Singing Jerusalem ruins a Christian funeral

The other week I attended the funeral of a wonderful Christian lady. We began the service by singing the children’s hymn ‘All things bright and beautiful’ – in so far as my friend had been a school teacher, this was quite appropriate; similarly, because of my friend’s Methodist roots, it was also quite appropriate to sing Charles Wesley’s ‘Love divine, all loves excelling’. However, to my mind the final hymn, ‘Jerusalem’, was totally inappropriate and should never be sung at a Christian funeral service, for it undermines our hope in Jesus.

Let me remind you of the words of ‘Jerusalem’, originally a poem written by William Blake and published around 1808, and set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916:

And did those feet in ancient time 
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
 
And was the holy Lamb of God
 
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine 
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
 
And was Jerusalem builded here
 
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold! 
Bring me my arrows of desire!
 
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
 
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

Thanks no doubt to its wonderfully uplifting musical setting, ‘Jerusalem’ has become enormously popular. Adopted by the Suffragette movement in 1917, it became associated with the Woman’s Institute. In recent years it has become England’s most popular patriotic song, and has been used by Rugby Union as also by other sports as the official English national anthem. Significantly it was chosen by Danny Boyle for the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, with the following programme note:

We hope, too, that through all the noise and excitement, you’ll glimpse a single golden thread of purpose – the idea of Jerusalem – of the better world, the world of real freedom and true equality

Blake, however, would have been amazed at the way in which his poem has been used. For Blake, who was charged with sedition in 1803, was a radical Non-Conformist. Blake in his poem was satirising the quasi-religious nationalism of his contemporaries. Indeed, there are scholars who suggest that his use of the phrase ‘dark Satanic Mills’ was an attack on the Established Church!

Look again carefully at the words, and you will see that Blake asks four questions in succession, and the answer to each is a resounding ‘No’. The feet of Jesus never trod on “England’s green and pleasant land”. Blake’s words are based on a legend which told of Joseph of Arimathea taking Jesus as a young man on a boat trip to England. To sing this song within the context of a Christian service is to encourage the assumption of many that the life of Jesus as we find it in the Gospels is based on legends too. So for instance in a blog posted on 4 April 2015 Stephen Liddell concluded:

There is no hard documented evidence that Jesus visited England; to many it is just a fanciful fable. Much like any other aspect of religion, whether you believe in it or not is all about faith as without faith there can never be enough proof whilst with it, no proof is necessary. Happy Easter everyone!

The fact is that to sing such a ‘hymn’ at a Christian funeral service is to undermine the Christian faith. For how can we commit our loved one to God, if our hope is not “sure and certain”? It is precisely because Christ’s victory over sin and death is not based on myth or legend, that we do not grieve “as those who have ho hope”; for “We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will take back with Jesus those who have died believing in him” (1 Thess 4.13, 14). The fact is that there is no place for ‘Jerusalem’ at a Christian funeral service.

6 comments

  1. Not that it helps for funerals, but John Bell (Iona Community) has salvaged the tune of ‘Jerusalem’ by writing some excellent words based on Philippians 2.

  2. ‘Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand’ – if that is metaphorical, it’s one thing (and it may be, following as it does the line about ‘mental fight’), but if it isn’t, then it’s deeply problematical. We do not work for the kingdom of God by violent means.

  3. There are number of “good” sets of words to “Jerusalem” in fact! It does strike me that this is just one of a number of hymns which say things that actually do not sit well with our Christian faith. Another is “I vow to thee, my country” – no, I vow to God alone (and, in any case, the tune was not originally written to be sung and has too wide a range to be comfortable). In a different ilk are hymns and songs which seem to promise that, once one has come to Christ, life will be easy and we will be “happy every day” – clearly untrue!

    On a broader sense, hymns for funerals (and weddings) can be problematic, if only because people tend to choose hymns which are dear to them but which no-one knows! I have many times had to steer people away from unfortunate choices; one time I did not succeed was in a wedding where the couple wanted the 1970s school song “Autumn Days” which includes a deathless line thanking God for “jet planes refuelling in mid-air”!

    More seriously I have a problem with some Christians who so firmly wish to affirm the faith and hope at funerals that they only choose very positive “praise” hymns such as “Thine be the glory”. It’s an admirable sentiment; but I sometimes feel that the good folk almost stray into a denial that the person being commemorated has actually died! Do others share my view?

  4. P.S. When Jerusalem is sung at the Last Night of the Proms, my wife defiantly shouts “No!” at all the questions contained within it. Fortunately we watch it on TV at home, we’re not in the Royal Albert Hall!

  5. Interesting post! And one which provokes several questions. I am not sure why this hymn is provoking such a literal response? The first four questions clearly ask for a “no”. So, it seems to me the question that follows is then”how then shall men be saved , without hearing? And how shall they hear without a preacher? If Christ did not walk in the English countryside, and did not look at England with physical eyes, and did not challenge the oppressive work practices of the cotton mills and the steel mills and the rest of the industrialised eprkd, WHO WILL ? The answer comes next ” Bring me my bow , bring me my spear, bring me my SWORD! I will fight, I will pray, I will act. Christ will visit our country through the eyes and hearts and mind and lives of his followers, his disciples, his church. Notice these weapons are part of mental strife, we are not talking of killing people here! But our burning golden passion for Gods ways will reignite a sense of justice in our world. Our arrow prayers, desiring His Shalom peace and hope will make a difference and shatter despair. Our spear of light (Lugh, light and truth, from old English beliefs in the’Dark’ ages about fighting the darkness ) will send truth among the lies and we WILL give a voice to the underpaid, the exploited, the “wage slaves” in our industries and companies and shops and farms, our sword of the Spirit will bring life where there is only death. Until Jerusalem is built. Until Gods Kingdom comes. What a shout of defiance against the darkness! A POETs shout!!! What a Wonderful battle cry to sing at a funeral! What a call to those who come afterwards!

  6. I too have always refused to sing Jerusalem, particularly because the answer to the first verse is ‘no’. This was particularly difficult when I was a school governor and this was the school song.
    I have read the whole of Blake’s treatise and am little wiser as to its relevance to the substance of the very lengthy document.
    At a dinner last year at my old college we had to sing the college song, which is in Latin composed in the Victorian era. I said to my neighbour at the dinner that I didn’t like singing it, just as I did not like singing Jerusalem. By one of those odd coincidences, he happened to be a history professor and one of the leading authorities on Glastonbury. He has been deciphering some new manuscripts, one of which is a guide around the monastery for mediaeval pilgrims.
    What he said is the interesting question is why the myth of Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea was created. Glastonbury apparently was one of the biggest and most important monasteries at the time but they had no really interesting relics. The myth was to boost tourist income and to try and put Glastonbury on a spiritual par with Cluny.

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