Who would true valour sing?

I had the opportunity this week to abide for a while and think by Bunyan’s grave in Bunhill Fields in London. I was on my way back from holiday (Budapest, Sophia, Istanbul, London) and had scarcely thought of work at St Mary’s for most of the time that I had been away.

But finding myself by the grave of John Bunyan did start to bring my mind back to life here at St Mary’s.

I rather like Bunhill Fields. There’s something about being surrounded by so many dissenters that makes me feel at home.

On this occasion, I’d bought some food from the incomparable Whitecross Market which has some of the best street food you’ll find anywhere. The sun was shining through the leaves of the trees and all was right with the world.

Good old Bunyan, I thought – what a glorious place of peace and beauty in which to be remembered.

But then I found myself thinking about the trouble we have with his great hymn.

Here at St Mary’s, we’ve sung it in its original version for many years.

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labour night and day
To be a pilgrim.

It is a favourite hymn for many and has the kind of good rollicking tune that we are partial to in these parts.

But the trouble is, we also have a policy of trying to use inclusive language in our hymnody. Now, inclusive language can mean a number of things. At a bare minimum, it usually means using language for human beings which is inclusive of both men and women. From that follows the question of whether we should use language for God that doesn’t simply use masculine pronouns and masculine imagery. It isn’t difficult for me to answer this – I’m a biblical kind of Christian and the bible uses expansive language for God and it seems to me that it teaches us that the more expansive our language and the more we use the divine spark of imagination that God has put within us, the closer we will come to meeting the God who is always one step beyond any human language.

In recent years, some further challenges have started to appear to this from those with a non-binary identity and voice. For years we’ve been trying to use language like “sisters and brothers” rather than just “brothers” but now it is apparent that some people won’t easily identify as either. This a challenge for hymnody and liturgical language that few will understand and fewer will do much about. If I’m honest, I’m only at the beginning of trying to wrestle with this.

But let us find a way back to Bunyan’s hymn for now and look at the gendered language we find there.

Clearly, here, we have language which uses the male pronoun to describe the pilgrim.

Here at St Mary’s, we try to use hymnody that uses language of those identifying as female as well as those identifying as male. We also try not to use language all the time which uses masculine pronouns and masculine descriptors of God.

So, should we sing Bunyan’s hymn?

This is one of the hymns  that raises this question which we have retained within our repertoire and which I would be loathe to lose.

There are some hymns which I think are just unsingable in our context.

One such hymn is this:

Firmly I believe and truly
God is Three and God is One;
and I next acknowledge duly
manhood taken by the Son.

And I trust and hope most fully
in that manhood crucified;
and each thought and deed unruly
do to death, as he has died.

You can tell me until you are blue in the face that manhood here implies humanity and not maleness, but the truth is, that isn’t true for everyone and it isn’t even broadly true for the congregation that I serve.  Firmly I believe and truly has gone the way of all flesh and simply isn’t sung here any more.

Another tricky one is Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. This is one which we have retained as is as I’ve never been able quite to bear Dear Lord and Parent of Us All.

I have in the past suggested that our inclusive language policy should be that we sing hymns in inclusive language for anything written after 1872, the year in which it’s author died.

(We’ll gloss over the fact that Dear Lord and Father comes from a poem called The Brewing of Soma about Vedic priests brewing up an hallucinogen for now, but we might come back to that at a later date. All is not what it seems therein).

We’ve kept singing Bunyan’s hymn in its original form here too for the last few years at least.

The reasoning being that if we are singing about hobgoblins then people ought to understand that this is a historical piece of writing and be able to place it in some context given all the efforts we make to make most of our worship as inclusive as we can.

[If you would like a hobgoblin diversion, can I ask you to stop at this point and go and read this blog post and its associated comments now: https://thurible.net/2008/06/30/hobgoblin-nor-foul-fiend/]

However, I have the feeling that things may be changing. The last time we sang about hobgoblins it was clear that some in the congregation were feeling more uncomfortable about all the male language than they once would have done.

What has changed?

I think that we were singing this as the #metoo conversation was starting to develop on social media.

I also think we live increasingly in the world of the instant. Someone may come to St Mary’s once and maybe not even for a full service and judge who we are and what we believe by what they encounter in a moment. In an instant, one might be convinced that we are unthinkingly singing words which imply maleness as normative for God’s people.

This post isn’t political correctness gone mad by the way. This is political correctness at its most thoughtful.

For the question I now find myself is how can we sing Bunyan’s hymn in a world in which gendered language is very sensitive?

How shall we sing the songs of Zion in a strange (in the sense of new) land?

There are a number of possibilities.

