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Hark! the heresy — poll finds most contentious lines in popular Christmas carols

21 December 2018


A “little Lord Jesus” made of sand, in a nativity at St Peter’s, Rome

A “little Lord Jesus” made of sand, in a nativity at St Peter’s, Rome

AS ORGANISTS, priests, and parish administrators compile Christmas service sheets up and down Britain, many will wince afresh at particular lines in some of the most well-known carols.

For some it will be the suggestion that Bethlehem was carpeted in snow (“In the bleak midwinter”), while others baulk at the idea that Chris­tmas “defaces” all other times (“God rest ye merry, gentlemen”). The more theologically inclined despair at the hint of heresy in “veiled in flesh the Godhead see” (“Hark! the herald angels sing”).

But the line in a Christmas carol that was most objected to — in a poll on Twitter — is “no crying he makes” from “Away in a manger”.

The findings were gathered by the Revd Marcus Walker, Rector of Great St Bartholomew’s, in central London. He launched the poll on Twitter last week to uncover what was considered the most “egregious/heretical line in the canon” of Christmas carols, asking people to choose from the four examples above.

“No crying he makes” was the runaway winner, claiming 51 per cent of all votes cast. Many of those who commented online accused the line of Docetism, an early heresy which argued that Jesus’s bodily form was an illusion rather than genuine.

In second place was “veiled in flesh” from “Hark! the herald angels sing” with 23 per cent, closely followed by “snow had fallen” which secured 18 per cent of the vote. “All others doth deface” from “God rest ye merry, gentlemen” limped home in fourth place with eight per cent.

Some on Twitter suggested that the reference to the Christ-child as the Godhead “veiled in flesh” implied another related heresy, Monophysitism: Jesus had only one true divine nature after the incarnation.

But some regarded the entire exercise as a failure of creativity. The Revd Mark Hart, Rector of Nantwich, tweeted: “Only by a literalist refusal of imagination is it necessary to have a problem with any of these.”

This position was echoed by Hugh Morris, director of the Royal School of Church Music. He said that all carols needed to be understood in their context, rather than reading individual lines hyper-literally. For example, “In the bleak midwinter” clearly transposes a British winter to a Judaean one, but in doing so makes the Christmas story relatable to people attending British carol services, he said.

“It is part of a rose-tinted vision of Christmas — but actually, from a church point of view, it just means a connection has been made.”

Some lines were, none the less, “ridiculous, like a no-crying Jesus”, he acknowledged, or the “cloying” sensi­bilities of “Silent Night”. “Clearly, some of it doesn’t stand up to high-level theological analysis.”

But, sometimes, taking imagery from centuries-old carols and applying them to modern life can be richly relevant: “I always enjoy playing ‘O little town of Bethlehem’ because there is something about those old words becoming a plea for peace in Bethlehem and the Middle East [today].”

The Revd Ally Barrett, a tutor at Westcott House and a hymn-writer, said that all lyricists needed to be careful: “Liturgy and hymnody, because of rhyme and rhythm and meter, has this air of credibility about it. So there is a job for hymn-writers to make sure we don’t write com­plete rubbish.”

She wanted, however, to stick up for the much-maligned “Away in a manger”. As a mother, she knew that babies did not cry all the time; more importantly, the carol was mostly phrased as a prayer, and so could be useful for newcomers to church who wished to pray but did not have the words to do so.

“We’re talking about something intrinsically mysterious and paradoxical,” she argued. “If we wanted doctrine, we would just chant the Athanasian Creed, and nobody would come to carol services. We are willing to sacrifice doctrinal accuracy for poetry and singability. The best Christmas carols are oblique enough to inhabit them in different ways.”

Read comment from the song-writer Keith Getty on carol singing

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