‘WE have a gospel to proclaim – but do we only sing it?’ asked my bishop in a 1998 book Is the Church of England Biblical? Answer to the second question: Pass. Simply adding that it’s a lot more Biblical than some of its more obsessive critics. To the first: No.
Our hymn books are wearing out, and we want to have new ones to welcome in the new Millennium, or (since we have left it a bit late) the Millennium Bridge; which hymnal would you recommend? Answer: I am glad you have asked that question. It gives me the opportunity to say, as with questions about the Being of the Godhead, there is no answer known to humankind. It all depends.
To come more up to date: How would you advise us to observe the first anniversary of September 11th? (At least there is time to think about this one. Before I reply, let me add that other questions on hymns are always welcome in this column. It may not have the answer (see above) but somebody probably does.) This too depends, on several things. Does your church include Americans? If so, of what kind, and how have they responded so far? How does your theology hold up in the face of spectacular, sudden death on film, or slow uncounted deaths away from the cameras? Is Islam a factor, and if so, what might God think of its founder, his heirs and successors? When you have dealt with some of this, you can think about hymns; hymn books can make us aware of new dimensions, but cannot themselves bear all the weight of our worship, whatever it is commemorating.
‘Let the song go round the earth! Lands where Islam’s sway darkly broods o’er home and hearth: cast their bonds away…’: is that your mood? If so, get Sarah Stock’s verses into your service before they become illegal. That was a hundred years ago; well before that, Charles Wesley could be equally frank: ‘That Arab-thief, as Satan bold, who quite destroyed thy Asian fold… The Unitarian fiend expel and chase his doctrine back to hell.’
Somehow I doubt if these will feature much in September. But some places may follow the different line of one contemporary writer, who has toned down the Christian (and therefore offensive) references in some of his own hymns, to make them acceptable wherever Muslims and Christians join together in the interests of peace. As Oliver N Hardy used to conclude, ‘I have nothing to say.’
More to the point, what are Christians singing, if they can sing at all, in the new Muslim killing fields where Islam has responded to the Bush war by slaughtering the followers of Jesus Christ? The Psalms are again coming into their own. If ever there was a time for listening to the voice of the persecuted Church in Africa and Asia, to sing their songs in solidarity with the whole Body of Christ, this is it.
Final question: The Queen has a golden Jubilee next month: any suggestions? See above; any royals likely to be with you? A fresh version of the National Anthem would do everyone a power of good. Fred Pratt Green struck a chord twenty-five years ago with ‘It is God who holds the nations in the hollow of his hand.’ A lot of royal water has flowed under the bridge since then. We are not very good nowadays at national hymns; but look out for new texts from Timothy Dudley-Smith, even an extra stanza in ‘Lord for the years’. Or do what more and more people are doing; write your own. Hymn, not stanza.
Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.