  1. Carry on singing Bunyan’s words
  2. Sing Bunyan’s words with a disclaimer in the service sheet
  3. Sing new versions of the same hymn, noting that there’s quite a tradition of meddling with this hymn.
  4. Alternate male and female language in the hymn.
  5. Stop singing it altogether.

I’ve already discussed the problems around number 1.

Number 2 seems unsatisfactory to me. It reminds me of someone who once responded to a request to produce a commentary down the side of a service sheet as to why people were doing what they were doing at that point with the words: “Once you explain the liturgy, doesn’t it in some sense disappear?” – I have some sympathy with her view.

Number 3 is certainly a possibility though not one which will please everyone. The most obvious messing with the hymn that has been done is Percy Dearmer’s version of it:

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories
Do but themselves confound—his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,
We know we at the end, shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.

This does away with the hobgoblins but not the exclusive language. I tend to be of the view that we should be hobgoblin positive and lose the exclusive language.

Picking up the most inclusive hymnbook I possess (The New Century Hymnal from the United Church of Christ), I find that someone has had a brave go at modifying Dearmer’s text.

Thus:

We who would valiant be: let us not waver,
but in true constancy follow the Savior
There’s no discouragement shall make us once relent
our first avowed intent to live as pilgrims

Those who may us surround with dismal stories,
only themselves confound; our strength the more is.
No foes shall give us fright, ours is the one true Light;
we will make good our right  to live as pilgrims.

Since Savior, you defend us with your Spirit,
we know we at the end shall life inherit.
Cruel rumors, flee away! We’ll fear not what they say;
we’ll labor night and day to live as pilgrims.

And looking in a Lutheran direction, I find:

1 All who would valiant be
‘Gainst all disaster,
Let them in constancy
Follow the master.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make them once relent
Their first avowed intent
To be true pilgrims.

2 Who so beset them round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
Their strength the more is.
No foes shall stay their might:
Though they with giants fight,
They will make good their right
To be true pilgrims.

3 Since, Lord, you will defend
Us with your Spirit,
We know we at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away!
We’ll fear not what they say,
We’ll labor night and day
To be true pilgrims.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure which of those I would chose. I know they would annoy some people mightily and please some people mightily.

The truth is, people can’t worship God well when they are annoyed mightily. So it is still difficult to know what to do.

And we’ve still lost the hobgoblins.

We could try using they as a personal pronoun: “Who would true valour see, let them come hither” which starts reasonably enough but starts to get into trouble with “No lion can them fight, They’ll with a giant fight” and loses credibility when we get into “Then fancies fly away, they’ll fear not what men say”. To be honest, by the time we’ve got to that point, I’m not sure what we are singing about.

How about option 4 – alternating the language:

Who would true valour see,
Let her come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make her once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

So far so good.

But the trouble is, though there’s some fun to be had with “She’ll fear not what men say”, Bunyan wasn’t writing a hymn about our current gender battles at all. He was writing about a human soul courageously living the Christian life in the face of bad things. (Bad things for him were exemplified by hobgoblins, giants and lions rather than sexism, homophobia and Brexit that might be more familiar to us).

Which leads us to option 5 – to stop singing it altogether.

I have to confess, I would find this completely unsatisfactory. Notwithstanding our problems with it, I still think it is a fine thing.

Sitting beside Bunyan’s grave I found myself humming Monks Gate, the tune we know and love to this hymn.

I find it jolly and enjoyable.

I am puzzled as to what a modern congregation committed to language that is inclusive of all people should do with it.

So what would you chose to do if you were involved in shaping the choice of a music list?

These are real questions, and I would be interested in thoughtful answers.

Who would true valour sing? Let them come hither.

Comments welcome though disrespectful and dull comments won’t make it through moderation.

John Bunyan's Grave

 

 

 

 

Sermon – 19 August 2018 – The Hostile Environment and who is missing

 

There were some bits missed out.

Not by the reader but by the compiler of the lectionary. Whole verses. Whole themes. Whole characters. Whole murders.

Missed out in the twinkling of an eye.

The eagle eyed amongst you will have noticed that the first reading was two verses from the second chapter of 1 Kings and then we hurtled forwards a chapter to pick things up when Solomon was praying for wisdom and God was up for giving him it.

Praying rather piously for wisdom, I rather think.

And with all the blood and guts of the readings of the last few weeks, it can seem at first to be a bit of a relief.

Here is a good king, praying for wisdom and being rewarded for his prayers.

What’s not to like.

Well, if you were listening to that reading wondering whether this was perhaps a little too good to be true then I’d like to suggest that perhaps it was.

