Archives for posts with tag: hymns

Commentary on ‘Identities are reduced to politics’ by Angela Tilby, Church Times, 6th November 2020: https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/198908

Hugh Bryant

Angela Tilby has written about being made to feel uncomfortable. She says, ‘We are all gradually being persuaded that to make anyone feel “uncomfortable” is tantamount to a hate crime’.

What she is talking about is not comfort in the sense of warmth or a nice armchair. The contrary – what it is to be uncomfortable, in the sense she intends – is the opposite of being ‘comfortable in one’s own skin’; and that ‘skin’ is not the characteristic of an individual but of a group, of ‘class, colour, ethnicity, or religion’.

In other words, it’s not a good thing to make people feel uncomfortable on the basis of those generic characteristics, of what they are, as opposed to anything which they may have done or said. Tilby says, ‘This is why I regularly feel uncomfortable at hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices’.

What brought me up short in her article was this reference to a feeling of discomfort at ‘hymns and preachy prayers that glare unforgivingly at various social injustices’.

This is something I have often wondered about. For instance, I have often wondered about people who profess to be Christians in positions of power, who, in the exercise their power, do things which would seem to contradict Jesus’ commandments, (usually the commandment to love thy neighbour as thyself).

A case in point, I have thought, was Prime Minister May, who is said to be a regular churchgoer, but who created and promoted a policy of a ‘hostile environment’ for intending immigrants, leading to various inhumane consequences including the EMPIRE WINDRUSH scandal. What did Mrs May do in church? Was she asleep there? I wondered. The policy which she promoted was something which hurt people, which ruined innocent people’s lives. How could a practising Christian justify doing such a thing?

What is a preacher to say? I think that Canon Tilby is really aiming not at certain hymns and prayers, but rather at what is said from the pulpit. I’m not sure what hymns she has in mind – ‘Fight the good fight’, or maybe the suppressed verse in All Things Bright and Beautiful: ‘The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate …’ It might well be uncomfortable to sing that, and it might well be uncomfortable – certainly for the rich man – to hear it. Is there anything wrong in this? Specifically, does the hymn ‘glare unforgivingly at social injustices’? If it did, I feel, contrary to Canon Tilby, that it is a good thing. The injustices deserve to be glared at.

To pray for wrongs to be righted isn’t ‘preachy’, I would suggest. If the prayer is of the ‘Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz’ type, it’s clearly inappropriate, not because it makes anyone uncomfortable, but because you can’t tell the Almighty what to do. Thy kingdom come: Thy will be done. Thy will. Or see Psalm 115: ‘Our God is in heaven; He does as He pleases’.

Some would say that this is political, and therefore to be avoided. I have to reply that Christianity – and, for that matter, Judaism – is political. The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), for instance, is a revolutionary manifesto in twelve sentences, and there are many other examples. Jesus would have us sell our possessions and give money to the poor: would have us welcome strangers: become servants, rather than the masters that many of us are.

It is said, however, that a Church of England congregation often represents the Conservative Party at prayer. Bishops and clergy, by contrast, tend to vote Liberal Democrat or Labour. Perhaps this is because the ministers actually read, study and inwardly digest the liturgy and Bible lessons which they lead, whereas their flock follow, if not blindly, seemingly without much appreciation that acceptable worship does not involve a prosperity gospel!

But what if light dawns, say during a well-expressed sermon, and the hearer realises that the evil which the preacher is criticising – the social injustice, even – is something in which they, the listener, are complicit? This may indeed be uncomfortable. But surely it is all right, for ‘our God is a consuming fire’ (Hebrews 12:29). Unless our devotion is tested in that fire, it may not be worth that much.

But is it a ‘hate crime’ to make someone uncomfortable in that sort of way? The essence of a hate crime, I would suggest, is to do harm to someone because he or she represents a racial or national type and for no other reason. Because someone is black, or LGBTi, say. What Canon Tilby is suggesting is that some hymns or prayers, in praying for relief from certain types of oppression or inequality, themselves oppress some people (or make them uncomfortable).

That would require the person discomfited to be in some way oppressive or otherwise reprehensible, as opposed to their doing something oppressive.

Canon Tilby mentions being a woman; but I cannot think that ipso facto she is worthy of chastisement as such – if at all. If she is being made to feel uncomfortable, it is not because of what she is, but because of something she may feel she ought not to have done – and that she resents being reminded of.

Put another way, as the Roman Catholics say, hate the sin but pardon the sinner. So a prayer or a hymn directed against social injustice is not a ‘hate crime’. It invokes the aid of the Almighty against the evil but does not condemn the person who does that evil. It is not directed against what that person is; but rather it may well call down condemnation on what they do.

