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Immortal, invisible . . . and too hard for children to sing?

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MY article last Sunday in TCW on the Church of England’s National Education Conference, C of E’s schools shindig – gypsies, travellers but precious little Jesus,  predictably did not go down too well with the Church House, Westminster, communications team.

Their head of news told me that it was ‘a little glimpse into an alt-right alternative reality where the narrative that everything is a woke plot must be repeated, irrespective of the facts’.

John Bingham, a former religious affairs editor of the Telegraph, even wondered whether he and I were at the same conference at the Union Chapel in Islington on January 27. I am grateful to him for engaging, so I am continuing the conversation.

Surely it was a deliberate choice by the conference organisers and by the teachers involved to have C of E school children singing pop songs and performing a ballet to an audio of parts of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech in front of the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, and the Children’s Commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza. Was it impossible to have had children giving a Bible reading and singing a traditional hymn with solid biblical content?

When I served as a vicar for 19 years in a C of E parish in South Yorkshire, my wife encouraged primary school-age children in the congregation to give readings from the Dramatised Bible at church services and Christmas and Easter events.

It sticks faithfully to the text but enables children to read out the words spoken by the characters in the biblical stories with the narrator reading the links. Of course, such public readings required work in preparation and practice. But the exercise got children reading the Bible and taught them biblical truth, particularly from the Gospel narratives.

Why could this not have been done for the children performing on stage from C of E schools at the conference? 

Certainly, organising a children’s choir to sing a traditional hymn would have required rehearsal time and teachers would have needed to explain the meaning of some of the words and concepts. But is not education what teachers are there for?

At my father-in-law’s funeral service last week, he had chosen the great 19th century hymn by the Free Church of Scotland minister, Walter C Smith (1824-1908), Immortal, invisible, God only wise

It was inspired by the Apostle Paul’s declaration of praise in his first New Testament letter to Timothy: ‘Now unto the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only wise God, be glory and honour for ever and ever. Amen’ (1 Timothy 1v17 – King James Version).

Though the biblical concepts in this hymn would need explanation, are the words really all that difficult for older C of E primary school children to sing?

‘Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes, most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise.

‘Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light, nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might; thy justice like mountains high soaring above thy clouds, which are fountains of goodness and love.

‘To all life thou givest, to both great and small; in all life thou livest, the true life of all; we blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree, and wither and perish, but naught changeth thee.

‘Great Father of glory, pure Father of light, thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight; all praise we would render, O help us to see ’tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.’

What better vehicle for teaching children about the transcendent, immortal nature and glorious moral character of the God of the Bible and about us as his dependent mortal creatures? Given that a treasure such as this from Britain’s Christian heritage was not on display at the C of E’s National Education Conference, is an evangelical journalist really performing a part in ‘an alt-right alternative reality’ if he dares to ask why not?

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Julian Mann
Julian Mann
Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Heysham, Lancashire.

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