The thing is, the stories about David that we’ve been focussing on for weeks are stories of a king who was, to be honest, a bit of a lad.

We’ve heard what he got up to and with whom.

When read in sequence with the story of his death and replacement by good king Solomon that we got today, it can feel a little contrived. It feels to me as though the writers are past masters at all the tricks of the fake news and spin departments that we know today.

To put it bluntly, we read in church texts as though they are neutral history when in fact when you look at them together they seem to have been written with the main purpose of making Solomon look good.

Makes you wonder who commissioned them, huh?

But let’s get back to those bits that were missing.

The lectionary compilers do miss out some of the most salacious bits of the Old Testament – perhaps a little wary of congregations being scandalised by reading them. But I think we need a little scandal in the mix sometimes.

And the verses we missed out this morning have one of the most gloriously named characters in the bible.

Douglas Adams, when writing the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy famously conjured up the name of one character because he wanted to invent the most obscene sounding name he could come up with that could be broadcast on Radio 4 – and thus Slarty Bartfast was born. You can’t quite pin down why it sounds naughty but sound naughty it does.

So it was when I was teenage boy reading the bible through for a year and came upon this chapter and discovered the gloriously named Abishag the Shunamite.

I thought she was marvellous because she seemed to allow you to use syllables that would not normally be acceptable to be uttered from your lips.

Now, in short, Abishag the Shunamite is brought in by a bunch of men to keep King David’s warm at night in his last days. She was the King’s Concubine in the days when it was important for the King to be known to be perky and with all his faculties.

In the verses we missed out today, Abishag the Shunamite becomes important because Solomon’s brother turns up and asks Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother, for Abishag the Shunamite for himself. Yes, that’s Bathsheba who was last seen doing a strip-tease on the roof at bathtime that enticed King David Solomon’s father.

(Are you keeping up?)

Now, first of all, Abishag the Shunamite turns out not to be a joke character at all, she’s what we’d call a trafficked woman these days.

And like other trafficked women she has been under our noses for a long time unrecognised for her origins and without our noticing the powerful men who control her.

And Solomon’s brother gets his comeuppance for asking for Abishag. Solomon the wise sends out the army and slaughters him and all his men for his cheek.

I was talking about this with Father Matthew yesterday and he said, “This is just like Celebrity Big Brother”.

And I’ve been thinking about that. First of all, it was a surprise to me that Father Matthew is a devotee of Celebrity Big Brother. But secondly he is right. And some.

It is like a combination of Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island.

(Not that I know what that is).

No, more than that, it is like a combination of Celebrity Big Brother and Love Island set right in the middle of the war in Syria.

That’s the kind of things we are reading about in the Old Testament. And yes, my suspicions about Solomon are I think valid. The shine comes off the piety and the wisdom if you read the bits that get left out.

All kinds of people get left out.

Some time ago, one of you from this congregation told me that they were spending a year only reading chapters from the bible which have women in them. That seemed like a profoundly interesting way to look at scripture.

But it isn’t writers, it is the editors and even the lectionary editors we need to keep an eye on.

We need to read the bible with suspicious eyes. Who wrote this? Who edited it? Who put it before us? What is the underlying message they are trying to convey?

All the same skills we need now when dealing with social media.

And asking who has been left out is surely part of our vocation.

The truth is, when I came here and we started calling ourselves an open, inclusive and welcoming congregation, lots of people presumed it was just a euphemism for being nicer to gay people than most churches.

It was always more than that and I’m glad it is.

Part of our journey is to be people who look out for who is missing. We need to do it with the bible, we need to do it with history, we need to do it with society and we need to do it all the.

I’m proud of the fact that some time after we started pushing the refugees welcome badges here, we’re a congregation with growing numbers of people seeking refuge in this country.

Refugees are welcome here.

And I was proud this week that our own Primus joined other church leaders in condemning the so-called Hostile Environment that the government has created for  those seeking refuge.

And I add my own condemnation to theirs. The hostile environment policy of our government is sinful.

Sometimes sin has to be named and people in power be held  to account.

It was the same in the days of the Old Testament and it is the same now.

The bible teaches us of the love of God. It also teaches us to be suspicious of those wielding power and to be the first to call for it to be used to help the weakest and the most vulnerable.

God knows what it is like to be vulnerable and to be on the run seeking refuge.

May people of goodwill seek the Christ as yet unrecognised in the stranger. And may we be blessed by the love of God implanted deep within those whom we do not yet know.

For God is kind. And God is good. And God commands us to welcome the stranger.

And our task is to build a world that reflects those values. It what the bible teaches us to do.

In the name of the creator and redeemer and liberator of us all.

Amen.