Sunday, August 24, 2008

Curious hymnal heresy

Earlier this summer, I visited London and worshipped at St. Paul’s Cathedral. My choirmaster recommended that I attend either St. Paul’s or St. Martin’s, but the latter choir had the day off.

St. Paul’s as a sanctuary has a tremendous history. The location has been the center of Christian worship in England since the 7th century. The current structure, designed by Christopher Wren after the 1666 fire, was for centuries the tallest building in London and remains one of the few sanctuaries to rival St. Peter’s in Rome for scale and grandeur. (Given that the cost of building St. Peter’s brought us Luther’s 95 Theses and the Reformation, that’s saying something).

As with other famous cathedrals, the crowd was a mixture of tourists with backpacks with a few locals. Most went up for communion, and it seemed as though at least half knew the creeds (which is more than I saw at a trip to Westminster Abbey last year).

The choir performed a mass setting by Palestrina, the Missa Papae Marcelli. The program notes (er, seat bulletin) said that with this setting, “Palestrina is often credited with having rescued sacred polyphony,” because it was his first setting approved after the Council of Trent ruled that music must not subordinate the clarity of the text.

The hymn choices from the New English Hymnal were, to put it mildly, uninspiring. At the Offertory, we sang Toplady’s famous hymn “Rock of Ages” (alas to the tune Petra rather than Toplady), and the congregation came alive. But on the other hymns and service music it was the choir (with its overmatched boy trebles) doing all the singing, as the tunes were unfamiliar and (because they violate most understood principles of meter and harmony for the past 400 years) unsingable.

What really caught my attention (other than the building and the tourists and the musicians...) at the service was the opening hymn, #461 from the NEH. (The hymn tune was too new to be from an earlier hymnal). Entitled “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy,” this verse grabbed my eye:
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of man’s mind
At the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
But we make his love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify his strictness
With a zeal he will not own.
In other words, forget about the commandments and any other rules promulgated by your faith leaders across the millenia. This clearly ignores one side in the longstanding debate in theology about the appropriate balance between law and gospel, and today seems a pointed controversy on the whole controversy tearing apart the Anglican Communion with the GAFCON and Lambeth conferences.

What was even more odd was that a few minutes later, one of the priests read Matthew 7:21-29. Multiple translations are authorized in the COE, but to my ear it sounded similar to the ERV/RSV, so here’s the first seven verses from the RSV:
“Not every one who says to me, `Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, `I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’

“Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.”
Or, as the subsequent sermon from Rt. Rev. Michael Colclough (former Bishop of Kensington now resident canon) put it, the passage is an admonishment ”against those who build upon the shifting sands of fashion and fancy.” I could imagine no more telling indictment of the modernized theology than Canon Colclough’s sermon or the Gospel passage. The blatant contradiction of these two parts of the modernized service was actually funny (in a way that hiding or misinterpreting the Matthew passage would not be.)

But where did the heretical hymn lyrics come from? The bulletin reports it composed by F.W. Faber (1814-1863). The CCEL has a (public domain) 1915 book on hymn authors which lists Frederick William Faber as a Church of England priest who became a Catholic priest under Cardinal Newman. It lists 11 hymns by Faber in the 1905 Methodist hymnal (most notably “Faith of our Fathers”), and concludes:
Dr. Faber ... not only succeeded in large measure in his undertaking to give Roman Catholics good modern hymns, but he wrote many which have had a wide circulation among Protestant Churches. It has been found necessary, however, to eliminate objectionable Romish expressions from many of his hymns in order to adapt them to use in Protestant worship.
The Catholic Encyclopedia reports
Faber’s hymns, composed especially for these services, display a combination of accurate theological doctrine, fervent devotion, musical rhythm, and true poetic talent.
Doesn’t sound like a heretic to me.

COE seems to be consisent in its presentation of Faber. It’s not among 11 Faber hymns in Hymns Ancient & Modern (my copy is the 1916 update of the 1869 original). However, the words printed in 1906 The English Hymnal (#499) match that from the NEH seat bulletin (#461).

For PECUSA, it’s in the 1916 hymnal (#240), Hymnal 1940 (#304), and Hymnal 1982 (#469, 470). It turns out the 1916 hymnal paraphrases the text, but here is the version from the 1940 hymnal:
For the love of God is broader
Than the measures of man’s mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more simple,
We should take him at his word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of the Lord.
which is essentially what’s up on Oremus.

In 101 More Hymn Stories, Kenneth Osbeck (p. 281) says it was published in Faber’s book Hymns 1862. The Book of Hymns by Dr. Ian Bradley (2005, p. 455) reports this hymn as being from Oratory Hymns of 1854, and as having 13 verses.

Several editions of Faber’s poems are in the public domain in Google books. A 1868 US compliation of Faber’s works lists a 13 stanza poem on pp. 53-55, with 13 stanzas. The same 13 stanzas are listed on pages 66-68 of an 1879 British compilation. The poem begins “Souls of men!” while “There’s a wideness” is stanza #4 and “For the love of God” is stanza #8. (12 of the 13 stanza are listed in a different order in another book).

So what’s the source of the variation? There’s no (re)translation issue of the hymn written by a 19th century English priest. It turns out it’s selective presentation: both the 1906 TEH (English) and Hymnal 1940 (US) are correct, but use different stanzas. TEH reprints stanzas #4-5,7-13 while 1940 pairs six stanzas into three verses: 4&6, 5&10, 8&13. (The 1916 US Presbyterian hymn #35 uses 1&3, 4&5, 7&8, 9&13).

Still, there’s little doubt that Faber penned the offending stanza. Today, it seems like an anachronistic heresy. Searching around for other explanations, reader Jeff suggested that it was an overreaction to a different heresy, specifically the austere legalism of some of the Reformed clergy. Given the Anglo-Catholic vs. Reformed controversy that raged in the COE from its founding through Faber’s day, that seems like a very plausible explanation.

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