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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

07 July 2023

Malcolm Guite finds treatment for the Church’s ills in a poem by G. K. Chesteron

IT HAS not been easy, of late, for any of us who in any sense represent the Church or are willingly identified with her. And it’s more than just dealing with bad press: I think we’ve all been called to a good deal of soul-searching and reappraisal, whether it’s on account of the harrowing stories of clerical abuse and the Church’s sometimes faltering response to it, or it’s a general sense that we are not connecting as fully and fruitfully as we should with all the elements of our multi-cultural, multi-layered society. Somehow, we are missing whole segments of its beautiful mosaic.

We are not alone, of course: universities and other institutions are owning, at last, their part in slavery; and even cricket, that glorious sport and national institution, is finally reckoning with its embedded prejudice.

One response, of course, is to keep one’s head down and just concentrate on getting things right, making amends, reaching out in one’s own corner, one’s own particular parish. And that is a good thing to do: as Blake said, “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars,” and the parish system is that tessellation of minute particulars which is the Church of England’s glory and its essential life.

But it’s good also to look to our larger identity and history to see if there’s some wisdom to recover. Contemporary news has led me to recall an old poem, Chesterton’s “A Hymn for the Church Militant”. A terrible title, you might say, but, in true Chestertonian style, the hymn is there to subvert, or at least redefine, its title, as its opening verse makes clear:

Great God, that bowest sky and star,
Bow down our towering thoughts to Thee,
And grant us in a faltering war
The firm feet of humility.

He goes on, in the next two verses, to demolish any sense of innate superiority that the Church has falsely come to feel:

Lord, we that snatch the swords of flame,
Lord, we that cry about Thy car,
We too are weak with pride and shame,
We too are as our foemen are.

Yea, we are mad as they are mad,
Yea, we are blind as they are blind,
Yea, we are very sick and sad
Who bring good news to all mankind.

But the purpose of that demolition of pride in Chesterton’s poem is not to bring despair, but, rather, repentance and renewal; and the “hymn” ends with a prayer, which we in the Church — and, indeed, in many other great institutions — might find ourselves praying most fervently:

Cleanse us from ire of creed or class,
The anger of the idle kings;
Sow in our souls, like living grass,
The laughter of all lowly things.

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