Coe Fen from Salisbury

ONE OF OUR ORDINANDS has been longing to get up to Durham for Evensong in the Cathedral there for weeks. Rachael Elizabeth has described the experience (happily on St Cuthbert’s Day) as “cloaked in a golden embrace” – and was thrilled then, and will be again, by a hymn we’ll sing here on Sunday – John Mason’s How Shall I Sing That Majesty? sung to Ken Naylor’s Coe Fen. Huddersfield Choral Society have recorded the hymn and an mp3 is here. I play Winchester Cathedral’s version from Hymns and Psalms Volume 2 constantly. It’s available here.

It’s a question that’s on this parish priest’s heart every day. How shall we sing? How shall the Body of Christ in the 21st century be blessed with resources in hymnody that speak the Word of God for our day? Our theology is a living thing and God speaks “New every morning … our waking and uprising prove”. I’ve written before about some of the hackneyed old stuff – stuffed full of outdated theology – that I believe is positively dangerous in today’s searching and pluralistic society; I’ve written before too of the divisive repetition of carefully selected chunks of Scripture that are then misused to patronise, chastise and exclude. These things will only be replaced, though, when hearts are captured by something that better describes where the people of this contemporary world have got to in their journeying with God and with those many and diverse “others” who make up the one humankind.

The Church of God, like humanity herself, is in the hands of God and will therefore end only if and when God wills it. That’s wholly better news to my eyes and ears than the fulminating “evangelicalism” that bleats on and on about the certain destruction of a Church led by “non-Bible believing liberals”. Dear God help us! They’re not talking good news. There’s nothing truly evangelical  about their perpetually prophesying destruction – and wilfully abrogating the responsibility of all human beings for “salvation” by turns either to Jesus of Nazareth or Rowan of Canterbury. The Primate of All Nigeria, in a statement about Archbishop Rowan’s new appointment says

For us, the announcement does not present any opportunity for excitement. It is not good news here, until whoever comes as the next leader pulls back the Communion from the edge of total destruction. To this end, we commit our Church, the Church of Nigeria, (Anglican Communion) to serious fasting and prayers that God will do “a new thing”, in the Communion.

For 2000 years no single person has shown themselves capable of pulling back an entire communion from anything at all. For pity’s sake let’s not burden Rowan’s hapless-even-before-named successor with this pretence of an expectation – only to knock them down when they don’t meet the mark either. Can’t we stretch our imaginations a bit further? Could we stop looking for unique messiahs and archbishops “possessed of unique qualities”?  Could we stop insisting that our version of messiah – already come or still awaited – is the one and only – the unique possibility? Couldn’t we “apply our minds to Wisdom”? – recognising from henceforth that Divine Sophia is to be found in every atom and fibre of every created thing? “Consider the lilies of the field …”

Could we rewrite the myth (as it has been rewritten so many times before) so that instead of making scapegoats we shared responsibility, under God, every child, woman and man alive, for the “salvation” of our supremely beautiful but tired and aching world and her humankind?

Jesus has never given me the impression that he was or is chiefly interested in our recognising his personal “uniqueness” (apparently keener on being thought of as “son of man” – one of us – than as “Son of God”) ; never implied that (long after his lifetime) “Bible Believing Christians” and their myths and theologies should take precedence over the primacy of experience in the Life and Love of koinonia. The arms wide-open embrace of Jesus of Nazareth was surely an invitation to all humankind to offer similar self-emptying healing and hospitality – and especially, if an “especially” there was ever to be, for those hitherto consigned to the anguish of life’s margins.

So tonight’s music choosing meeting here in little Bramhall was heartening. 5 people engaged in some depth with a shedload of hymnbooks and tunes. We grappled with what the hymns were trying to say alongside what we believed needed to be said to elucidate the Lectionary and to inspire hearts and souls at worship in the next eight weeks. It’s a tough collaborative exercise. It takes time, effort and forbearance – even  choosing how to celebrate Resurrection relevantly, worshipfully and well – but there’s no avoiding the question – Christian people who are liberal and inclusive in heart, soul, mind, body and intention must continue to ask How Shall I Sing? For

Thou art a sea without a shore,
a sun without a sphere;
thy time is now and evermore,
thy place is everywhere.

One thought on “HOW SHALL I SING?

  1. Wonderful – a simple point that is so often overlooked in a welter of blame, and therefore really needs to be made. And you’ve made a delightful post out of it, containing a very cogent argument. And the singing, as Luther knew, it is important to integrate it in worship – and vitally important to get it right, not only musically but in a wider sense. Fascinating exercise for you and those present.
    Shall bookmark this post and return often, I know. Thank you.

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