HYMN 212 O God of Earth and Altar
(KARI TIKKA OPERA See below for an announcement of an opera Love is Strong as Death by Kari Tikka, the Finnish composer, being presented in Helsinki this week. A friend of many around Luther Seminary. Deeply Christian.)
Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1876-1936) Tune: English folk tune, King's Lynne
1. O God of earth and altar, Bow down and hear our cry, Our earthly rulers falter, Our people drift and die; The walls of gold entomb us, The swords of scorn divide, Take not thy thunder from us, But take away our pride.
2. From all that terror teaches, From lies of tongue and pen, From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men, From sale and profanation Of honour and the sword, From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord!
3. Tie in a living tether The prince and priest and thrall, Bind all our lives together, Smite us and save us all; In ire and exultation Aflame with faith, and free, Lift up a living nation, A single sword to thee.
MEDITATION G. K. Chesterton’s hymn on God and Caesar or “earth and altar,” a prayer for "Forgiveness and deliverance” is a good one to contemplate today as we ponder the confrontation of Jesus with the Pharisees. But also as we face the election in the United States.
Chesterton was no shrinking violet. He had what his biographers call a “rollicking personality.” He fully enjoyed life; he was a good friend of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells with whom he violently disagreed. He saw the dangers in the hubris of empire: he was one of the few British journalists to oppose the Boer War. He also became a violent opponent of the eugenics movement—in 1922 he wrote Eugenics and other Evils against it as it was gaining popular support. This gained him the reputation of being a “reactionary”, but he was proved right as the Nazi party gained dominance in Germany. That same year he joined the Catholic Church. Some scholars maintain that his argument that Small is Beautiful convinced Ghandi to work for the “genuine” nationalism of India.
He is the author of the Father Brown mystery series and wrote biographies of Charles Dickens. St. Aquinas, and St. Francis of Assisi that are still popular. He wrote poetry from the sublime—like this hymn--to the ridiculous—"The Logical Vegetarian.” His books Heretics in 1905 followed by Orthodoxy are masterpieces. He was a force in British life: the quotation books are full of his proverbs and fine sayings.
He knew the dangers of empire well and the failures of a craven leadership not really up to the demands of the time. This was written after the Boer War, which although the British won, ended up as something of a disaster for them. The Boer troops managed to inflict damage on the British army which included troops from the entire Empire—Canada, New Zealand, Australia. When they realized they were losing to a much greater force, the Boers started guerrilla warfare against the British and continued to create havoc.
One can read this hymn by Chesterton as a warning to the empire from the experience of the Boer War. His prayer for unity is particular to England at the time, but hymnal editors have found the sentiment calling for judgment and unity expressed in its fine poetry worth including in non-British hymnals. The hymn arrangement by Ralph Vaughan Williams also made it a classic that is still sung with fervor.
With Chesterton’s willingness to entertain opposing ideas and ideologies, this hymn should not be read as a prayer that his side will win, but rather that both sides will be judged and that the nations unite around a common set of beliefs even as it spars politically. He wants the united people to be both smitten and saved. We can pray that even now, knowing more about Chesterton’s beliefs. Ire and exaltation will probably describe the feelings of people after this election; we just are not sure which side will feel ire and which exaltation! What we really all need to pray for is both a cleansing judgment and modicum of unity.
This hymn was included in the 1906 English Hymnal, a strong reaction against the Victorianism of the previous hymnal, Hymns: Ancient and Modern. (1861) Musicians like Vaughan Williams, Percy Dearmer (1837-1933), and others could not say enough about how bad the Victorian age had been for English hymnody, especially its music. They wanted to restore the English tradition to its folk melodies, working against the strong influence of German music dominated by Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner. Vaughan Williams returned English hymnody to its folk roots. Many of the folk songs from England we have in our hymnals were rediscovered by him and arranged for congregational singing. They really caused a Renaissance in English music which is still going strong. It is interesting to see that the young have found the text and tune to their liking.
LINKS British congregation singing https://youtu.be/wFG-CqYXyOo
Choir of Trinity College Cambridge https://youtu.be/XUYY0uJfkhQ
Ivica Kljuce https://youtu.be/4IskStYYi-M
The Gentle Wolves https://youtu.be/XqJlJIwh34A
This gives a brief history of Chesterton’s place in British history https://youtu.be/etI_QRNJfkw
________________________ LOVE IS STRONG AS DEATH—a new opera with Tikka’s daughter as director, with some who were in the Luther opera we put on at Central. The announcement of the opera is here https://mesenaatti.me/en/1382/rakkaus-on-vakeva-kuin-kuolema/