Hymns (and other things) to avoid?

The recent news that the Diocese of Chichester had settled a historic sexual abuse claim involving George Bell, bishop from 1929 until his death in October 1958, raises interesting questions about such matters as commemorating in the C of E Calendar someone who appears to have been a child abuser.

In this guest post, Michael Ainsworth muses on some of them…


The Diocese of Chichester’s settlement to an unnamed child abuse victim, over 60 years ago, of Bishop George Bell raises the question not only of whether he should retain his place in the Anglican calendar on 3 October – which the Church of England Liturgical Commission has ‘parked’ for future consideration, meanwhile pointing out that this is an optional commemoration which no-one is obliged to keep – but more immediately, whether we should sing his hymn Christ is the King! O friends, rejoice, which many churches will have chosen for Christ the King Sunday as well as for other occasions. The hymn is fine, and much-loved – as was George Bell himself, until (and even now perhaps despite) these revelations: politically he was progressive and courageous, probably forfeiting promotion to Canterbury because of his principled pacifist stance. Peter Hitchens (who has his own agenda) notes in “Shameful slur on a Christian hero” [scroll down] that because no allegations were made until 37 years after Bell’s death no trial was possible or details made public; and while he has no doubt that the C of E has a lot of apologising to do, queries whether George Bell’s reputation is being too readily sacrificed to save the skin of the Church of England today.

One answer to the specific question of his hymn, for those now uncomfortable about using it, might be to make a re-translation of the 20-verse German original by Michael Weiße, written for the Bohemian Brethren in the 16th century. After all, Bell’s own version has been much-amended in various hymnals down the years. Originally, for instance, it was sung to another tune and did not include the Alleluya refrain that goes with Vulpius (Gelobt Sei Gott) very effectively, despite the unresolved question of whether it should be Al-le-LU-ya or Al-le-lu-YA – Bishop David Stancliffe always argued for the latter: Praised be GOD. There are other changes and omissions.

But it raises the wider question: are there texts, and tunes, that we must now eschew because of revelations about their authors and composers? Do we need to prune our hymnals in the light of revelations about child abuse and other scandals?

The Church of England, unlike other denominations and Anglican provinces, has no officially-authorised hymnbooks, so this is arguably not a matter for synodical pronouncement: we can simply say, “you can use these hymns and tunes if you wish, or not, if you do not wish”.

Within the resulting corpus of hymnody, there are hymns that many would not sing for doctrinal reasons, rather than because of the lifestyle or activity of their authors, though Anglican hymns are not authoritatively “credal” in the way that, say, Methodist ones are: Charles Wesley characterised his 1780 collection as a little body of experimental [= experiential] and practical divinity. By contrast, some are sung precisely because of doctrines related to their authors’ activities – for example, the Christian Socialist hymns and ditties, some of which were recently sung at the exsequies for Fr Ken Leech – though not the one (to the tune We plough the fields) with the verse ‘God is the only landlord to whom our rents are due…’ The original text of this, though doggerel, is fascinating for its link with the then-fashionable pastoral nostalgia associated with Spenser’s Fairie Queene and the four elements of air, earth, fire and water, with a chorus Uplift St George’s banner and let the ancient cry ‘St George for Merrie England’ re-echo to the sky, which Fr Ken toned down in a rewrite; recent attempts (not least in East London) to reclaim St George as an inclusive (and foreign!) saint have revisited aspects of this tradition as part of a quest for authentic ‘Englishness’.

Many of the more curious doctrinally-assertive hymns are lost in the mists of time – though I have heard The happy birds ‘Te Deum’ sing, ’tis Mary’s month of May at Anglican worship in living memory. But there is also contemporary doctrinal controversy over hymns: for example, from the other end of the spectrum, a recent Presbyterian hymnal excluded Stuart Townend’s popular 2001 text In Christ alone because the authors refused to allow them to change the lines Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied to Till on that cross as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified. This is significant for Anglicans too, who are not required to assent to penal substitution, so should not be required to sing the original version, and have their own variants of the offending lines: may we sing these, or not?

