Monday, November 17, 2008

In Christ there is no East or West

"In Christ there is no East or West" is one of the hymns that was not included in the English Hymnal but has made an entrance into the New English Hymnal, having become popular by way of Songs of Praise, Hymns A & M New Standard, and a few other twentieth century books. Or at least a bit of it has got into the New English Hymnal, mutilated but not quite so badly mutilated as in some other books.
As far as I can see, the full and unadulterated version of this hymn appears only in two books that I can find, and they are Songs of Praise (number 537) and The New Catholic Hymnal (no 104). I don't have the Celebration Hymnal to hand, so that may also be in good order. Oddly (and very unusually) the words given in the online hymnals (Cyberhymnal and Oremus hymnal) are corrupted (adjusted for inclusive language, it seems) in both cases.

Here is the original wording, or at least what I believe to be the original wording.

1 In Christ there is no East or West,
In Him no South or North;
But one great fellowship of love
Throughout the whole wide earth.

2 In Him shall true hearts everywhere
Their high communion find;
His service is the golden cord,
Close binding all mankind.

3 Join hands, then, brothers of the faith,
Whate'er your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
Is surely kin to me.

4 In Christ now meet both East and West,
In Him meet South and North;
All Christly souls are one in Him
Throughout the whole wide earth.

The words are attributed to John Oxenham (1852-1941), but actually that was a pseudonym. The author's real name was William Arthur Dunkerley, who was, besides being John Oxenham, also a deacon of Ealing Congregational Church (at least so my reference book, A Hymn Companion by Frank Colquhoun, tells me, though the Times obituary of Jan 25th 1941 kindly sent to me by James Yardley makes no reference to that, but only to the fact that he was a reluctant business man). He was best known for a number of novels published under the Oxenham name.

Now this hymn has suffered one almost universal intervention in hymn books both older and more recent. That is, in all cases other than Songs of Praise and the New Catholic Hymnal the word "Christly" in the last verse has been replaced with "Christlike". I can't quite think why anyone would feel the need to do this. It isn't as if Oxenham aka Dunkerley couldn't have chosen to write "Christlike" if he'd wanted to. Why did he write "Christly" then? Well, surely because it's a lot better in terms of poetic feel and more singable, I presume. And also, doesn't it mean something slightly more subtle, something slightly stronger than mere likeness to Christ? So what's the problem with it? Surely not that we find it hard to understand...

The NEH, like the rest, is guilty of that intervention, and it is doubtless for that that Oxenham gets a dagger by his name. What the NEH is unique in doing is mutilating the hymn by removing verse 2. If you use the NEH you get only a three-verse hymn; and to my mind the verse that has gone is the most interesting one.

The damage in other hymn books is worse however. There has been a great deal of enthusiasm for political correctness and inclusive language, resulting in a great rash of interventions by bad poets and editors, with respect to verse 3 in particular. Doubtless someone will be able to tell me what it says in Hymns Old and New (a book I do not allow in the house). The versions on Cyberhymnal and Oremus Hymnal are evidently infected by this habit: in Cyberhymnal we have
Join hands, then, members of the faith,
while Oremus Hymnal has
Join hands, disciples of the faith,
and James tells me that Church Hymnary 4 has
Come, brothers, sisters of the faith.
Meanwhile at the end of that verse, Oremus Hymnal keeps "Who serves my father as a son is surely kin to me" (though having lost the 'brothers' at the start of the verse, the point of this is a bit lost) but Cyberhymnal has
Who serves my father as his child is surely kin to me

but again, what is the point of saying that fellow children are kin to me, if you didn't call them brothers at the start of the verse?

Church Hymnary 4 has seen that problem, evidently, and kept the siblings in the first line of that verse, but then, strangely, loses it loses them in the third line by omitting the notion of sons and children at that point! It has
Whoever does my Father's will...
Notice that this also manages to lose the notion of service into the bargain, with the result that it fails to mark the connection with verse 2 (his service is the golden cord).

The other point that gets the more extreme "inclusive language freaks" worked up is the idea of "mankind" in "close binding all mankind". In Church Hymnary 4 and the Cyberhymnal this has become "Close binding humankind".

Now it seems to me that you might think that the whole sentiment of the hymn is inclusive, and anyone ought to be able to see that "all mankind" means all kinds of people, and that what makes us kin is service of the Father, not anything about our gender, race or anything else. So it does seem to me that there's absolutely no whiff of any kind of political incorrectness in the gendered language, and therefore there's no point in trying to doctor it. If it can't be misunderstood, surely it's a positively good role model for how to read poetry in the right spirit and not get hung up on the idea that a word always means the same in every context. Grrr.

Many thanks to James Yardley for his assistance with the research for this post.