Tuesday 25 August 2020

The nations tremble

From time to time (most recently for special services for Remembrance Sunday, Haworth 40s Weekend and the anniversary of VE Day) I have chosen to have sung I vow to thee my country or Jerusalem

Some regular church goers find including these hymns in worship deeply problematic  - and I’ve suggested before that most people recognise one of the chief lessons of the wars of the Twentieth Century to be how positively dangerous ‘love [of country] that asks no questions’ is. 

Others, seeking the church’s hospitality and support to remember those who have been killed in the ambiguities of war and opposition to tyranny, are puzzled at any church’s censorship of patriotic material which appears in at least some church hymn books.

So what I often do is introduce the hymns in their obvious religious context, spelt out clearly in the second verse of I vow to thee my country (where the vision of the kingdom of God is that ‘there is another country... and all her paths are peace’) and allusively in the second verse of Jerusalem (where Revelation’s vision of a new Jerusalem is echoed by ‘I will not rest... until we have built Jerusalem’).

But I’ve now re-visited for the first time in years the image of the page of William Blake’s handwritten preface to Milton on which Jerusalem appears.  I’d simply forgotten how the poem sits beneath an excoriation of the political and cultural leaders of his day (including, as it happens, the Eton/Westminster and Oxford educated Prime Ministers of the time) and their captivity to classical studies rather than biblical fidelity.  

Looking again, I see that the first verse is not actually, as I sometimes too gently suggest in my introduction to it, merely rhetorical.  There is no hiding from the fact that it is actually savagely and sarcastically satirical.  It is really saying something like “nobody could possibly be stupid enough to think that this country is built on Christian values - or that the basis of its commercial innovations and wealth has been anything other than diabolically exploitative”.

The second then has to mean “stoke my zeal and revolutionary commitment to overthrow all this”; Blake was himself even once put on trial for sedition.

And placing a quotation from Numbers at the bottom of the page (“If only all the Lords’ people were prophets”), something I think I did vaguely remember, cannot in context mean much short of “If only more people were woke”.

Which makes it an interesting choice for singing at the party concert concluding the annual season of radically accessible concerts in the Royal Albert Hall each year.

Which sort of brings me to Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, not habitually chosen for our special church services, nor even printed in any of our hymn books, but which both also claim a  religious position (less than biblical, Blake would notice) that it was Guardian angels who commissioned Britain to rule, that God intended and created the nation’s strength. 

Having significant and amplified voices suggest that it is scandalous that these words might not be sung at the party concert might, to say no more, give a hint as to why our present negotiations about our future trade relationships with our neighbouring countries are not going quite as swimmingly (as ‘oven readily’) as we had been encouraged to believe they might do.

Not, ironically, that many people would be listening.  I’m not sure people have really realised quite what a small proportion of the nation’s population now hear or watch (as, to be clear, I very often do myself) the Boat Race, the King’s Carol Service, the Last Night of the Proms or (with the notable exception of her most recent special broadcast) the Queen’s Speech.  Or, to be honest, adhere closely to the Church of England.  

The very act of still treating any of them quite as emblematically as they once were, and the periodic sometimes apparently manufactured controversies about the dire implications of alterations to any of them, must actually be the things which a modern Blake would have enjoyed ridiculing most - as he would undoubtedly would have trumpted a glorious welcome for fresh zeal in a nation noticing how differently history reads when it is the victims rather than classical heroes and their champions who are placed on our pedestals.

Saturday 8 August 2020

More woven strands

Among the readings set for Sunday is that of Joseph being put down a (dry) well by his brothers.  They had intended to kill him, but one (Reuben) persuaded them on this course of action instead, although his hope of then rescuing Joseph was thwarted when he came back and found the well empty, his brothers having pulled Joseph out and sold him into slavery.

I’ve found pictures of Joseph being thrust into the well and of Reuben’s mournful discovery that he is missing in a Fifteenth Century Biblia Pauperum.  Strangely to modern eyes, they illustrate Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb.  Reuben’s “The boy is gone; and I, where can I turn?” is explicitly being seen as a prototype for Mary Magdalen’s “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him”.

It makes me notice that neither Joseph nor Jesus are merely found where they had been confined (or merely restored to their old lives), but each is ‘sent ahead’ (one into Egypt, one into Galilee) where new stories are to unfold.

But I also thought of Jeremiah being thrust into a cistern (again a dry one, but muddy enough at the bottom for him to sink into it), which is another of the stories which we are not invited to read at a main Sunday service.

Some of those with influence had been sufficiently unimpressed by his vehement contradictions of the  Government’s repeated insistence that it is coping well with a breaking crisis that they are willing to do away with the gainsayer.  

But a Cushite in royal service called Ebed-Melech (it seems he is a eunuch), confronts the King with the injustice being perpetrated in his name, so that Jeremiah is rescued. 

And it is Ebed-Melech who held my attention.  He might simply be an anonymous ‘servant of the King’ (which is what ‘ebed melech’ means), but he is rewarded by being spared the consequences of the disaster which does quickly befall the King, court and country, and is given great status in the Talmud. 

He struck me how relevant he is as a sort of potential ‘patron saint’ for everyone from whistle-blowers to Amnesty International.  

And (in weeks in which we are reminded how easily black people’s role in our histories are forgotten, marginalised or disguised), it seemed important to notice that a Cushite would come from the Upper Nile valley region; the hero of the story may have been an Ethiopian or (in our terms) Sudanese slave.

Which also creates a further connection in my mind between Hebrew Scripture and early Christian scripture as an Ethiopian eunuch form a royal court makes an intriguing appearance in the Acts of the Apostles.