The anatomy of singing certain carols:
God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay
oh good, I like this one, but never think to use it. Why don’t I use it?
Remember Christ our Saviour was born on Christmas Day
da dum de dum de da dun dun — yes, it’s lovely isn’t it? So colourful. I love those long skirts, and that green velvet bonnet. See there, the one with the white muff? and her little dog. Oh look, there’s Bob Cratchet…
To save us all from Satan’s power,
when we were gone astray.
Oh tidings of —
It was a beautiful film, so much a part of… Hold on. To save us all from what??
comfort and joy, comfort and joy.
Satan… at Christmas? No.
And so it goes. It really doesn’t bother me at all to sing ‘ye merry gentlemen’. It’s a helpful locator: it puts me immediately in a time and place far away. And for a while, I can enjoy that. In fact, the time/place locators in this are so strong (helped along by visions of Dickens) that I can even sing merrily about Satan without at first noticing what I am saying. And that’s where it gets dangerous.
Uncritical use of language. Uncritical use of imagery, all for a bit of nostalgia and a good tune.
I don’t’ really worry about this in a group of committed Christians. I assume we can all sift our experience and differentiate what we enjoy for memory’s sake from how we would choose to speak of God today. I trust that that process will happen because we will have heard other words, other stories that offer critique of the biases of one generation. We need old hymns and new, to show for us different threads of our theology.
But what happens to the person who is there for the first time? … who is just beginning to wonder what sort of God this is?
Well, we have just taught them that this world is held in Satan’s power, and that Christ comes to free us. If they then stick around long enough to sing Child in a Manger (a carol all about redemption, but without a redeeming feature), they will get to refine this by singing:
…child who inherits all our transgression,
all our demerits on him will fall
One the most holy child of salvation
gently and lowly lived below;
now as our glorious mighty Redeemer,
see him victorious over each foe.
Lovely, isn’t it? You’ve come to church at Christmas to see if you can catch a glimpse of God, and you’ve gone away having sung that the world is in Satan’s power, that God heaps all our faults and punishment on Christ, and that that’s OK, but Jesus does battle with all who oppose God and Jesus wins.
God help us.
There is not a single concept there that should be excised from Christianity. They all have their place, their biblical precedents, and a mature faith needs to grapple with why the early church chose the language it did to speak of salvation. But the Christmas Liturgy (or worse, the carol service) is not the time and place for it. People remember the things they have sung better than the things that were said. These are the images of God they will carry away, and the better the tune, the more damaging the effect.
None of this is about ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ — changing a word here, and a word there to aim at inclusion.
There are times, there are prayers and hymns in which it is easy to slip in ‘people’ or ‘humankind’ or ‘all’. And sometimes that is the right thing to do. But changing a word here and a word there can be worse than singing ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen’ if it suggests that we welcome this hymn and all its theology apart from that one little word.