This Sunday is Mothering Sunday in the UK, which at Archway Methodist Church means all-age worship, church parade for the Brownies, Guides and Boys Brigade, flowers for all the women in the congregation, and a bit of a headache for this preacher, who wants to meet people’s expectations of the popular festival without it degenerating into an uncritical and mawkish celebration of motherhood and family life. We also have the Mayor of Islington (well actually the former Mayor, the present Mayor being unavailable) coming to present one of our Boys Brigaders with his Queens Badge and at the end of the service some complicated ceremonial involving the BB Battalion Colour, which will be officially presented, accompanied by the singing of the National Anthem. The Guides are making their Promise and the Brownies singing a song. And one of our West African members asked if I could include a prayer for her late husband, whose death anniversary it will be. I calculate that leaves about five minutes for the Gospel. The problem is, I just can’t say no.
I’ve managed to create an order of service which knocks all these different elements together (as one of the church members said “If anyone can cope with this, it’s you”). We’re going to start with my Hymn of the Week, ‘For the beauty of the earth’. This is partly a pragmatic choice: we need a straight forward and reasonably long hymn for the uniformed organisations to process into the church. But it is also a very suitable hymn for Mothering Sunday: the vocabulary is generally understandable by children and adults, it mentions flowers and families, it has a refrain (always good when there are visitors in church who are not immediately familiar with a hymn) and, most importantly for an opening hymn, it is a song of praise directed to God.
Considering its “use for flower services and children’s services” (The New Methodist Hymn-Book Illustrated p.30), it comes as a surprise to find that ‘For the beauty’ was originally written as an eight verse eucharistic hymn, as one of the omitted verses illustrates:
For thy Virgins’ robes of snow,
For thy Maiden-mother mild,
For thyself, with hearts aglow,
Jesu, Victim undefiled.
There is some variation in the wording of the refrain. Many older books (including the Methodist Hymn Book, 1933) have
Father, unto thee we raise…
This is retained by Songs of Fellowship and Mission Praise (though in the latter modernised to ‘Father, unto you…’ Hymns and Psalms has the more inclusive
Gracious God, to thee we raise…
Neither, however, is original. The original refrain was
Christ our God, to thee we raise…
“altered in many books to meet theological criticism on the grounds that our Lord was Son of God.” (Companion to Hymns and Psalms, p.214)
The author, Folliott Sandford Pierpoint (what a splendid name!) was a teacher of classics who published several collections of hymns and poetry. We shall sing it to NORICUM, the tune set to the hymn in the Methodist Hymn Book. For a real treat, though, listen to the St Paul’s Cathedral choir singing John Rutter’s setting.
For the beauty of the earth,
For the beauty of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
Gracious God, to thee we raise
This our sacrifice of praise.
For the beauty of each hour
Of the day and of the night,
Hill and vale, and tree and flower,
Sun and moon, and stars of light:
For the joy of ear and eye,
For the heart and mind’s delight,
For the mystic harmony
Linking sense to sound and sight:
For the joy of human love,
Brother, sister, parent, child,
Friends on earth, and friends above,
Pleasures pure and undefiled:
For each perfect gift of Thine
To our race so freely given,
Graces human and divine,
Flowers of earth, and buds of heaven:
Folliot S. Pierpoint. (1835-1917, alt.)
[Sources: Companion to Hymns and Psalms, The New Methodist Hymn-Book Illustrated]