It recently was revealed that a deceased Bishop in the Church of the England had committed a terrible offense during his time as Bishop. He was much beloved by many and quite popular at the time of his death. In fact, he has the equivalent of a Feast Day in the Church of England. The latest news is likely to result in the removal of his Feast Day. Someone recently questioned on Facebook if the church should also consider no longer singing a hymn he wrote, which is also quite popular in the Church of England (it appears in our hymnal as well, though perhaps not as well known as it is in England). The online postings were of mixed responses. This set me to thinking about the contributions to music of numerous people with conflicted pasts.
It is not uncommon to avoid doing particular pieces of music because of the composer. Orchestras in Israel maintained a seven decade ban on playing the music of Richard Wagner due to his anti-semitic beliefs and writings. The fact that Hitler and the Nazi regime championed his music also played into this boycott. Some smaller orchestras in the country have occasionally played his music on concerts, but not without arousing much controversy. In times of war, many orchestras are careful not to program works by a composer of the competing country.
Our own hymnal is full of hymn tunes written by non-believers, and there are some texts written by individuals who weren’t too kind to Christians and Jews in their own day as well. I once started to tell the choir the story about one of these instances, when someone requested that I stop because she’d rather not know so as not to be turned off by the hymn when singing it. I’m glad she stopped me.
Gerre Hancock (1934-2012), the revered former Organist and Choirmaster at St. Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, NYC, said that anything that is beautiful is sacred. I believe that God can certainly use our gifts, whether they are from the heart of a devout believer or of a skeptic, and use them to transform lives for the better.
In the future, when encountering one of these hymns, I think the question I’ll ask myself on whether to use it or not is one that was posted online regarding the previously mentioned hymn by the deceased Bishop: “Does the hymn offer something wholesome and sacred, irrelevant of the author?’ And if it does, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with singing it.