Saturday, 24 September 2011

A higher gift than grace

‘A higher gift than grace’ is how Blessed John Henry Newman wrote about the incarnation (he puts the words into the mouths of angels in his poem The Dream of Gerontinus). This is how we sing of it when we use the relevant section of the poem as our hymn Praise to the holiest in the height. At least, most of us do.

At the licensing of our new Area Dean last week we sang instead ‘the highest gift of grace’. I heard the two Methodist Ministers who attended the service marvelling afterwards at the confidence of those willing to ‘correct’ Newman in this way. We suspected that the Fathers of the early Councils would have gone along with Newman's indication of the primacy of the physical incarnation over subsequent human experiences of grace, and anathematised a formulation which characterised the humanity of the Lord as if it had been conferred by grace however superlative its degree.

My books shelves and the internet haven’t proved sufficient tools to trace this one backwards. I find one evangelically edited hymn book already had 'the highest gift of grace' in 1982, so the amendment is not new and may well go back much further. I’m reminded that when Elgar set the long poem in 1900 many Anglican Cathedrals wouldn’t allow it to be sung or would only allow adapted versions of the text to be sung to avoid the Roman doctrines in it including that of purgatory, but I’d be surprised if this particular amendment goes back to those adaptions.

Several internet sources suggests a fear that Newman was really on about the Eucharist, which the context shows he patently was not. Certainly I see the official hymns books of the major Free Churches (Methodist and United Reformed) are happy to print what Newman wrote. Perhaps hymns for diocesan services are sourced from on-line hymnals the theological agenda of the editors of which the diocese hasn’t quite spotted.

The picture of the Lord with Mary and Martha is from Blankney Church and is one I took on a walk while on retreat at Metheringham recently.

1 comment:

Paul Ellingworth said...

Very interesting. I first heard the objection to 'God's presence' (understood as his real presence in the eucharist) as 'a higher gift than grace' (c. 1953) from the late Dr R. Newton Flew, principal of Wesley House, Cambridge. I note that the contested verse 4 of 'Praise to the Holiest in the height' is omitted in the Church of Scotland's Church Hymnary, 3rd and 4th editions.

Paul Ellingworth