Theology Blog: Change and Decay
The Revd Canon John Seymour – September 2013
I went recently to Dr Chris Johns’ organ recital at the Cathedral. There was a good attendance with some 60 of us forming an appreciative audience. But why so few from the Cathedral congregation? You missed a treat.
I particularly enjoyed Hebert Parry’s Choral Prelude on the hymn tune Eventide. It’s always helpful to know the tune, and everyone knows this one – written especially for the evening hymn Abide with me and frequently sung at funerals and famously at Wembley cup-finals.
During many years as a parish priest I was always happy to help sing these words at parishioners’ funerals, including, as it does, some mostly healthy Christian spirituality. And if (for some) it represents a form of folk religion, let’s build on that, not decry it. The author, the Reverend Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847), was a brave and generally cheerful man who suffered long spells of asthma and bronchitis. I can sympathize. But it was much worse for him, as even today with so many effective medications available, it can still be a very distressing condition. I’ve sometimes thought that Charles Wesley wrote the hymn I’ll praise my maker while I’ve breath as a kind of asthmatic’s anthem.
Clearly Henry Lyte had in mind the story told by St Luke of the post-resurrection walk to Emmaus. ‘Abide with us, for it is towards evening and the day is far spent.’ Although Jesus didn’t in the end stay over-night with Cleopas and his friend/wife/partner; he didn’t leave before he had made himself known to them in what must have been the first post-Easter Eucharist.
Both at Emmaus in AD 33 and at Brixham in the 1840s (Lyte’s final parish) when darkness fell it really was dark. ‘The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide.’ And at the time, Lyte was also approaching that other darkness: the valley of the shadow of death.
‘I need thy presence every passing hour.’ Many of us can resonate with that. The Pauline question quoted in the line ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ reminds me of a funeral I once conducted in a local cemetery when we were all positively scared to approach the open grave: a swarm of bees had beaten us to it and decided to take up residence there. We did manage to complete the committal and later thought that we had at last answered Paul’s question, and found that dreaded sting.
But perhaps some of the sentiments expressed in the hymn are a bit on the depressive side. ‘Change and decay in all around I see.’ I’m not so sure about that. ‘Change OR decay’ seems to me a more positive attitude. My nature has been to go along with Bing Crosby and ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, don’t mess with Mr In-between.’ So sometimes for funerals I chose a text from the reading in Revelation 21: ‘Behold, I make all things new!’
And this doesn’t just apply to funerals: it seems to tie in with all that is happening at the Cathedral at present, as outlined in the Dean David’s recent video! Certainly, if change is outside our comfort zone we shall find life in God’s kingdom unsettling. Undeservedly for many of us, we shall be changed ‘from glory to glory. Lost,’ (again Charles Wesley), ‘in wonder, love and praise.’
However, perhaps the Bing Crosby song didn’t capture the whole truth. It may well be that Mr-In-between has a point. A touch of realism to temper generous optimism might prevent some disheartening disappointments. I think this is one of the chief lessons I have learnt after many years in Christian ministry!
© Canon John Seymour
PS – At a recent Cathedral Eucharist we sang Bishop Bell’s (1883-1958) fine hymn: Christ is the King! O friends rejoice. (I only just missed him in Chichester diocese as I went there for a second curacy in 1960.) Many readers will know that he was one of the founding fathers of the Ecumenical Movement, a friend and supporter of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a great internationalist.
For this last reason I am bold enough to suggest that in this hymn he got just one word wrong. The last verse reads:
‘So shall God’s will on earth be done,
new lamps be lit, new tasks begun,
and the whole church at last be one. Alleluia.’
I think that if he had thought of it, he might have preferred ‘…and the whole WORLD at last be one.’
This, I suggest, is much more exciting theology. Jesus prayed (John 17:21) that the church might be one, so that the world may believe. The church exists not for its own sake, not even to achieve its unity as an end in itself, but to serve and to watch and work and pray for God’s kingdom of justice and love and peace, proclaimed and inaugurated by Jesus, to come on earth, as in heaven! A primary challenge for all of us at Leicester Cathedral.