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?
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