Great God, your love has called us here (StF 499)

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Great God, your love has called us here 

Source: Singing the Faith: 499
Words: Brian Wren
Music: “Abingdon” by Erik Routley
Metre: 88.88.88.
Verses: 5

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Brian Wren re-thinks Charles Wesley's images for contemporary worshippers

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The “best hymn of the 20th century” is how well-known Methodist hymn writer Andrew Pratt describes this hymn.

Written in 1973 (as “Lord God, your love…”) and revised twice since, Brian describes his words as “a revisioning (not a replacement) of the central themes of Charles Wesley’s great hymn, ‘And can it be that I should gain’.”

Charles Wesley’s verses (StF 345) take up the biblical stories of St Paul and Silas singing and praying in prison (recounted in Acts chapter 16) and of Peter’s deliverance from prison (Acts chapter 12 – see Roy Thody’s comment below).  Borrowing a single powerful image from that story (“my chains fell off…”), Wesley expresses his awe at divine love and the personal grace Christians may experience despite themselves.

Brian Wren re-thinks Charles Wesley’s images for contemporary worshippers. He uses Wesley’s ideas to help us look beyond personal experience, reinterpreting St Paul’s chains as “social forces” and “powers and systems”. He is highlighting not just personal sin but the social sin of unfair structures and unjust corporate and community actions.

Yet Brian argues that “this is not a social justice hymn. It’s very wrong to stereotype certain texts as ‘social justice hymns’. But you get a broader theological perspective when you include these issues.” He names Fred Kaan and Richard Leach among other writers who have helped stretch the boundaries of our sung faith – and also the hymns of Methodist minister Fred Pratt Green. “Pratt Green covered social justice themes not for their own sake but because they are Methodist theology.”

There’s a further connection between these two hymns of Charles Wesley and Brian Wren. Brian’s text was written for Erik Routley’s popular tune, “Abingdon” – originally composed for “And can it be”. In fact, Brian says, “Abingdon” fits Wesley’s tone and meaning far better than the more usual “Sagina”. So might a change of tune reflect Wesley’s intentions with greater sensitivity?

Categories: 88.88.88., Abingdon, Gathering in God's Presence, Growth in Grace and Holiness, Routley, Erik, Wren, Brian.

4 Responses to Great God, your love has called us here (StF 499)

  1. Roy Thody says:

    This hymn was written by Charles Wesley not about Paul and Silas, but his reference was to Acts12:7 and St Peters imprisonment

    7 And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote
    Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands.

    Hence “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light”

    • Editor says:

      Thanks Roy – you’re quite right, of course, the story of Peter’s release from prison may well be one point of reference for Wesley, but the Companion to Hymns & Psalms also references the story of Paul and Silas. It seems highly unlikely that Wesley’s rich poetic mind would have been unaware of the multiple images his phrases would conjure up.

  2. Roy Thody says:

    John Wesley in preface to Charles’ Hymns for Methodists

    I beg leave to mention a thought which has been long upon my mind, and which I should long ago have inserted in the public papers, had I not been unwilling to stir up a nest of hornets. Many gentlemen have done my brother and me (though without naming us) the honour to reprint many of our hymns. Now they are perfectly welcome to do so, provided they print them just as they are. But I desire they would not attempt to mend them, for they are really not able. None of them is able to mend either the sense or the verse. Therefore, I must beg of them these two favours: either to let them stand just as they are, to take things for better or worse, or to add the true reading in the margin, or at the bottom of the page, that we may no longer be accountable either for the nonsense or for the doggerel of other men.

    • Editor says:

      Thanks for this, Roy. The pertinent phrase here is, I suspect, “I desire they would not attempt to mend them, for they are really not able” – and perhaps you feel that Brian Wren has tried to do that. I suggest rather the contrary – he has been inspired to continue thinking on Charles Wesley’s lines and to extend Wesley’s ideas in new directions. “Great God…” does not seek to add to, or replace, “And can it be”. Using one person’s ideas and art as a springboard for one’s own is a legitimate process as old as creativity itself.

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