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Angela Tilby: Hymns of protest have limitations

09 September 2022


THERE is place for expressing uncomfortable sentiments in hymns, and also for parodying well-worn hymns in order to shock us into repentance. The secular protest song can rightly claim to have its origins in spirituals, hymns of the oppressed. A recent example of the “inspired by love and anger” genre was the reworking of “All things bright and beautiful” as an attack on our use of plastic at the Greenbelt Festival eucharist (News, 2 September). This was full-on satire, taking well-loved words of delight in creation to damn us for our misuse of it. Ow.

The problem is that these texts inevitably quickly sound dated as the blame game shifts its focus. This week’s celebration of the birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary calls to mind recent Marian hymns or songs that reflect radical Christian concerns. Michael Forster wrote “Mary, blessed teenage mother”, alluding to the injustices of South Africa. But, in Britain, it provoked fury from those aggrieved that pregnant teenagers were jumping the housing queue. Fred Kaan echoed Marian radicalism with his call “to sing and live Magnificat in crowded street and council flat”. Today, with the shortage of social housing, it sounds a bit optimistic.

At the time when it was written, Richard Jones’s “God of concrete, God of steel” reflected a valid concern from those involved in industrial mission that the realities of many men’s working lives had no place in the Church’s imagination. But, today, when we recognise women as well as men, have little heavy industry, and are anxious about the depletion of earth’s resources, it strikes a hollow note — besides suggesting, to me at least, that God has shares in the kind of brutalist architecture that has ruined our townscapes and is now falling down.

But there is another reason that the protest hymn has limitations. It depends on shock, on delivering a blow to the heart. And this induced compunction works really only the first time round. Kaan was a leading pacifist hymn-writer who produced many edgy protest texts. But he now has only two hymns in the collection Common Praise, and, while both express universalist sentiments, neither comes with that punchy shock factor.

I understand why some of my fellow Christians love radical hymns. “Cry ‘Freedom’” is a wonderful cry, but it is not “vacuum-packed theology” that inhibits human flourishing so much as the habits of human sin which don’t change much from generation to generation.

Of course, part of the appeal of the protest hymn or song is that it subtly tells you that you are on the right side of history. To itch with embarrassment, as I often do when I have to sing this stuff, is to know that the finger points at you. Ah, well, give it a decade, and the finger of blame might be pointing at someone else.

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