Friday, 5 September 2014

"The Church's One Foundation" Thumbs down


A couple of Sundays ago at my parish Church we sang “The Church’s One Foundation”.

 I had a visceral and negative reaction to this hymn, and on my blog I referred to it as being triumphalistic. 

 A respected friend (and Priest) questioned the use of this word.  He was right – it was a poor choice on my part.

 So here is my attempt to “fill out” why I strongly dislike the hymn (and why I wish that we did not sing it).

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Presbyterian Minister and Hymnologist Louis Benson (1855-1930) quotes one English archbishop as saying that “wherever he was called upon to open or dedicate a church, he could always count on two things—cold chicken and ‘The Church’s one Foundation’.”

As I have previously noted the hymn was written in 1866 by Samuel John Stone (as part of his series of twelve hymns which he wrote to explicate the Apostles Creed).

“The Church’s one Foundation” is in part a riposte to the alleged heresies of Bishop John Colenso, see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Colenso

The original text had seven verses including this one which mercifully has been omitted in most hymnals.  

3 The Church shall never perish!
Her dear Lord to defend,
To guide, sustain, and cherish,
Is with her to the end:
Though there be those who hate her,
And false sons in her pale,
Against or foe or traitor
She ever shall prevail.

Two of the original verses have been conflated to give us the familiar five verse hymn.

See:

6 Yet she on earth hath union
With God the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won,
With all her sons and daughters
Who, by the Master’s Hand
Led through the deathly waters,
Repose in Eden land.

7 O happy ones and holy!
Lord, give us grace that we
Like them, the meek and lowly,
On high may dwell with Thee:
There, past the border mountains,
Where in sweet vales the Bride
With Thee by living fountains
Forever shall abide! Amen
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When we sang “The Church’s one Foundation” at Church the other Sunday I uttered a groan. We sang all five verses at an Eight O’clock service, which alone was tough sledding.  But my groan had more to do with the text.

I have a minor quibble with the words “The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord”, a quibble which arises from Ephesians 2:20.

I am also not ecstatic about the assertion that “from heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride”, even though Ephesians 5:25/26 provides some scriptural support for these words. 

I believe that Jesus “came from heaven” to proclaim the kingdom of God, and to demonstrate life in that realm. “Kingdom life” challenges the principalities and powers, and for that Jesus was crucified.

See Luke 4:43 43But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’ 44So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.*

Therefore it is not entirely clear to me that Jesus “came from heaven” to found a Church.  My belief is that the Church is accidental (or providential) in God’s purposes.  It can be a signpost to the Kingdom, or it can be a barrier to the Kingdom.
(Side note) Surely,  if God can raise up children for Abraham from these stones (see Luke 3:8), then God can also raise up children other than the Church to bring about God’s purposes.
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Whether or not that is so, we have the Church and we are stuck with it ..... but

·        I do not care for the kind of Church which the hymn suggests:  a Church which is an end in itself, to be preserved and defended against all enemies. 
·        I do not care for a Church which is self-referential, and/or is concerned with self preservation.

·        I do not care for Samuel John Stone’s Church, a Church which is utterly passive
Bad things happen to it:  “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed”, or “toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war”.

However  this Church can do nothing  more than to await the parousia  viz: “saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song!”, or long for heaven “Till, with the vision glorious, her longing eyes are blest, and the great Church victorious shall be the Church at rest.”


·        It is a Church without the Holy Spirit. 

·        It is a Church with no call to share in God’s mission. 

·        It is a Church in which living into the life of the Realm of God and thereby being a signpost to God’s kingdom have no place.

·        It is a Church which is not under the judgment of God.


I believe that we learn much of our theology from the hymns and sacred songs we sing.  Some of this theology is bad.

 In my opinion Samuel John Stone’s hymn is a good example of such “bad Church theology”. It is a period piece which may or may not have been useful in the mid 19th Century, but it is not useful for us. 

 Hymns such as this, which are about the preservation and defence of the Church, will never move clerics and congregations away from survival theology and towards kingdom/mission theology. So why do we sing them?

 We sing them because they are familiar.  But if familiarity alone is to be the matrix for our liturgy, preaching and music then we shall become a museum of ecclesiastical heritage and not a signpost to the Reign of God.

 There are better choices.  The following, by 20th Century English Methodist Minister Fred Pratt Green is an example.  It is not perfect, but I believe that it moves our hymnody into a more biblical direction.



The church of Christ in every age,
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.

Across the world, across the street,
the victims of injustice cry
for shelter and for bread to eat,
and never live until they die.

The let the servant church arise,
a caring church that longs to be
a partner in Christ's sacrifice,
and clothed in Christ's humanity.

For he alone, whose blood was shed,
can cure the fever in our blood,
and teach us how to share our bread
and feed the starving multitude.

We have no mission but to serve
in full obedience to our Lord:
to care for all, without reserve,
and spread his liberating word.


So there you have it! 

N.B.

1.    This is not a term paper, I am simply thinking aloud.

2.   My debt of gratitude is expressed to my colleague Patrick Michaels, the Minister of Music at St. James’s, Cambridge MA.  He taught me so much.

3. I look forward to your responses  - please send them to me  retiredpove@comcast.net  With your implied permission I will publish them in about a week.

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