HYMN 93 The Church's One Foundation
Danish: Guds kirkes Grund Alene
Norwegian: Guds Kirkes Grunvoll ene er Herren Jesus Krist
Swedish: Sin enda grund har kyrkan I Kristus, Frälseren
Text: Samuel John Stone (1839-1900) Tune: Samuel Sebastian Wesley (1810-1876)
1. The church's one foundation Is Jesus Christ, her Lord; She is his new creation By water and the Word: From heav'n he came and sought her To be his holy bride; With his own blood he bought her, And for her life he died.
2. Elect from ev'ry nation, Yet one o'er all the earth, Her charter of salvation One Lord, one faith, one birth; One holy name she blesses, Partakes one holy food, And to one hope she presses, With ev'ry grace endued.
3. Though with a scornful wonder Men see her sore oppressed, By schisms rent asunder, By heresies distressed, Yet saints their watch are keeping, Their cry goes up, "How long?" And soon the night of weeping Shall be the morn of song.
4. 'Mid toil and tribulation, And tumult of her war, She waits the consummation Of peace forevermore; Till with the vision glorious Her longing eyes are blest, And the great church victorious Shall be the church at rest.
5. Yet she on earth hath union With God the Three in One, And mystic sweet communion With those whose rest is won: O happy ones and holy! Lord, give us grace that we, Like them, the meek and lowly, On high may dwell with thee.
MEDITATION I have good memories of most hymns that I have written about, but this one is complicated. This is an important hymn for the ecumenical movement which swept out of Vatican II and reached its zenith in the 1990s. It was an exciting time of hope and strife in the churches as they discussed ecumenical agreements with other churches that had long been, if not arch enemies, at least practiced critics of each other. While the goal was healing ancient divisions, the discussions brought violent disagreements within communions about the internal changes necessary to achieve more organizational unity.
I was a member of the ALC’s Committee on Ecumenism (1983-1988), later the ELCA’s Committee on Ecumenism (1988-1992), and then the Task Force on the Study of Ministry in the ELCA (1987-1991) where ecumenical relationships were the focus. For two decades we had pitched theological battles about the nature of ministry in the Lutheran church--should we have bishops, priests and deacons, like our ecumenical partners, or not.
We had a few wins, here and there, but ultimately, we lost. It hurt. Because of my opposition, I was accused of not liking Episcopalians, which was hardly the case. My worst moment was a debate with a synod bishop who said I was denying his mother the chance to pray with her Episcopal neighbor because I opposed the agreement. I could not understand how a Christian in this country would need permission to pray with another Christian.
The writer of this hymn, Samuel Stone, loved the church. He was a pastor’s son in England and had been troubled to hear of an Anglican bishop in South Africa, John W. Colenso (1814-1883), who no longer believed in the historicity of the Old Testament and could not subscribe to some of the major beliefs Christians confess in the Apostles' Creed.
The 19th century was a difficult time for Christian intellectuals—Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and his argument for evolution were taken as an open attack on the faith which upset the intellectuals of the day. Many did lose their faith. Stone wrote a collection of hymns on the twelve articles of faith in the Creed. This hymn treats the article, “I believe in the holy Christian church, the communion of saints.”
While the hymn, especially with Wesley's tune Aurelia, seems triumphant and confident, the wounds that Stone felt are painfully stated in stanzas 3 especially. “By schisms rent asunder/By heresies distressed.” His pain became the song of many singing the hymn after turbulent discussions on the nature of the church.
Once when I was particularly down, the old sage Paul Homer, a brilliant teacher newly retired from Yale, found me in the seminary cafeteria. He was a gruff, kindly man, a Kierkegaard scholar, and Christian. I don’t know if he had come to find me, or happened upon me, but he sat down and started talking.
“Gracia,” he said, “ecumenism can be from the top down, large denominations dancing with each other trying to make statements that are really diplomatic documents both can agree to. Or it can also come from the bottom--more likely in American life—Christians finding unity with each other because of their mutual love of Christ, not churchly legislation. That’s what the argument is about. One side looks for Christians, the other bureaucractic agreements.”
It was a balm to my spirit, and clarified the nature of the debate. I do look for the day when the “Night of weeping/Will be a morn of song,” but wonder who will be standing next to me in that choir. That is what this hymn is really about. In heaven we will be one, our disagreements over for good. We will be changed, made new, and will know fully, no longer in part. And how we were wrong--or right. "Lord, give me grace that we/like them, the meek and lowly/On high may dwell with thee."
HYMN INFO Samuel Stone was the son of an Anglican priest. He got his degree from Pembroke College at Oxford, took holy orders and ended up serving with his father at Haggerstown church. He continued to write and translate hymns. Like many of his contemporaries he was taken with high church wing of the Anglican Church, known as the Oxford Movement. This hymn grew out of the shock he experienced on hearing of Bishop Colenso's denying fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.
Samuel Wesley, the grandson of Charles Wesley, learned music from his father. He earned a doctorate in music at Oxford University and played the organ at Hereford, Exeter, Winchester and Gloucester cathedrals in succession. He spent his life composing and working for the improvement of church music in England. He wrote books for that cause and composed the tunes for over 700 hymns. Because of its ecumenical theme this hymn can be found in most hymnals around the world today. It appears in English in the latest Norwegian hymnal.
LINKS Cambridge College choir https://youtu.be/OQv4EAwMFoQ
First Plymouth Congregational of Lincoln https://youtu.be/pqkJKQOyZ_k
WELS Convention https://youtu.be/TKnvCO0batc