As we approach Remembrance Sunday, and also with weddings, funerals and memorial services in view, there are also ongoing debates (on which clergy tend to hold strong views, often to their congregations’ puzzlement) about whether it is proper to sing as hymns:

  • William Blake’s poem Jerusalem (the prosaic answer to the question of the first two lines is obviously ‘no’, though a radical/socialist interpretation of these [significantly changed to those in the now-sung version] dark satanic mills implies a mythic ‘yes’).
  • Cecil Spring Rice’s I vow to thee, my country (two verses of an original three, from 1908, the first rewritten in more patriotic form in the light of the First World War, the third based on Proverbs 3.17).
  •  O valiant hearts of 1919, allegedly Margaret Thatcher’s favourite hymn: the British Legion among others has agonised over the reference in verse 5 to ‘our lesser Calvaries’: is the cross uniquely all-atoning, or merely the supreme example of sacrifice?

All of these have been in and out of the various hymnals, with or without more ‘acceptable’ rewrites. In fact they all feature in Songs of Praise, the 1925 book (revised 1931) which came out of the high-church English Hymnal stable but with an eye to use in other contexts – it was widely adopted by schools (its children’s section, with mini-liturgies, makes interesting reading – and it introduced Jan Struther’s When a knight won his spurs [see above on St George] which has made something of a comeback – children enjoy it). But it was not adopted by many parish churches and was described by Professor Geoffrey Lampe as “the neo-Platonists’ hymnbook”.

Musically, too, this trio of hymns is intriguing: Parry, having produced his stirring tune for Jerusalem, came to have doubts about its jingoistic use and eventually assigned copyright to the suffragette movement (and thence to the WI); and Holst, who provided tunes for the other two, was aligned with the Christian Socialism of Thaxted (the tune of this name, from his Planets suite, caught on in a big way though his one for O valiant hearts didn’t). Thaxted aficionados will remember how in those days its Vicar, Conrad Noël, displayed the red flag, the Irish tricolour and the George (not the Union Jack) side by side in church.

There are, of course, many other reasons for not singing particular texts. “Dear Rector”, wrote our 90-year old grande dame, “I’d be obliged if we might no longer sing the hymn Thine for ever! God of love. I have never in my life been a frail and trembling sheep.” Which was absolutely true; so we didn’t.

But what guidance can be offered, by the Liturgical Commission or others, where it is revelations about authorial lifestyle rather than text or music that offends? There are plenty of hymnwriters and composers, ancient and modern, who have long been known to be homosexual or to have had startling sexual proclivities: Peter Warlock, aka Philip Heseltine – now revealed to be the father of the late art critic Brian Sewell – is but one example from the 20th century. Greater openness, and proper attention to safeguarding and child protection issues are now uncovering more examples. In 2015 John Barnard, composer and arranger and leading light of the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland, best-known for his tune Guiting Power (named, like many of his others, for a Gloucestershire village) to the late Michael Saward’s Christ triumphant, received a suspended sentence for possessing and printing pornographic images of teenage boys. But this is a tune, not a text, so I think we will continue to sing it (though Michael, a member of my congregation in his latter years, always claimed to prefer the more pedestrian original tune by Bishop Michael Baughen).

Is it different for the wordsmiths? From the 19th century, no-one would suggest that the hymns of John Henry Newman and Frederick William Faber should be excised from the canon for their authors’ homosexual inclinations. (It has been claimed that Faber’s most popular hymn, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy – re-energised by Maurice Bevan‘s tune Corvedale – takes its cue from angst over his sexuality.) Going back into the previous century, many revered church leaders and hymnographers, such as the Wesley family, held views about child-rearing, including corporal punishment, which today would certainly be counted as actionable child abuse – in marked contrast to William Blake, mentioned above, some of whose child-affirming Songs of Innocence and of Experience have been set as hymns and anthems (for example, The Lamb).

Generally, hymns for or about children, both old and new, are embarrassing (though Mrs Alexander did her best). I’m sure mine was not the only church primary school where, despite being Muslim-majority, we still sang Autumn days, with the now triply-inaccurate line ‘Smell of bacon as I fasten up my laces…’

So to conclude these discursive ramblings: I suggest that the main reason for not singing hymns is the text rather than the author. The same is true of liturgical texts and prayers, and indeed of those who lead worship, as Article XXVI, Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament, shows – while making clear that in the latter case discipline should take its course:

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and, Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in the receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be

Michael Ainsworth


Cite this post as: Michael Ainsworth: “Hymns (and other things) to avoid?” in Law & Religion UK, 27 October 2015, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2015/10/28/hymns-and-other-things-to-avoid/.

19 thoughts on “Hymns (and other things) to avoid?

