Sunday, 22 June 2014

Hymns of Establishment and Protest

I was listening to Sam Mezec's talk at CHOW, and how much he disliked being made to sing hymns at primary school, which he find irrelevant to his life.
My own experience of hymns was rather different. I enjoyed some hymns, but loathed others. In particular, I hated those hymns in which a message was given that was not just religious, but about a fixed orderly society in which everyone had their place.
Mrs Alexander's "All Things Bright and Beautiful", so beloved of schools, now often has the offending verse removed, but in my day, we sung this:
The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly,
And ordered their estate.
It is a political statement in which the ordering of society is blessed by God, and thereby justified. But these is even more that just the ordering, there is the way in which value is placed upon wealth. As Professor Rodney Barker noted:
"There is an equally interesting assumption in the verse that is less noticed: rich and poor are synonymous with 'high' and 'lowly'. Social status is not only fixed and God given, but it is measured, equated with, determined by material wealth."
That hymn had the opposite effect on me, insofar as I rejected its values. I did not however, reject God because I was able to make the distinction between the writer of the hymn, who wanted to co-opt God to endorse their values, and the idea of God.
It was a distinction I came across later in the pre-Socratic Xenophanes. The philosopher did not discard the idea of God, but he was severely critical of human attempts to visualise gods:
"Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black. Thracians that they are pale and red-haired..But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have."
Our Mrs Alexander crops up again, in another line I particularly hate. The carol "Once in Royal David's City" this time addresses how children should behave:
And through all
His wondrous childhood,
He would honour and obey,
Love and watch the lowly mother,
In whose gentle arms He lay.
Christian children all should be,
Mild, obedient, good as He.
The Jesus whom, we are told, vanished at 12 years old, and caused his parents much distress before being found in the Temple at Jerusalem is simply not present in these verses. The child there was more like a prefiguration of the man, who would one day return to that same Temple and overturn the tables of the money changers. This was not someone "mild and obedient", but this is what Mrs Alexander wants to instil into everyone singing the hymn.

But rather that seeming irrelevant, these kinds of verses stirred indignation within me, and a protest against their sentiments, which was not what they indented at all!
I have some other experiences of hymns, however, more positive. Jack Dee remembers (in his Desert Island Discs), being hauled in front of the whole school for some misdemeanour. When boys were late at my primary school, the same occurred. You would have to stand to one side, in front of the whole school, while the assembly continued - it was a form of ritual humiliation. I always felt sorry for those boys who had to do that.
I was late once, for no fault of my own, because of heavy traffic, and I had to undergo the same ritual humiliation.
But the hymn being sung was John Bunyan's great hymn "He who would valiant be". Bunyan languished in a prison cell because of his beliefs. Because he was a dissenter who preached, and an itinerant preacher, he undermined the established church order, and was imprisoned for twelve years to persuade him of the error of his ways. His hymn is a protest him, against those people from the religious and political establishment - the "giants" - who would try to destroy him.
No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.
And in the midst of standing out, because I was late, in the school assembly, the words "I'll fear not what men say" again sounded for me, a strong note of protest - and resentment at the way the school behaved in this manner:
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 labour night and day to be a pilgrim.
This is a very different God from that of Mrs Alexander. It is the God who is on the side of the underdog, and who will be on their side against the powers and principalities of the land. It is the same note of protest that I found in Sydney Carter's "Lord of the Dance"
I danced for the scribe & the pharisee
But they would not dance & they wouldn't follow me
I danced for fishermen, for James & John
They came with me & the Dance went on:
I danced on the Sabbath & I cured the lame
The holy people said it was a shame!
They whipped & they stripped & they hung me high
And they left me there on a cross to die!
Perhaps this one was too contemporary, because it was hardly ever sung at school, as it puts in plain language words of protest against the religious establishment. However, all it does is to tell the story found in the Gospel narrative. But is a far cry from Mrs Alexander's well-ordered religious and political establishment.


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