Sunday, July 01, 2007

Children of the Heavenly King

I have fond memories of the hymn "Children of the Heavenly King".

I first learnt it at LSM in the days when we still had the English Hymnal and sang real hymns as they should be sung. It's a wonderful hymn for singing on journeys, and it particularly takes me back to a rather peculiar holiday we had in Cornwall with Rowan Williams and Jane and their baby Rhiannon. They had a car, we didn't; so we all piled in together like sardines into the Williams's not-very-big yellow car; in those days you didn't have to have seat belts or car seats for children. And then, once we were in, we had to sing hymns constantly because that was the only thing that could prevent our Annie, then 3 years old, from being travel sick within minutes of getting on the road.

"As ye journey sweetly sing" we all yelled, four adults two children and a baby, squeezed in with the windows shut to keep out the howling wind and rain of the most miserable week in a miserable early spring. "Jesus Christ your father's son bids you undismayed go on."

People might be forgiven for thinking that we still sing that hymn at Little St Mary's, and that we sang it this morning. But they would be sadly wrong.

We did sing the first two verses as John Cennick wrote them, and also his fourth (out of five). But the point of the hymn lies in the last verse of the hymn, which begins "Lord obediently we go...". That verse has quietly gone from the New English Hymnal.

John Cennick (1718-55), who wrote the real hymn, including its last verse and several others that we don't usually sing, was a Methodist lay preacher, friend of the Wesleys. Besides 'Children of the heavenly king', he also composed a rather less successful poem that began
Lo he cometh, countless trumpets
blow before his bloody sign!
Midst ten thousand saints and angels
see the crucified shine.
Welcome, welcome bleeding lamb!
It was Charles Wesley who, in 1758, turned that unpromising start into a great Advent hymn (Lo he comes with clouds descending...).

Perhaps the editors of the New English Hymnal thought that because Wesley could improve upon Cennick then they, a committee of uninspired twentieth century Anglicans with little poetry but a great many sociological prejudices, must be able to do so too.

This is what they did.

They cut out the last verse, and put in, in its place, a piece of sexist doggerel based loosely on the fifth verse of Cennick's original (which the English Hymnal editors had wisely omitted—for they too evidently thought that Cennick could be saved from some of his worst errors of judgement). This is what Cennick wrote at verse 5:
Lift your eyes, ye sons of light,
Zion’s city is in sight:
There our endless home shall be,
There our Lord we soon shall see.
The editors of the New English Hymnal have come up with the following adaptation of that verse (in lieu of the last verse):
Lift your eyes ye sons of light
Sion's city is in sight;
There our endless home shall be,
There our Lord in glory see.
You might have a sense that the grammar and syntax of the last two lines don't work.

You'd be quite right.

There's no subject for the verb 'see' in the last line . To make it right, you'd need a 'we shall' somewhere in the sentence: "There our Lord in glory we'll see", but of course that won't scan. Cennick had "we soon shall see" which works perfectly well. You could get away with having the 'we' in the previous line (There our endless home we'll see, there our Lord in glory see) but of course you don't want 'see' twice, and, as it is, the subject in line 3 is 'our endless home' not 'we' so that can't serve as the subject of 'see' (unless our endless home is what sees, which I don't think is intended).

So the last two lines as written in the NEH are nonsense. That's odd because when Cennick wrote the verse, the last two lines made perfect, if somewhat uninspired, grammatical sense. As we saw, he wrote "There our endless home shall be, There our Lord we soon shall see." There's no problem with that.

So the NEH editors have garbled the syntax in order to replace "we soon shall see" with "in glory see." We'll come back to why they might want to do that in a minute.

What about lines 1 and 2 of that verse? Those are (alas) unadulterated Cennick, though he didn't put them at the very end of the poem as the editors have mysteriously chosen to do. Sadly they are not among Cennick's most lucid lines. Notice that the 'children' that we had in the first verse have now become 'sons'. OK, so we've always been happy to sing 'Fear not, brethren' in verse 6 (which we know as verse 3), for though "brethren" is officially masculine, it's a warmly inclusive term and women brethren are usually happy to be included. But 'sons' is less comfortable: it seems gratuitously exclusive, for men only. What's more, 'sons of light' is not really a very clear idea. I think we know why we believe ourselves to be (by adoption) children of the heavenly king, but I'm not sure on what basis we think we're 'sons of light'. And why are the first two lines of this verse in the second person plural while the last two are in the first person plural? Who's speaking to whom? Part of the problem with the lack of a 'we' in the last line is due to the fact that the verse started by talking about 'you' and then suddenly switched to 'us'. That would be bad enough as Cennick originally wrote it, but by the time the editors have intervened as well, we now have the impossible situation in which the verse has to change the subject from "you" to "us" without ever mentioning 'us'.

