Christopher Idle ponders (and marks) some personal pronouns.
Yes, ‘standing in the need of prayer’; the old spiritual had a point. When we assemble and meet together, there is a place for the first person singular. ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, and it was his ‘amazing grace that saved a wretch like me’. We could go on: ‘I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity’; and ‘O Lamb of God, I come’.
But I (singular) was struck by a passing observation by my good friend Andrew Hawes, among the selected samples of his ‘Ghostly Counsel’ in these pages. In one, headed innocently enough ‘Church Life’, he mentions ‘the seventy-three hymns in Mission Praise that begin with “I”…’. It may not be spiritually helpful to do a hymn-book survey on this feature alone, even allowing for proportions or percentages; but, for the record, the very latest Ancient and Modern (2013) has seventeen and the New English Hymnal (1986), three. In one or two of these the I/me is not myself at all but the supposed voice of God. Perhaps there is room for a song starting ‘I the Lord have not spoken’ (Ezek. 22.28, etc.); but I digress.
Singing hymns from a weekly pew-sheet has many drawbacks; but it does enable us (plural) to take our red and green highlighters or felt-tips (after the service, not during it) and mark every I/me/my/mine in the hymns and songs in red, and each we/us/our/ours in green. Is your church anything like those I regularly attend? To take this up as a hobby may not be too healthy; but here are some recent figures from four quite different churches, red (me) first, green (us) second:
They are all a bit like rugby scores; the closest margin was a mere three points; 23-20 to the Reds. More typical were encounters ending 57-10, 56-10, 34-12, 29-13, 19-6, or a bruising 50-5. The record win was 59-0. It was Harvest Festival which (appropriately enough) brought the Greens’ first victory (15-5) thanks largely to ‘We plough the fields and scatter…’, All good gifts around us…’, etc.; while the next parish’s Communion Service yielded an equally fitting but more decisive Green triumph of 58-15.
For those whose only hymns come via the screen, such a survey is an impossible task. If you are blessed with actual hymnals, you will also need your own book and access to a copier. Enter some caveats and qualifications: this is at best only one test, and a crude one at that. We can sing about ‘us’ and remain very self-absorbed, while some of the ‘singular’ hymns are yet full of Christ and aware of the world: ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, for example.
To what shall we compare such figures? The New Testament has some powerful I/me texts: St Luke’s ‘Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor… ‘ (Luke 19.8); or St Paul’s ‘…the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Gal. 2.20).
But the great body of teaching in the Gospels and Epistles – including challenge, comfort, rebuke, encouragement, correction, prayer, praise, greetings, and news – is in the plural. We seem to be doing our best to disguise this fact from the hymn-singing congregation. One most telling example is the
well-loved hymn from a hundred years ago, ‘May the mind of Christ my Saviour live in me from day to day’: a straightforward 13-0 to the Reds. Almost every line can be matched up with St Paul’s words to the Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians. But the verses which gave birth to the hymn are all in the plural, and all addressed to the churches – not to you in my small corner and me in mine. It is almost as if Our Lord had said ‘When you pray, say “Our Father”, but when you sing, sing “My Jesus”’.
By this time you may be impatient to protest that so many other key words should stand up and be counted. Some seem to wish to consign the word ‘Father’ to the museum of curiosities; and it is not only schools who seem reluctant to call Our Lord by name. Too many of us have been guilty of trying to marginalize the Holy Spirit, at least when we sing. If this worries you, by all means find your blue, orange and other markers and extend a survey of your Sunday singing.
You may have other concerns, or notice other gaps. ‘Love’ will not be among them; but try church, fasting, heaven, hell, hope, kingdom, judgement, obey, penitence and zeal. And don’t blame me; after all, ‘my eyes at last shall see him’. Meanwhile, I pray ‘O Holy Child of Bethlehem, be born in me today’. ‘O come, let me adore him’, is all I ask. ND
Now what this Christian clothing, or armour of light is, we know from other places of Holy Writ. There is “the shield of faith;” entire belief in the great things out of sight. There is “the helmet of salvation;” hope that through Christ we might be saved, on our true repentance and dutiful obedience. There is “the breastplate of love” and true charity, to guard our hearts from evil and selfish desires. There is “the sword of the Spirit, that is the Word of God;” His holy commandments, deeply fixed in our hearts, and always ready for our use, that by the remembrance of them we may put away proud, unkind, impure, foolish imaginations. This is the armour of light…And when this time of Advent comes, which is so far like the morning, in that it is a new beginning, the Church opening her new year, we shall, if we are wise, be yet more diligent than usual in attending to our Lord’s call, throwing aside all encumbrances, girding on our armour, and saying our prayers.
John Keble, extract from his Sermon on the Collect for Advent Sunday (Sermons for the Christian Year, Vol I, no XXIV)