Highways and byways in hymns

Confession time

How often are you required publicly to confess, or even find yourself confessing, sins you are not honestly conscious of committing? A certain Vicar enjoyed admitting to the sin of lust; this was always exciting, and went down well with his younger admirers. What was more obvious to others were his sins of laziness, bullying, and love of money – let that be a warning against any sort of moral self-assessment.

But I am talking particularly about Christmas morning! Always a lovely occasion; genuine all-age worship, the place alive with music, colour, guests, greetings and good singing. It was so last year when we visited our son’s church; a superb service. Into the middle of which came the seasonal confession.

Just as I am

There we all knelt (or sat, but let that pass) to tell God how ashamed we were that we had forgotten, neglected or ignored the Real Meaning of Christmas. And in the middle of my penitence I had this appalling thought: that I could not recollect a time in the past sixty years when I had done such a dreadful thing! No, not even in my teens. I had been brought up to learn, know and enjoy the Real Meaning, and have been celebrating it annually ever since.

You will not misunderstand me. I have not loved God with all my heart, nor my neighbour as myself. The General Confession (BCP) is me all over. So are Jesu, Lover of my soul, Rock of ages, and Just as I am. I have done things which this paper would, I hope, refuse to print. False and full of sin I am; yet also ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Paul, Luther and Cranmer would understand.

But have I, notably in late December, belittled the Incarnation? What is more important, have these hundred-and-fifty-odd people all around me? I mean, just look at them! (But not in the middle of the confession.) From a parish of several thousand, I would have backed these Christmas-morning enthusiasts, whatever else they had done, as some of the least likely to be found guilty of this particular sin.

And the funny thing was that the same event required us all to address one another, not once but many times, as Good Christian men, Good Christians all, Good Christian folk, or whatever label your carol sheet opts for. We all cheerfully bellowed such titles at one another in the name of the Lord, yet we were apparently ignoring his arrival in our world!

Excessive zeal

One snag about forced or fake confessions is that they take our minds off the crimes of which we are truly guilty. Sin-specific hymns or prayers (Mothering Sunday is another major offender) lose as much as they gain. They are like those sermons which encourage us to enjoy confessing our neighbours’ failings; ‘or even as this tax-collector.’ An Alan Gaunt hymn pleads, ‘Restrain us from excessive zeal / in judging other people’s sins’.

Other texts overstate the generalities; one eighteenth-century hymn (was it Newton?) deplores the state of Britain, a nation guilty of all the crimes known to man. So we are seduced in the middle of verse 3 into making a mental checklist of the worst. I couldn’t find the hymn; the editors may have thought better of it. Call me naive, but I do not see our PCCs sold out to cannibalism, witchcraft, or selling off Christmas to Safeway and Santa.

And the moral of my winter story has to be to take care over those Christmas confessions, and (of course!) over those Christmas hymns.

Christopher Idle celebrates the Incarnation in the Diocese of Southwark.