Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During August, John Wilkinson is curating a month of blog posts exploring where we are as a church through the lens of the new Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God — what are we thinking about? how are we worshiping? what matters to us? where are we headed? Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!
By Carin Farmer
“The Church’s One Foundation” is the hymn that has haunted me for years. I first met it as hymn 333 in the old pine green 1933 hymnal. I saw the dates of the 1860s – and heard this hymn as the great cry of faith against the division and violence of the U.S. Civil War. The third verse – “’Mid toil and tribulation, And tumult of her war, She waits the consummation of peace forever more, Till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest, And the great church victorious shall be the church at rest” – echoed in the church of my childhood as I tried to understand what it must have been like to have Christians fighting Christians, each side’s churches proclaiming the justice of their cause.
I was wrong, of course. This hymn was written over a very different battle – one in England between two bishops. Bishop Colenso brought modern scholarship and historical techniques to his understanding of Scripture, questioning the historical accuracy of the Pentateuch and Joshua. Bishop Gray opposed Colenso’s writings and the disagreement between them became a church-wide controversy. This is the fight that inspired Samuel Stone’s “The Church’s One Foundation.” Samuel Stone feared that the fight within the church was taking the church’s eyes off Jesus, off her oneness in “One Lord, One Faith, One Birth.”
The third verse continues to haunt me and challenge me. After all, I remain part of a church that fights. I remain part of a church that is tired of fighting and is offering a discernment process, whereby churches may peaceably leave. I was quite young (age 3) during the Angela Davis controversy – and yet that was brought up to me by elders as recently as last month (despite the 45 year intermission). I was just leaving for seminary when there was controversy about women calling God “Sophia” (Greek for Wisdom) at a conference. During my years at seminary, we fought over “Amendment B” – we fought so much over it – it continued to be called an amendment, even though it was in the Book of Order. And then it wasn’t. I hear debate about abortion, Israel, and marriage, and yet I continue to be haunted by that line – “the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.”
I am seeking a church at rest. A church which hears that Jesus has said “take my yoke, learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls.” I seek a church at rest – where the dividing walls of hostility have crumbled into rubble. I seek a church resting on her one foundation in Jesus. I admit it is tempting to add “and.” I want a church at rest in Jesus AND agreeing with me politically. I want a church at rest AND matching my social and economic priorities. I want a church manning barricades of my choosing – which perhaps is all that needs to be said about why we are not a church at rest.
Nor are we “the great church victorious.” We seem to be losing ground yearly in almost every measure of money or people we use. Perhaps there are more casualties to our battles than we have counted and more damage to our foundation than we have considered. St. Paul suggests we “look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others,” or in another letter that we “outdo one another in showing honor.” The command to love one another is clear, but I love my own ways, my own thoughts, my own interpretations as well – perhaps too well. I hate to give up the fight – but that line continues to haunt me “the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.” If I want the church to be victorious, perhaps I need to learn to rest. Perhaps I need to stop adding the word “And” after the word “Jesus.” The greatest foundation ever in existence surely ought to be enough for me. This hymn reminds me to focus on the One. I need that now more than ever.
Central Presbyterian Church
Avon, New York