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 deposed.
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/.