  1. And not just hymns: it raises all sorts of interesting questions.

    I have a signed proof of Eric Gill’s Madonna & Child. Gill was a pretty evil customer – if you believe Fiona McCarthy’s biography of him, he had sex with nearly everything that moved, including both his daughters: see her review of the 2006 Gill exhibition at the Pallant House gallery in which she is obviously torn between her admiration for Gill the artist-craftsman and revulsion at Gill the child-abuser. And father-daughter incest is never, never excusable. But I didn’t know about all that when I bought it, so when I found out should I have set light to it? And what about the Gill Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral? Should they take them down?

    I ask the question without knowing the answer. But there’s a lot of it about: Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, murdered his wife, so should we sing his madrigals? Carl Orff (or as he’s sometimes known, Carl Orfful) was a favourite of the Nazis and his deNazification was, to say the least, somewhat equivocal. I once played in a performance of Carmina Burana and from an orchestral point of view I reckon it’s pretty third-rate; but Gesualdo’s madrigals are some of the most arresting in the repertoire. So what does one do?

  2. The Eric Gill reference is apposite, since it takes us into liturgical typography as well as art and architecture. Gill Sans was the font of choice for Common Worship, as being classic but with a modern feel, and the books won awards. When I was a member of the Liturgical Publishing Group, no-one questioned this choice, although by then Gill’s proclivities were widely-known. I have always used a ‘clone’ font for service sheets, the curiously-named Humanist521, not out of squeamishness about Gill but because it is open-access, slightly less greedy of space and can do bold+italics (which is never found in CW).

    Michael Ainsworth

  3. Pingback: Should a hymn writer’s scandals warrant the banning of a hymn? | Episcopal Cafe

  4. Canon B 20 §3 states “It is the duty of the minister to ensure that only such chants, hymns, anthems, and other settings are chosen as are appropriate, both the words and the music, to the solemn act of worship and prayer in the House of God as well as to the congregation assembled for that purpose; and to banish all irreverence in the practice and in the performance of the same …” Whilst the lifestyle &c of the composer should be treated no differently from that of the writer of the words, by what criteria should one assess the appropriateness of the music?

    One would not wish to ban Spem in Alium on account of its associations with Fifty Shades of Grey,[which we have sung at an Evensong marking the 40th birthday of the music director]; the finale of the William Tell overture as it was the soundtrack to the fast motion orgy scene in The Clockwork Orange, [the bride who chose this as a recessional was not a movie buff]; or the tune Ellacombe which is used for Hail Mary, Ever Blessed; Of Walsingham the Queen as well as the rugby song Why was he born so beautiful?, [and also The Day of Resurrection]

    However, the Lassus parody Mass Entre vous filles de quinze ans is clearly problematic given original French chanson on which it is based, even taking account of the lower age of consent in the time of Lassus. Perhaps this is one for performance at a secular venue?

  5. Canon B20 §3’s criteria of ‘appropriate’ and ‘irreverence’ might suggest a distinction between words and music. Texts are texts, and the existence of subsequent versions, even scurrilous ones, to the familiar tunes, does not make them inappropriate though might conceivably make them irreverent in some contexts. As well as ‘Why was he born so beautiful?’ one might consider (frivolously) ‘While shepherds washed their socks’ and (more tellingly) ‘When this lousy war is over’, sung alongside ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ in the film ‘Oh what a lovely war’. And what of the various rewrites for advertising purposes – do they mar church use?

    But the secular resonance of tunes which do not have their own words may be too strong for them to be appropriate in church – though some may still sing the Gloria to the Eastenders’ theme tune, or various texts to the Dambusters’ March, and there are no doubt more recent examples of which I’m unaware. This is the ‘why should the devil have all the best tunes?’ argument.

    Incidentally, Finns object strongly to singing the Finlandia melody as a hymn (‘Be still, my soul’), which they regard as a ‘category mistake’.

    I make no comment on Gesualdo, Carl Orfull or Lassus. Does Britten’s music for/about children raise issues?

    For the avoidance of doubt, I would be inclined to describe Ellacombe as “‘The day of resurrection’ and also ‘Hail Mary ever blessed, of Walsingham the Queen'” rather than the other way round….

    • You may even remember that dreadful Cliff Richard version of the Lord’s Prayer to Auld Lang Syne. To which I responded (for local consumption) by setting “Should auld acquaintance be forgot” to the tune from Bernard Rose’s Responses

      Oh, and there’s “She wears her pink pyjamas” to Saffron Walden.

