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: http://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.


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