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13 June 2014

Gift of scripture

ALONG comes the First World War again, so to speak, and on my desk appears a little something from the Scripture Gift Mission, which now calls itself SGM Lifewords.

I doubt it would stop a bullet, but the charity's replica of the St John's Gospel that it distributed free to the Forces during the First World War would fit easily into a breast pocket. And that is just as well, since the brown card cover declares: "Active Service 1914-18 PLEASE CARRY THIS IS IN YOUR POCKET AND READ IT EVERY DAY".

I feel that this cannot be an exact facsimile, unless the SGM had unique foresight about the date the war would end; and this suspicion is confirmed when I turn to the prologue of St John's Gospel and find that it isn't in any version of scripture which my grandfathers would have known.

Also not original are the colour plates of serving men (artwork by the Henningham Family Press, above), but they do lend atmosphere. But surely authentic is the selection of hymns at the back: "Sun of my soul", "Eternal Father", "Abide with me", and "O God, our help" - at least "In Christ alone" hasn't sneaked in behind the lines - followed by the "decision form" that was to be signed by a serviceman who had received Christ as his "personal Saviour".

On the Western Front this signed Gospel could be the only means of identifying a dead soldier, we are told. It must have given comfort back home as well as to the troops; and it is amazing to think that the SGM distributed 43 million items of scripture during the conflict.

Missing the use of the Authorised or Revised Version though I do, I still find these little books evocative. They are available free, or for a donation, from the charity: in packs of ten and 100 online at www.sgmlifewords.com, or by phoning 020 7730 2155.

'The Supreme Sacrifice'

CANON BILLINGS, in his article on the First World War centenary (Comment, 30 May), touched on that raw nerve of the C of E cleric, the hymn "O valiant hearts", which has occasionally been banned from Remembrance services on theological grounds, to the annoyance of those who value it.

It made its first appearance in the CT's columns in August 1918, in the report of a service in St Margaret's, Westminster, attended by the King and Queen, to mark the fourth anniversary of the outbreak of the war. The hymn was new "to most of us", its authorship was noted, and the reporter quoted the first verse.

It was referred to again as "a fine hymn" in a report from Gloucester the following year, and by July 1921 the editor was replying, not for the last time, to a reader's query about where to find it, since "It is not to be found in any collection, but is published separately by Skeffington and Son." Skeffington's advertised it regularly in the paper until the late 1950s.

Later in 1921, the CT noted that this "beautiful" hymn had been often sung at Ardingly, and it soon cropped up in reports of Remembrance services - not least a "Night of Memories" for limbless ex-servicemen in St Martin-in-the-Fields in 1933, when alternate verses were "sung by lay vicars of Westminster Abbey with superb effect".

By November 1935, it was popular enough for "E. W. P." to enquire about its history. The editor replied grumpily: "What do you mean by the history of the hymn? 'O valiant hearts' was written by Sir John S. Arkwright, formerly M.P. for Hereford, who wrote several other poems 'in time of war'. Dr Harris's tune, to which it is most often sung, was not composed for this particular hymn. It serves its purpose, being easily singable, but no musician, let alone the composer, is very enthusiastic about it."

In March 1946, however, it was none other than Bernard Pawley - future Archdeacon of Canterbury and Vatican II ecumenical observer, whose widow, Margaret, died recently (Gazette, 28 March) - who, writing from Elland Rectory in Yorkshire, raised a protest about the use of the All Saints theme for services for the Fallen, and asked: "Is the hymn, 'O Valiant Hearts',in comparing the sacrifice of the fallen with the sacrifice of Calvary, an edifying Christian document?"

A spirited riposte followed from the Vicar of St Andrew's, Leicester, J. G. Gillman. "The Church constantly gives us types which, if pressed in detail, are subject to exactly the same criticism. In the canon of the Mass we have references to the sacrifices of Abel, Melchezedek, and Abraham; but no one supposes this to mean that these worthies offered Mass. We read, on Good Friday, the story of Abraham on Mount Moriah; but no one tries to press the details as an adequate type of the Crucifixion. . . (The hymn expressly says 'following afar', be it noted.)"

But H. C. W. Mills, writing from Battersea in April 1950, lamented that this "war-glorifying" hymn had got into the new book Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, and asked: "Do conscripts 'gather proudly' and will they hear God's message to drop the atom or hydrogen bomb in the next war?"

Margaret Thatcher chose it on Songs of Praise after the Falklands War; and in 2005, after the London bombings, the Revd Sidney Hinkes cited it in a debate on the letters page about whether Islam was intrinsically more violent than Christianity. But it was a team vicar in Glascote in Staffordshire who won the Daily Star's "Poppy Day Prat Award" for a row over the hymn in 1992: a kind of glory, too.

Austin Farrer and JFK

ONE of those stories about what you were doing when news came that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated appeared in the recent issue of Oxford Today, in response to an article last year. Not exactly breaking news, but it deserves a wider audience.

Andrew Bunbury recalled that he was attending a Mitre Club dinner at Keble College. "Towards its end the President of the JCR came into the room and whispered a message to the Warden, the saintly Austin Farrer, who then told us that, sadly, he would have to leave, having received the news of the death of a very dear friend.

"I found myself wondering how he might have been a friend of JFK and why the news had reached him much later than the rest of us. It was not until the next day that we learned that his very dear friend was C. S. Lewis."

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