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.