

The English Hymnal included three of the four versions of the hymn Salve festa dies, one for Easter, one for Ascension, one for Whitsun. They were provided separately, though there was one common verse repeated in the first two hymns. The fourth hymn, for Corpus Christi, is apparently not included in any of our current hymn books and was not included in the English Hymnal.

The New English Hymnal has cut out the Whitsun version of the hymn altogether (despite the fact that Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Hymns 157, informs me that this is the one most widely sung nowadays--probably not true any more given the pernicious invasiveness of the NEH in otherwise sound places of worship).

It has also attempted, rather inelegantly, to combine the Easter and Ascension versions in a single printing-- an economy which is hardly helpful, given that it generally means that the priest has to make an intrusive announcement at that most special moment when the Mass of Easter day begins, to guard against total chaos emerging around the end of verse 7 (if it hasn't already emerged by the end of the first chorus). Indeed it's hard to think that this is much of an economy, since the two hymns together take up 8 pages of the hymn book and both tunes have to be printed twice over (i.e. four tunes are printed). The English Hymnal got round this by providing Vaughan Williams' tune only once, and the plainsong all three times (but neatly with just the plainsong staves not all the extra lines of accompaniment, so they take up little space).

The other effect of combining the two versions of the hymn is that we get a poor selection of verses. In the English Hymnal the Easter hymn had 11 verses, of which five no longer survive, and the Ascension hymn had 10 of which two no longer survive (instead we sing four of the ascension verses at Easter as well, and one of the Easter verses at Ascension as well). In addition of course seven verses from the Whitsun version have disappeared. So we are deprived of fourteen verses in total.

Not that the EH had all the verses by any means. The Latin version that I've traced appears to have 100 lines (50 two line stanzas). It's not entirely clear what the status of the separate versions is, or how they relate to the words of Bishop Venantius Fortunatus (who lived from 530 to 609). I think the answer must be that modern hymn book editors have chopped up Venantius Fortunatus's 100 lines to make several hymns (but since I can't see any of the Whitsun or Corpus Christi verses in the Latin that I've got in front of me, and the EH tells us that the Easter and Ascension ones are from the Sarum Processional and the Whitsun one from the York Processional, I suspect there must have been different versions in different places, with added verses for those feasts).

The New English Hymnal claims that its words are by "Editors, based on the Latin of Venantius Fortunatus." This seems a trifle unfair, since those verses that they have preserved from the EH were translated by known individuals who deserve to be named (Maurice F Bell for the Easter ones, Percy Dearmer for the Ascension ones). Granted they've made a few changes: Percy's "Gay is the woodland with leaves, bright are the meadows with flowers" has become "Green is the woodland with leaves, bright are the meadows with flowers", and it's been tacked (probably correctly) onto "Daily the loveliness grows.." (also by Percy Dearmer) instead of "Christ in his triumph ascends..." (which has become, as a different verse, "Christ in thy triumph ascend...", again probably correctly), but this seems to me to be revision of an existing translation, not a translation by the editors from the Latin.

The plainsong tune has got somewhat displaced from communal memory by the success of Vaughan Williams' tune called (somewhat confusingly) salva festa dies (confusingly because that's what the plainsong tune is called).

However, having spent this Easter Sunday in the congregation instead of in the choir has caused me to notice that people can't get the idea of how you fit the words to the tunes for the verses, in Vaughan Williams' tune. It's not actually that difficult, but people seem to get confused. I see that in the English Hymnal it specifies in no uncertain terms that the verses are to be sung by "Clerks only". In fact the Clerks are to sing the chorus first time, then the "Clerks only" sing the verses, while the people sing the chorus each time. So the assumption is that the boys and the congregation don't need to deal with the verses at all. I think perhaps there's something to be said for that. It would recapture something of the old plainsong feel of it.

Not that the original Latin hymn had a refrain: it was just 100 lines of Elegiac couplets (it's the rendering of this into Elegiac couplets in English that produces the complexity for fitting it to the tune, and perhaps the ability to sing this tune comes with being suitably steeped in such things).

Monday, April 17, 2006

Now is eternal life

Now is eternal life
If risen with Christ we stand...

Words by Canon George Wallace Briggs, scholar of Emmanuel College Cambridge and sometime vicar of St Andrew's Church in Norwich, in the which parish I am one of only ten residents. Twentieth Century hymn writer, lived from 1875-1959.

