Mr. Wesley, warts and all

By Anthony Burton


There was an old man of Calcutta,
Who coated his tonsils with butta,
Thus converting his snore
From a thunderous roar
To a soft, oleaginous mutta.

Not all congregations in Canada produce a thunderous roar on Sunday mornings but if the General Synod has its way our singing will be soft and buttery. In July the Synod, which corresponds to the ECUSA General Convention, gave the nod to a new hymn book designed to offend no one.

For the sake of those who are uncomfortable with God being called “he,” this pronoun has mostly vanished from the pages like cockroaches at the switching on of a light. For sensitive pacifists, war is downplayed: “Onward, Christian Soldiers” has been banished, and “those in peril at the sea” are to be protected not from “fire and foe” but from “flood and flame”. (I didn’t know that floods were dangerous if you were in a boat). For the sake of those suffering from low self-esteem, humbling oneself to God has been reduced as well. Here the Virgin Mary has been given assertiveness training:

From East to West, from Shore to Shore

What John Ellerton wrote:

Verse 4.
She bowed her to the angel’s word
Declaring what the Father willed,…

What is now ascribed to John Ellerton:

Verse 4.
Assenting to the angel’s word,
she chose what God the Spirit willed,…

The Father is not exactly gone, he’s just turned into J.C. Penny:

Verse 7.
All glory for this blessed morn
To God the Father ever be;…

New Verse 7.
All glory for this blessed morn
to God, the source of all, is due;…

Of course a new hymn book is a fat target, and many people will find fault with it simply because it is unfamiliar. There are some very fine new hymns in this book, some fine old ones, some indifferent ones – new and old – and some tendentious (e.g. the Trinity as “Mother, Brother, holy Partner”). The musicians who put it together are good ones, and when the music edition appears, I suspect the music will be of a very much higher quality than the words.

I wish, however, that its compilers had had some humility towards the poets whose work they sought to improve. The thought of a straight-laced committee of nuns and professors, red pens in hand, tut-tutting as they rewrite the poems of Charles Wesley and Isaac Watts reduces me to paroxysms of mirth. I can’t think of anything like it since Dr. Bowdler’s ten volume Family Shakespeare.

But it is in fact a serious matter. There is more going on here than an attempt to avoid giving offense. Everyone knows that hymn writers are a product of their age, and most people are generous enough to accept them on their own terms. Not so this book, which deliberately attempts to change the writers’ meaning. T.S. Eliot, who was not merely a great poet but a supreme literary critic, wrote repeatedly that meaning cannot be abstracted from the structure of words. Like cuttlefish squirting out ink, our revisers obscure, to greater and lesser extent, what the hymn writers meant as they prayed. Rather than respecting their integrity, our revisers seek to possess their souls.

In singing old hymns we join in a harmony of spirit not only with whoever happens to be in church with us that day but with the voices of the Body in the past. Great hymn writers have no monopoly on the truth but they should be allowed to speak for themselves. For congregations so fastidious that they cannot keep their company, better to sing new hymns than to counterfeit old ones. All things considered, I’ll leave my piano legs naked, and enjoy Mr. Wesley, warts and all.

This article originally appeared in The Anglican Digest, 1995—thus while “Onward Christian Soldiers” was eventually included in Common Praise after a massive public outcry, Bishop Burton’s concerns and perspectives still ring prophetically true.