THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE REALLY, REALLY ANNOYING

CHURCH on Sunday for the Service of Remembrance: the first time in 18 months. For all sorts of reasons I can’t cope with worship any more but I found everything much as it was. I love the Church of England for its simple ‘there”-ness (there must be a better word but I can’t find it) for everybody. In some senses, and in this village, the church is still at the heart of the community, thanks to a small but committed group of people.

Like a lot of people I am angered and bewildered in equal measure about our involvement in Afghanistan. I can’t begin to grasp what it must be like for those who have lost loved ones – all of them young and many scarcely beyond childhood –  in what seems to be such a futile enterprise. Waiting for the knock on the door must be a uniquely painful form of torture.

And as we prayed for the dead and injured I was struck again by the terrible paradox that has plagued me all my adult churchgoing life: where else do people go, as individuals, as a community, or an entire nation, when tragedy strikes and we’re all but overwhelmed by grief and/or a sense of helplessness? Providing that sacred space is, in my experience, what the church does best. Yet to be able to see in all the horror and cruelty of the world the hand of a loving God, personally concerned for our wellbeing, which is after all what the church preaches is, quite frankly, beyond me.

The first hymn is the lovely ‘Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation.” And I forget for a minute or two that the original words have been mangled in a (not so very) new translation. Here’s the old verse 2:

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,

Shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth:

Hast thou not seen, all that is needful hath been

Granted in what he ordaineth?”

The modern version:

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,

shieldeth thee gently from harm or when fainting sustaineth;

Hast thou not seen how thy heart’s wishes have been

granted in what he ordaineth?”

Verse 3, original translation:

Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;

Surely his goodness and mercy here daily attend thee:

Ponder anew all the Almighty can do,

He who with love doth befriend thee.”

Modern translation:

“Praise to the Lord, who doth prosper thy work and defend thee;

surely his goodness and mercy shall daily attend thee:

ponder anew what the Almighty can do

If to the end he befriend thee.”

It’s beyond me how a group (I presume it was a committee) of what should be theologically literate people can so fundamentally destroy the meaning of time-tested words. In verse 2, the notion of God providing for our needs is supplanted by his granting our wishes; worse still, in verse 3 we dispense with the unconditional love of God and are invited to consider how fortunate we might be if – if – God decides to love us. It’s nonsense.

It’s not as if the editors of Hymns Ancient and Modern have changed the words to make them more acceptable to a modern congregation by getting rid of the thees and thous, or to accommodate the feminist objection to the use of “he.” In the preface they note that “Experience suggests that congregations make the adjustment to ‘Thou’ without difficulty.” And of the feminist argument: “We have not thought it right to alter the words of hymns to meet this objection.”

They have thought it acceptable, however, not just to destroy the poetry and the rhythm of carefully crafted words, but to destroy the sound, underlying theology.

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