14th November 2020

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 20th December 2015

Luke 1:39-55

Not long ago there was a feature running in our parish magazine ‘Together’ about favourite hymns. Today I want to talk about another hymn, which wasn’t mentioned: perhaps the favourite hymn in all of Christianity. This is far bigger than ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ or ‘Love Divine’.

In the Gospel, that I have just read, we heard it. It’s the Song of Mary, which is often referred to by its old Latin name, Magnificat. ‘Magnificat’ means ‘magnifies’, ‘makes bigger’.

Every evening, about 6 o’clock, in every cathedral in this country, a really good choir (because all our cathedrals have super choirs) will sing this beautiful song, using the words from the Book of Common Prayer – words which were written half-way through the sixteenth century, as a translation from the Latin of St Jerome, which was itself a translation from the Greek that St Luke the doctor actually wrote his Gospel in.

And every Sunday at Evensong, at six o’clock at our sister church, St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, there too, we sing the Magnificat. It could be the number one hymn in the Church of England – and versions of it are sung by churches all over the world. Magnificat might even be the most-loved hymn in Christianity.

Evensong in cathedrals – which is broadcast as Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons – it’s on this afternoon at 3, if you want to listen, this time from Chester Cathedral [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06rwy7p%5D – is reported to be the service where the congregations have grown most in the Church of England in recent years: not, actually, a modern service, but a service which can trace its origins back to the fourth century, and which was first set out, in the form we use today, in 1549.

The music which they sing is really beautiful. Choral Evensong, in every cathedral, every night, with a wonderful choir in every one, is a secret gem. More and more people are discovering it.

These are the words of the Magnificat that they sing:

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

OK, some words we ought to explain a bit. ‘He … hath holpen his servant Israel’. ‘Holpen’ means helped.

He has ‘regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’: he has looked favourably on her, he has held her in high regard, we might say.

And presumably you all know what a handmaiden is. Mary was a ‘lowly handmaiden’. She wasn’t one of the great and good.

‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’. There’s that ‘magnifies’ word again. This time it’s not Mary ‘magnifying’ God, but her saying how God has magnified her.

And then the ‘purple passage’.
‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

Can you, really, see Mary, a teenager, a simple country girl, singing this song? Are they the sort of words which would just come tripping off the tongue of a teenager?

Not for the first time our Bible doesn’t really put this – even in a modern translation, like we used for the lessons – in the sort of language we would use today. ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’, in Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn which we’ve just sung, isn’t actually a very good translation either – although Bishop Timothy got it from my favourite modern Bible, the New English Bible.

The meaning is really better expressed by what a teenager today might say: ‘Deep in my heart, I big up the Lord’. I big Him up: that’s exactly right. Mary isn’t saying that she is somehow making God bigger – because God is bigger than anything – but she is bigging Him up, she is telling out His greatness.

Giles Fraser, who often does Thought for the Day on the Today programme, who was at one time philosophy tutor at Wadham College, Oxford and Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, who got fired for trying to make friends with the Occupy protesters camped out on the Cathedral doorstep, he, Giles Fraser, reckons that the Magnificat is one of the most powerful revolutionary texts. In September, he Tweeted, ‘BTW I don’t think [that] the Red Flag [is] anywhere near as revolutionary as the Magnificat’. [https://twitter.com/giles_fraser/status/643049147919110144]

Remember what Mary said. It could indeed be rather revolutionary.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

In these short lines, Giles Fraser thinks there is a revolutionary blueprint. There are some shades of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man. Jesus turns everything on its head. The last shall be first and the first shall be last [Matt. 20:16].

I said earlier that perhaps Mary didn’t think up her famous song all by herself. As a regular worshipper in the synagogue, she would have remembered the song that Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, sang, thanking God for his birth. You can read it in the first Book of Samuel, chapter 2. ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord,’ she sings. ‘The Lord makes a man poor, he makes him rich, he brings down and he raises up. He lifts the weak out of the dust, and raises the poor … to give them a place among the great, …’

It’s very like the Magnificat. There is the difference that Mary uses a past tense: God did these things, he put down the mighty from their seat, and so on, whereas Hannah uses the present tense, he does these things. God is capable of bringing the rich and powerful down, and he is capable of building up the poor and meek. Hannah’s emphasis is more on what God can do, rather than on what he has done. Mary on the other hand says what He has done.

Both songs are songs, hymns, of praise for God. They are hymns of gratitude: ‘Now thank we all our God.’ And given that Mary undoubtedly started on one of the bottom rungs of society, it’s not surprising that from her point of view, she emphasised how God has humbled the rich and powerful from time to time.

So – do sample Choral Evensong, either on the wireless or – better – by going along in person, on Sunday evening to St Mary’s, or indeed on any weeknight to Guildford Cathedral. And when you hear, indeed when you sing, the Magnificat, do spare a thought for the handmaidens, spare a thought for the people who have to come to the Foodbank. You could be surprised at what might happen.