Singing and Saying what we do (or don't) believe??!!!

A number of conversations, particularly centered around a hymn chosen for this past Sunday, have prompted me to resurrect this blog... or a least post something, just this time, maybe with a hope to dropping by every now and then with a thought or two.

Oh, I'm well, thanks. Life at St John the Divine, Victoria, continues apace.  There are some immensely good people and immensely good things going on here, and those I am privileged to work with and alongside are a blessing to me.  I have been writing every day for Lent on the church website, and often find that rather than returning here, many of my thinkings end up on the staff blog there.  You'll also find many of my thoughts on the sermon podcast (as well as some very fine preachings from my colleagues) as well.

So, back to the hymn.  The hymn in question was 'And Can It Be?' - a great Wesleyan Ode to the redemptive work of God in Christ.

 Here's a Songs of Praise (UK TV show) version:

It's a hymn that takes its imagery and narrative of atonement from a very clearly 'Jesus blood was shed for us' (aka Penal Substitution) viewpoint, and it's safe to say that as a liberal, progressive congregation there are very few (including the Rector) who would use such language to describe what happened on the Cross - an event that the Church spends a lot of time meditating upon at this time of year.  And yet I was happy to sing it, indeed I really enjoyed singing it, enthusiastically and joyfully.

Why so?

For the same reason that I don't skip the Creed in Church on a Sunday, why I don't have any difficulty with using a rite of penitence in the Eucharist, and why I continue to read all the Scriptures, including the bits that set my teeth on edge, in Church - not just a selection of the ones I like. Because there's more to this whole story than the bits I agree with.  I am part of a greater community, a greater narrative, a greater mystery, than my relatively puny intellect can manage.

When I join in the worship of the Church I don't do so for my own entertainment, nor to bolster my own point of view. I do so to be a part of community, a community that existed long before me, and will exist long after I am gone.  I may interpret and understand in different ways to that which my forebears in faith did, to those who walk that road alongside me, and to those who are to come - but I am challenged to not just align myself with those who think (or look, or sound) like me, but to embrace the breadth of humanity that makes up the Church.

Also, I am growing in my ability to embrace metaphor, poetry, imagery; the depth and breadth of human condition.  I don't take Scripture literally, but recognise the layers and multiple meanings that are within our holy books.  I don't take Creeds literally, but echo Bishop Spong's understanding that they are 'love songs to God' from our forebears. I don't take prayers literally - as I don't believe that our hearts have knees, or that they can be raised up, or that they actually burn within us.  I don't think hymns or songs need to be taken literally either; I don't think that Jesus danced in front of the scribes and pharisees, I don't think that I am going to put on breastplate and sword, I don't think that I am in a dungeon. (Tell me in the comments if you've spotted the three hymns referenced there).

We do alter some of our hymns and songs, particularly in terms of inclusivising the language within them - and I realise that we have had an imbalance in our language in the Church where our language to refer to the Divine has been almost exclusively masculine.  We don't change all of our hymns, though, as many of these texts have an integrity of their own, and offer a poetic and metaphorical sense that we are in danger of losing if we are overly prosaic about our use of language.

I also recognise that I need to be challenged, even offended, by Scripture and by the Tradition of the Church - in order that I can come from an informed, thoughtful perspective when I disagree with a particular interpretation or understanding.  If I hit a brick wall (metaphorically speaking) when I hear a bible verse (take this Psalm - 137 - for instance, and read the the last verse carefully) then I need to know that it is OK to question, to challenge, to be shocked, and to come to a different conclusion to the writer.  It's the same with hymns and prayers - we need the tools, the freedom, to disagree, but to do so from a place of understanding and wisdom and not only a visceral, or knee-jerk, place.

So yes, there will be things I find myself saying, or singing, in Church that my intellect doesn't get, or agree with. I can still say these things with enthusiasm knowing that God does not need my approval, or even my understanding, that there is mystery and depth beyond my capacity to grasp. I can glean from these things - good and bad - meaning for my own walk with Christ; for instance the sheer exuberant joy and sense of freedom in the Wesley hymn lifted my spirit even as it challenged my theological grounding.

And if I do have all the answers, and a perfect liturgy, hymnody, and style of service to satisfy all of my theological and personal quirks, I'll let you know: but I can guarantee that it's only me that will like it.


Judy Mick said…
Lord of the Dance, Jerusalem and ????There is a Green Hill?
Hear, hear. You have put into words so eloquently that which I could never do over here in Blighty, where the banal, literal and frankly uninspiring seem to not only prevail but grow. Salva me, O Christe! Added to your points is the fact that if children are never exposed to older verse or language, they will struggle when studying the likes of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Coleridge, Keates. Let's not deprive them of their rich heritage for the sake of literality!
Bob MacDonald said…
More to say. Well done. The many facets of atonement will prove their worth.
Linnea Good said…
Exactly! There is a time to dissect, disentangle and discern what we really believe and sing it - and there is a time to sink into the cloud of witnesses and sing what has been given to us. May we never insist on only one or the other. Otherwise, we slowly but surely begin to replace Christ with ourselves.

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