Monday, June 28, 2004

Episcopalian Hymnals

This complaint is going to sound a little odd coming from me. Seeing as how I'm an Atheist from a Jewish family, my opinions about how certain churches are sanitizing and bastardizing centuries-old hymn verses probably don't carry a lot of weight with anyone. Yet, I am annoyed, so I will press forward.

Also, be warned, this complaint delves just slightly into my politics so if you want to skip it, feel free. I'm trying to make an effort to keep politics out of this journal, on the assumption that politics will simply irritate 50% of the readership. (okay, 3 people)

Here's the story. I went to a Christian elementary school where I was one of six Jews in the class. We sang hymns every day. I didn't mind this, and I still remember a lot of the hymns by heart. (I can even sing all the parts of Good King Wenceslas by myself) Actually, you're probably not going to find too many other atheist/former Jews as familiar with the modern hymnal as myself. If you ask me to sing "The spacious firmament", I'll say "regular? Or in the descant?"

So then I left this school, moved on, and didn't find myself back in another hymn-situation until I joined the men's Glee Club in college and found myself performing the choral movement of Beethoven's 9th in a Boston Episcopal church.

We were seated in the back, waiting to be called up to perform, when I, the rogue Atheist noticed the hymnals in the pew. I grabbed one. I started flipping through it, getting all nostalgic about Rock of Ages and Hark the Herald. But I started noticing little changes everywhere... different words, different phrases. These hymns were different. Specifically, they had been rendered gender-neutral. Whenever God or man was referred to in the masculine, the line had been changed.

Sadly though, while these changes may have been made with a sensitive eye toward political correctness, they weren't made with much of an eye toward keeping the verse flowing smoothly and rhythmically. You can sing "Mankind" with an emphasis on the first syllable. But if you take out "Mankind" and insert "Humankind", preserving the downbeat on the same syllable, you get "Hu-MAN-kind" which, if you ask me is a pretty ugLY and terRIBle way to sing a hymn.

To say nothing of the fact that some of these hymns are hundreds of years old and are a living link to our religious past, and some hippie with an ergonomic pen had the arrogance to think he could go in and make changes at will.

But I haven't even gotten to the part that really made me angry. The priest who was running the show asked us to stand and join him in a singing of "In Christ there is no East or West". Ah. A fine hymn. We open the hymnals and proceed to sing the most butchered, bastardized version of "In Christ" that anyone could ever imagine. I was floored. The number of changes was staggering. Here, for reference, is the original version of the hymn.

In Christ there is no East or West,
in him no South or North,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

In him shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find,
his service is the golden cord
close-binding all mankind.

Join hands then, brothers of the faith,
whate'er your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
in him meet South and North,
all Christly souls are one in him,
throughout the whole wide earth.

You'd never really have thought about it until someone brought it to your attention, but this hymn is jam packed with gender specific pronouns and words like brothers and fellowship. Every one of these offending words was changed. Observe how changing "all mankind" to "humankind" creates the improper emphasis. Observe how changing "brothers" to "members" obscures the meaning of the verse. Christianity isn't a gym or a price club. The word "members" emphasizes the institution of Christianity. The word "brothers" emphasizes the community of Christianity, which is the proper emphasis in context.

But most seriously: the whole damn hymn is a message about inclusion! The hymn says We Are All The Same! We are all one in the eyes of Christ! No matter your race, creed, gender, shoe size or whatever, we are all one in our faith! I've never used the expression "seeing the forest for the trees" and I'm not even sure what it means, but can't these people see the forest for the trees?

You don't need to run in with your politically correct agenda and start changing the verse. The verse itself is a powerful statement about tolerance and inclusion, and it's already written far better than anything you can come up with to improve it.

I guess at this point I need to step back and remember that I'm not a Christian, never was a Christian, and frankly I don't care at all about the loving, welcoming arms of Christ. But dammit sometimes I just get so mad!

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