    • On the “Mary of Walsingham” point, its relative prominence was prompted by our recording on Walsingham Way, which along with most other tracks, is labelled by iTunes as “EXPLICIT”.

      However, knock-on effects of liturgical typography as well as art and architecture, raised by yourself and Frank, are causing “rebadging” issues in other area, which formerly sought to be associated with the undoubted positive contributions made by Bishop Bell.

      In 2008, Parliament marked the 50th anniversary of Bell’s death with an exhibition on his career and contribution to the House of Lords: his views on the just prosecution of war; his celebrated speech in the House of Lords against the blanket bombing of German cities, 9 February 1944; and as a supporter of the arts and Christian unity. These themes were explored further in the University of Chichester George Bell Lecture, delivered by the Most Rev Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury.

      The Chichester Cathedral web site states: “Bishop George Bell House, The house is named after George Bell (Bishop of Chichester, 1929 – 1958) … Following this recent news about George Bell, we will, as a temporary measure, be referring to the house as 4 Canon Lane. The house will be renamed shortly”. Likewise, the Bishop Luffa School in Chichester is considering the renaming of its Bell “house”.

      As to “whether George Bell’s reputation is being too readily sacrificed to save the skin of the Church of England today”, the “rebadging” exercise was inevitable and is justifiable, but should his other important contributions be forgotten completely?

  6. To David’s final question, I hope the answer in due course will be no, though some ‘rebadging’ will obviously be needed.

    At the risk of reducing this post to anecdotage, we might also recall Ebenezer Prout’s often-saucy words for the Well-Tempered Clavier fugues

    – a boon for students, though they prompted, for BWV542 (there are several versions of it), “Oh Ebenezer Prout, you are a silly man, you make all Bach’s fugues sound as stupid as you can, what on earth inspired your horrid little plan?”
    And there are some less-seemly versions for other fugues such as
    “I’ll give you such a clout, if you put it about, that the vicar’s son and me are having fun” and
    “Poor old Elsie’s lost her bra, and see how they wobbles, when she rides the cobbles”.

    Perhaps choristers no longer know any of these.

    In Lutheran tradition – and rightly so – the playing of Bach is a serious and liturgical matter: at organ recitals candles are lit and a prayer said.

    (But I don’t there’s a problem with Flanders & Swann’s words to Mozart’s Horn Concerto.)

  7. Thank you for the post. For more on Charles Wesley, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement’s effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is http://www.francisasburytriptych.com. Please enjoy the numerous articles on the website. Again, thank you, for the post.

  8. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 1st November | Law & Religion UK

  9. As is often the case, the comments are as interesting as the article. I’m reminded of Shakespeare’s oft-quoted lines “The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones.”

    Our Lord triumphed over evil and that should be our aim in this world. It’s too difficult to think any other way.

  10. Pingback: Hymns (and other things) to avoid? | First News Alert

  11. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 8th November | Law & Religion UK

  12. What is this ‘agenda’ that I am supposed to have? I thought I was just putting in a good word for the presumption of innocence, a cause that is not factional in any way.

  13. I would merely say to Peter Hitchens that all of us have ‘agenda’, some more upfront than others: he would be the first to admit that he writes from a particular perspective on church and other matters. I was not implying that the presumption of innocence is in itself a ‘factional’ cause, and I am glad that he has posted on this subject, which is why I referenced him. See his further blog post.

    • I don’t think much of this answer. The writer said, quite deliberately, that I had an ‘agenda’. Why did he say this if not to in some way diminish the value of what I was saying by suggesting it was motivated by some unstated special interest? If I have such an ‘agenda’, he should say what it is, or at least what he thinks it is, and what he meant. If I haven’t, he shouldn’t have written it and he should withdraw what looks to me remarkably like an innuendo.

  14. I’m sorry Peter Hitchens finds this answer temporising, and am content to withdraw the bracketed phrase ‘(who has his own agenda)’ if he, and others, feel that this is an unwarranted innuendo that damages his reputation for impartiality as a commentator on ecclesiastical matters, rather than a legitimate aside.

  15. Pingback: Law and religion round-up – 15th November | Law & Religion UK

  16. Pingback: Parish Music Guidance: Ministers and organists | Law & Religion UK

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *