We’re currently witnessing a crisis within English conservative evangelicalism following the publication of the independent safeguarding charity Thirtyone:Eight’s review into the abuse perpetrated by Anglican clergyman Jonathan Fletcher, formerly vicar of Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon. This is only a few months after the same charity published their report into Steve Timmis at the Crowded House in Sheffield, which was not that long after the revelations of the abuse of John Smyth, QC — and scandalous covering-up of that abuse by those at the centre of the conservative evangelical world at the time. It’s been a rough couple of months and years for English conservative evangelicalism, and that’s before we even bring in the Ravi Zacharias stories from the across the pond.
This is not a blog commenting on conservative evangelical culture in England (NB. the currently situation is peculiarly English, not British). Of course, I’m never short of an opinion on ConEv culture (or anything else)—I have my views, and you may have yours. But prayer is more appropriate than analysis right now. Here, I want to offer a few thoughts on a hymn that has been going around my head for the past few days, a hymn I have been praying and reflecting upon, and a hymn I think of as being very well suited to this moment. It was written by G. K. Chesterton—who was a High Church Anglican at time of writing, before becoming a Roman Catholic about fifteen years later—and was first included in the English Hymnal in 1906. Fortunately, it is in the public domain now, so here is the text in full, before I offer a few thoughts on a few lines.
O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!
Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.
O God of earth and altar, bow down and hear our cry
The most significant thing about this poem is that it is a direct address to God. Over the past year or two, a frequent refrain of a friend of mine, a minister in the conservative evangelical world, has been ‘We’ve forgotten God.’ Our Lord is indeed often referred to in the third person, with our services seen as ‘meetings’ for horizontal encouragement, with little expectation of a present, immediate, transformative experience with the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the eternal now. How did this happen? Perhaps because current evangelicalism is very pragmatic, the legacy of the ‘strategic’ ministries of Iwerne camps, UCCF, etc. The current temptation might be to write a book, set up a committee, initiate new structures, begin a new training scheme, or start a new partnership network. By contrast, prayer has never been a pragmatic or strategic option. Unfortunately, for the Church of God, it’s the only thing that ever works.
Our earthly rulers falter, our people drift and die
We mustn’t, I submit, too quickly rush to the well-worn line ‘Well, Jesus is the only leader who will never let us down.’ The statement is true enough, and gloriously so, but can be a means of putting some guilt back on the victims, or the simply disappointed. ‘Well, we/you shouldn’t have trusted them so much anyway,’ becomes the response. I want to be generous: I know this is often said to draw attention to Christ, which is, of course, what we should always be doing. And yet, these people are indeed our earthly rulers, and they do matter. If they falter, the people drift and die. It was true of Israel’s kings, it is true of the Church’s clergy, it is true of our national government as well, and we can’t circumvent that fact by appealing at once to the fact that only Jesus will not let us down. Because we are one body, and because Christ has appointed ministers, we cannot insulate ourselves from the damaging effects of wicked rulers.
The walls of gold entomb us, the swords of scorn divide
This most recent scandal has taken place within the privileged world of the Iwerne camps, Christian summer holiday camps for pupils of the most exclusive and expensive public schools in England. This scandal is playing out among wealthy, powerful, and privileged. It must be said, none of these things are are bad in and of themselves. We can’t reasonably damn people for having been sent to schools that their parents chose for them. What we may now see in hindsight is that the walls of gold around us were not necessarily a sign of our spiritual health, and I say that as someone who has done most of his ministry in precisely these Titus Trust and Oxbridge contexts. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, the same probably goes for those of us who live in in the same gilded tombs as the elite.
That stone throwing is precisely the temptation of employing the ‘sword of scorn’, which may divide us. First, the scandals were in the Roman Catholic Church (some nice gold walls there too), and we could (and I did) blame what I perceived to be their bad theology; then it was Peter Ball and the High Churchmen, and we could create distance again. And there were probably other groups before and between. Now we’ve reached a point where the issue is within our own constituency, and so we would have to destroy a part of our own body. Perhaps there is a lesson of bleak ecumenism here: this gangrene was always spreading through the same body, but as long as we said the infection was ‘out there’ in someone else’s body, we could avoid seeing the doctor.
From all that terror teaches, from lies of tongue and pen, from all the easy speeches that comfort cruel men… deliver us, good Lord!
Pay attention to what senior leaders have said and will say, have written and will write in the next few weeks, and pay attention to what they do. Who do the speeches comfort?
Tie in a living tether the prince and priest and thrall, bind all our lives together, smite us and save us all.
As the first stanza read, those who have fallen are indeed our earthly rulers, and our common salvation depends on the renewal of the clergy. Prince and priest and thrall (I had to look it up: slave/servant, as in, ‘in thrall to’) are in fact bound together in Christ’s church, and we must resist the temptation to reject earthly authority, even spiritual authority. St Paul was clear: we do not wrestle against flesh and blood. Never did, never will. Our hope is still that we might all be saved together.
But how? You may have hoped or feared I was going to say everyone influential can therefore stay in their position with no changes, but I won’t. Chesterton’s roadmap charts the familiar terrain of the gospel itself: If you want to rise again, you are going to have to die first. God may save us all, but there may be a lot of smiting first, a lot of plucking up and pulling down before the planting and building. But for those who believe in a God who both sends into exile as well as leading the return, a God who condemns to death but then brings about resurrection, there is nothing to fear but God Himself. And as we see our constituency in crisis, we must remember that no other God exists.
Anyway, here’s what the hymn actually sounds like. I have only been to King’s Lynn once, those of you who know the town better can decide whether you think the tune matches the town.