by Prof Helen King, Professor Emerita in Classical Studies at The Open University and lay preacher in the Diocese of Oxford
This year we held a Last Night of the Proms party. We only decided to do this on the morning of the event and we weren’t sure how it would play out with our friends – a diverse group in terms of their nationalities as well as their faiths and sexualities, but everyone we asked said ‘yes please’.
In replying, one observed that she may need to leave the room for ‘Rule Britannia’. Another said he could be too shattered by doing the ‘Ride and Stride’ in aid of the Oxfordshire Historic Churches Trust – but he made it regardless. One received her first UK passport just after my invitation text reached her; the end of a long and highly frustrating process we’ve lived through with her over the last couple of years.
During the first half, we shared food, chatted in groups and half-watched the TV. We turned up the volume for the amazing Jamie Barton, particularly her sparkling, mischievous and confident take on ‘Carmen’. For the second half, we sat together, with a bit of explanation for the one Hungarian in the room, who hadn’t seen a Last Night before. People commented on the range of flags on display. We shared shrieks of pleasure as Jamie Barton appeared in the bisexual flag colours and then waved her rainbow flag. Like Bridget Christie in The Guardian, we ‘fell instantly and completely in love with her with every fibre of [our] being’. As another friend commented the day after, in the current climate to have waved a Union Jack would have been divisive.
Of the eight people in the room, only two of us were happy to sing along with ‘Rule Britannia’. I was one of those. One friend texted me the day after to say ‘Hopefully next year Brexit will have been revoked and I’ll be able to sing Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia again’. Chatting about it afterwards, I said that the words ‘wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set’ matched my vision of a welcoming and inclusive place to live. Of course, I’m well aware that this wasn’t what they meant in their original context. Music by Elgar, text by A.C. Benson (son of an Archbishop of Canterbury), combined to celebrate Britain’s international role in 1902; two years after the Siege of Mafeking in which Robert Baden-Powell became a national hero, and the year when the Second Boer War ended with the Boer surrender. Writing just before this year’s Last Night, Andy Martin observed that the song ‘tapped into a nationalistic hysteria from which we have never fully recovered’.
But the choice of ‘wider still and wider’ for a 2012 Ofsted report into provision of music in schools shows that it’s not just me who has read these words in a more inclusive way.
The next morning, I was in church. One of the hymns was ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy/Like the wideness of the sea’, written by Frederick W. Faber. Here, the ‘wide’ kingdom is God’s kingdom, not an earthly polity. ‘Like the wideness of the sea’ was used for the title of a book on the debate over women bishops written by Maggi Dawn, a priest in the Church of England at that time resident in the USA. She has much to say about the theology of waiting and the damage done by deferring justice.
Frederick W. Faber was a priest in the Church of England who, like his friend John Henry Newman, converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845. This was within the period when hymns – as opposed to metrical psalms – were at last entering the Anglican tradition from the Nonconformist tradition; Hymns Ancient and Modern was first published in 1861. Many Victorian hymn writers were women; gendered beliefs about their greater ‘sensibility’ encouraged this expression. Faber wrote 150 hymns after he became a Roman Catholic, often showing a clear debt to his younger days and to the evangelical tradition.
There are various versions of ‘There’s a wideness in God’s mercy’ that are used today, not least because there’s a sentimentality here which doesn’t play out well today. The one we sang omitted:
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Saviour who would have us
Come and gather at His feet?
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
‘Wider still and wider’ because of the ‘wideness in God’s mercy’ and the breadth of his love: for me, this is why the current movement for full inclusion of those of all gender identities and sexualities is part of the same movement as the admission of women to all ministries of the church.
Of course, like Barton’s rainbow flag, what unites some will divide others, and where I see tolerance others will see hijacking by an agenda they don’t support. But our Last Night party, where some sang and others didn’t, where some had been citizens all their lives, others only recently, and others not at all, gave me some hope of glory!