Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2008, Sunday 22nd June
I remember in my days as a theological student going to take a service at a country church one Sunday afternoon. The service was at three in the afternoon, it was the weekly worship for a little community of people who seemed from a bygone age. I arrived at the church at 2.30 and was greeted by a man sitting in the porch rocking backwards and forwards. He gave me an odd look and said, “They are in there”.
“Who’s in there?” I asked.
“They are”, he said
Concluding it probably wasn’t going to be a very fruitful line of inquiry, I quietly opened the door and stepped inside.
They were indeed in there. There were eight or nine of them, lined up along the front pew, the youngest was about five years old, the oldest was about eleven. They were the church Sunday School; I discovered that they met at two o’clock each Sunday afternoon for three quarters of an hour before being joined by their parents for the service.
I stood and listened for a while. The teacher was a middle aged man squeezed into a suit that clearly only came out on Sundays. He had a King James Bible from which he read a story and then asked questions and he had the old Prayer Book. When the Bible story was complete he turned to the Prayer Book and began asking the children their catechism. It was fascinating to watch.
The children of that church probably remember lines that I shall never be able to remember, lines that many of you still know off by heart, maybe fifty or sixty years after you first learned them.
Something has been lost since those times; in trying to be more appealing; in trying to make things more understandable, we have sometimes fallen into the trap of ‘dumbing down’ the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of the church.
One person, who could never be excused of ‘dumbing down’ the Christian story, was the writer of “There is a green hill far away”, Mrs Cecil Frances Alexander. Mrs Alexander wanted to teach the Christian faith to children, but was able to do so in such a substantial way that her work remains popular amongst adults even today.
Cecil Frances Humphreys was born here in Dublin in 1818, into a gentry family. Her father, Major John Humphreys had served in the army and became land agent to the Earl of Wicklow and later to the Marquess of Abercorn. Immensely talented, the young Miss Humphreys began writing verse at early age, catching the eye of John Keble, a clergyman, poet, and professor at Oxford, who was to launch the Oxford Movement, the High Church movement that brought new life to the Church of England.
In 1848, when she was 30, Cecil Alexander published a collection of her poems called Songs for Little Children. The book had reached its 69th edition by the end of the 19th Century. It was edited by John Keble and contains three of the best known hymns in the English language, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “There is a Green Hill Far Away”, and “All Things Bright and Beautiful” – all three sprang from her desire to explain the Christian faith to children
Cecil Frances Alexander didn’t just write for children though. She contributed poems and French translations to Dublin University Magazine under pseudonyms. Her poem the “Burial of Moses” appeared anonymously in Dublin University Magazine in 1856 prompting Alfred Lord Tennyson to say it was one of the few poems of a living author he wished he had written.
Her marriage to the Revd William Alexander at Strabane in October 1850, caused great concern to his family, she was six years older than he was, and apparently her date of birth was altered to conceal this fact. William became Bishop of Derry in 1867 and went on to become Archbishop of Armagh. Mrs Alexander threw herself into whatever challenge she met, becoming actively involved with the Derry Home for Fallen Women, with the development of a district nurses service; and in visiting the poor and sick.
The fact that Mrs Alexander’s hymns are being sung around the world 160 years after they were published as a collection for children is a mark of her extraordinary talent. It is hard to imagine much that is being written now still being around in 2168!
“There is a green hill far away” is a simple telling of the story of the Passion of Christ and a simple explanation of the theology of those Good Friday events. I’m sure the little children for whom the hymn was written did not fully understand what the hymn was all about, particularly when they reached the third and fourth verses which deal with the doctrine of the atonement. They might have wondered what was meant when it said Jesus “died to make us good” and that he was the only one “good enough to pay the price of sin”, but then we might wonder as well. How many of us could fully explain what the hymn was all about?
There are things that are a mystery; there will be things that remain a mystery until we reach the next world, but because something is mystery it does not mean that it should be feared, just because we do not understand something, it does not mean that we have to avoid it.
Generation upon generation of children have sung “There is a green hill far away”; we have sung it many, many times in this church, and we have felt no need to try to explain it, no need to simplify it, no need to re-present it in such a way that we think people will better understand it.
Mrs Alexander’s genius was to write about the Christian faith in such a way that the truth of what was being said could reach us without there being a need to try to take it apart and repackage it.
The tune to which we sing “There is a green hill far away” is by an English church musician, William Horsley. Horsley was organist at a succession of churches London and was well respected as a musician, writing three full orchestral symphonies as well as publishing five books of glees, unaccompanied songs that might be sung as after dinner entertainment, yet it is the simple hymn tune that has carried his name down through the decades. Perhaps it is in simple ways that we say profound things.
Like the Sunday School teacher in that country church, Mrs Alexander sought simply to tell children about the faith that meant so much to her. As adult onlookers to her efforts, we have great hymns for which to thank her.