So really, the more you think about it, the more it seems that the English Hymnal was wise to omit that verse.

So why did the NEH committee think they needed to bring it back, and rewrite it to boot?

You'd think, wouldn't you, that there must have been something really awful and non-pc about the last verse of Cennick's original, if it's to be amputated in favour of this piece of drivel. For what heinous sin did the NEH thought-police see fit to garble it so?

Here's the last verse that belongs in that place (this one I shall have at my funeral, please):
Lord, obediently we go,
Gladly leaving all below:
Only thou our leader be
And we still will follow thee.
It's about our readiness to follow Christ, without heed for the things of this world, and our readiness to die, gladly, as followers of Jesus. With this verse in place we can see that there is an overall pattern to the hymn: the first verse addresses us "Children... as ye journey, sweetly sing!"; in the second verse we reply "We are travelling home..."; two other verses in the original intervene at this point in which the speaker addresses the children again, before the one which begins "lift your eyes ye sons of light" which we've just looked at. Then in the penultimate verse again the speaker addresses us "Fear not brethren...Jesus Christ your father's son bids you undismayed go on..."; and in the last verse we reply again.

We reply "Lord..." because it is Our Lord who bids us have courage as we stand on the borders of this world and prepare to go on to the next world, as our fathers went before. For, as the penultimate verse insists, "Jesus Christ, your father's son, bids you undismayed go on".

Now it is in response to that bidding that we say "obediently we go".

Jesus bids us go. We go, obediently, gladly.

What exactly is wrong with this? It's evidently not a problem of exclusive language since the editors have replaced a perfectly inclusive verse with an exclusive one.

So is there a theological problem?

Perhaps we're not supposed to be glad to leave the world below?

That seems a possible twentieth century hang up: asceticism and other worldliness weren't perhaps very fashionable in the eighties? But there's hardly anything very negative about readily leaving our earthly attachments when called away by God. After all, I presume that we sang the hymn today precisely because the Gospel reading was about leaving everything without a thought and not looking back when we hear the call to follow. So it's ironic that the relevant verse has been taken out.

Another possibility is that they have a worry about going gladly to death. This could explain the otherwise mystifying attempt to change the words of the verse we discussed above, the one that begins "Lift your eyes". Why did they so desperately want to get rid of "There our Lord we soon shall see" and replace it with "in glory see". Is it because the former suggests (correctly) that we, as believers and followers of Christ, look forward to death being before long, and greet it with some eagerness? That's not fashionable perhaps, living one's life as a preparation for something greater to come, and genuinely affirming the relative unimportance of physical death.

Or is it the idea of obedience? I must say, I rather suspect that the editors do have a sociological horror of obedience. We've already noticed that they bowdlerised 'Once in Royal David's City' to eliminate the idea that children might be supposed to be obedient. It seems clear that the NEH editors don't believe that obedience is a virtue, they don't think that Jesus's obedience to his parents is a proper model for our children, and they don't think it's appropriate for us to obey God when he calls us home.

Why not?

Do I detect, perhaps, a hint of the idea that it would be patronising for God to ask for obedience? The editors want to think that God treats us as grown ups, capable of acting autonomously, not under instructions. They think it is patronising of God to expect us to do things because he tells us. So obedience is a no-no word.

"Patronising." A word we use when we mean that we consider ourselves superior and the person who had the presumption to talk down to us was not (as he/she thought) actually as superior as she or he supposed. It is a word used only by the proud, those too proud to take advice, or to consider that others might have something to say to them. If we use it of God, it is because we are too proud to respond to the Lord's gentle bidding and his words of comfort to the dying.

If I'm right that this is why we don't like obedience any more, then it surely correlates with the attitude of a society that cannot accept death, cannot hear the call to go home singing for joy, and would rather shut its ears to that call and pretend it knows better; a society that seeks everything possible to usurp God's right to call us to die.

That's a sick society, and one that has lost its faith in God.

Boo for pride and hurrah for obedience, I say.