Well I'm puzzled by this hymn. It turns out not to be in the English Hymnal (not surprisingly I suppose since the hymn was presumably written somewhat after that book was compiled). But the hymn seems to me to be more familiar than its sparse distribution in the existing hymn books would warrant.

The other puzzle is that if you'd asked me cold, I would have said that the words of the first verse as it appears in the NEH were not what Briggs wrote. In fact I can't back up that hunch from any source that I've discovered so far, though I have found something else wrong with the version in the NEH.

So here's what it says in the first verse:

Now is eternal life,
If risen with Christ we stand,
In him to life reborn,
And holden in his hand;
No more we fear death's ancient dread,
In Christ arisen from the dead.

The theology is Pauline. "If risen with Christ we stand" comes from Colossians 2:12 "Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God..." and Colossians 3:1 "If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above". That's the source of the first four lines, though the image of rebirth is not there (but perhaps from I Peter 1:23?).

The hypothetical "if risen with Christ we stand" is reminiscent not just of that "if ye then be risen" of Colossian 3:1, but even more so of I Corinthians 15 (12 Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead...; 13 but if there be no resurrection...; 14 and if Christ be not risen...; 15 if so be that the dead rise not...; 16 for if the dead rise not...; 17 and if Christ be not raised...; 19 if in this life only we have hope...; ); but one can also trace the same ideas in Romans 6, which also has the baptismal theme. And the idea that death has lost its ancient dread also recalls the end of I Corinthians 15.

I think it was the reminiscence of the I Corinthians 15 material that made me think that the end of this verse should go "If Christ be risen from the dead". Perhaps there's some other reason, but right now it looks as if that thought is mere fantasy.

But this is what I have found about the version in the NEH.

First they have left out a verse. Between verse 1 (shown above) and verse 3 (which appears below) there should be verse 2. It goes like this:

Man long in bondage lay,
Brooding o'er life's brief span;
Was it, O God, for naught,
For naught thou madest man?
Thou art our hope, our vital breath;
Shall hope undying end in death?

This appears to me to be a meditation on I Corinthians 15:14 and 19, the thought that our faith is in vain if Christ be not risen, and that if we have hope only in this life then are we of all men the most miserable.

Verse 3 appears to be only minimally altered by the NEH (spurious words shown in brackets):

And (For) God, the living God,
Stooped down to man's estate;
By death destroying death,
Christ opened wide life's gate:
He lives, who died; he reigns on high;
Who lives in him shall never die.

One could spend some time working out the allusions to various bits of the New Testament in that verse, but I shall move on to the last one now.

Verse 4 goes like this, as Briggs wrote it (I assume):

Unfathomed love divine,
Reign thou within my heart;
From thee nor depth nor height,
Nor life nor death can part;
My life is hid in God with thee,
Now and through all eternity.

The imagery is from Romans 8:38-9 (Neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God...) and from Colossians 3:3 (For ye are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God). Here Briggs re-writes the latter from the position of the believer addressing Christ, not Paul addressing the believer, so he has us say my life is hid with thee (namely Christ, as in Colossians) in God.

For some obscure reason best known to the hymn book editors (perhaps, if they know what they're doing at all) line 5 has been rendered thus in the NEH:

Our life is hid with God in thee.

Is God hidden in Christ? That was not what St Paul said. Are we hidden in Christ with God? That was not what St Paul said. So why are we singing this garbage in Church? Does anyone know what it means? I certainly don't.

As for the change from singular to plural, that too seems to be entirely gratuitous. After all we have already had "reign thou within my heart" in verse 4, so we've moved into thinking singular already by that stage. There's no good reason that I can see to resist the move to applying the Pauline lessons to one's own individual faith, which is clearly the intentionof this verse.

Sunday, April 02, 2006


Ian Robins observed to me today that the New English Hymnal has a mistake in the Latin at the headings of both the Pange Lingua hymns.

That is

Hymn 78 (Sing my tongue the glorious battle) is headed pangue lingua gloriosi proelium certaminis


hymn 268 (Of the glorious body telling) is headed pangue lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium.

Since when was the verb pangere (to compose or write verses) written with a u? Or since when was its second person imperative form written with a u? I am not aware of any verb that has such a form.

The title of the tune is correctly written PANGE LINGUA in both cases.

Does any detective have a way of discovering how this new corruption arrived in the NEH?