Did you hear about the vicar who banned “Onward Christian Soldiers”?

Did you hear about the vicar who banned “Onward Christian Soldiers”?

St Peter’s Church, Oadby
© Mat Fascione / Geograph

The chances are that you have: the story that the Revd Steve Bailey, team rector-designate of St Peter’s Church in Oadby, Leicestershire, has banned the Victorian hymn from this year’s Remembrance Sunday service has been reported widely, including in the Leicester Mercury, Daily Mail, BBC, Christian Today and Premier Radio. But it is just that: a story. It’s not true.

There is an element of factual reporting in the articles – but only an element. But that hasn’t stopped the vicar and the church being subjected to online abuse and trolling from people who are concerned about the church dropping “its core beliefs” in order to appease people of other faith (by which, they usually mean Muslims). To make matters worse, some of the criticism has come from other Christians who ought to know better.

The background is this: the Church of England is in an honoured position amongst the Christian churches in this country, in that we are often asked to host civic services. We are the default “go-to” denomination at times of crisis and disaster, national mourning and community grief. And so in the aftermath of the Great War and the Second World War, it was the obvious choice for civic and community acts of remembrance. That has continued, and – mostly – Remembrance Sunday services are led by the local Anglican church.

In some areas, the service will be freshly prepared each year. In others, the service follows a pattern that has remained pretty much unchanged over the decades (although I remember one instance of a Mayor’s clerk contacting the new vicar to send him the order of service, only to be told: “No, thank you: it is the church’s job to prepare the liturgy!”). In some cases, the unchanging nature of the service includes the hymns.

There are good reasons to do this: Remembrance Sunday services will include a large number of people who would not consider themselves to be churchgoers. The use of familiar hymns and a familiar liturgy can help to make them feel comfortable and enable them to participate more fully than would be the case if the hymns are un-known. There are also good reasons not to: if those same people don’t go to church because “church is boring” – and they are basing this judgment on a service which has not changed in decades and is not comparable to the church’s usual Sunday Service, they are not making a valid judgment.

Anyway, back to Oadby. The service here is one of those that has remained unchanged. And it included the hymn Onward Christian Soldiers.

The lyrics, written by Sabine Baring-Gould, are about biblical symbolism of spiritual warfare. Set to the famous tune by Arthur Sullivan, it was intended as a marching song for Sunday School children. It was not about real soldiers or military warfare.

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.
Christ, the royal Master,
Leads against the foe;
Forward into battle,
See his banners go!

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

At the sign of triumph
Satan’s host doth flee;
On, then, Christian soldiers,
On to victory.
Hell’s foundations quiver
At the shout of praise;
Brothers, lift your voices,
Loud your anthems raise.

Like a mighty army
Moves the Church of God;
Brothers, we are treading
Where the Saints have trod.
We are not divided;
All one body we:
One in hope and doctrine,
One in charity.

Onward, then, ye people;
Join our happy throng.
Blend with ours your voices
In the triumph song:
Glory, laud, and honour
Unto Christ, the King.
This through countless ages
Men and angels sing.

Despite its original meaning, it fitted nicely with post-War thinking about our troops who paid the ultimate sacrifice and it was a common song on Remembrance Sunday. But it was wrong to do so.

Wrong, because it was wrong to suggest that all those who fought for the Allies were Christians – and I’m not just talking about those from the Commonwealth who were Muslims or Hindus; but those from Britain who were Jewish and atheist or humanist. But it didn’t seem to matter much when most of those who attended Remembrance Sunday services in Britain were likely to be Christians or, if not regular church-goers, at least Christian in cultural terms.

Today, that is not so. As our society becomes more multi-cultural – and Leicester is probably more multi-cultural than other places in Britain – then people who want to pay their respects on Remembrance Sunday are less likely to be Christians. Whether by confession or culture. Not only are there going to be more atheists and humanists; but there are also going to be more people of other faiths.

It is in this context that a hymn about spiritual warfare that has been misappropriated as a hymn about military warfare is not really appropriate. As I have said, not all those who fought for the Allies were Christian. And it is offensive to those of other faiths to say that they are.

In Oadby, the Revd Steve Bailey and the Royal British Legion met to discuss the service and they agreed to change this hymn. Whether for this reason, or another reason, I know not. I wasn’t there. But the point is this: they agreed to change the hymn.

What then happened is that two people opposed to the change have begun a local campaign against the change which has grown into a national campaign against the vicar.

At my church last week there was a song that I don’t like. I’m not going to start a local campaign about this, though, because it isn’t my job to pick hymns at church: that’s the job of the vicar and organist. And that’s what happened at Oadby. But it seems here that those opposed can get national publicity.

Why? Because it is the hint that the change has been made to appease people of other faiths. Therefore the Church is abandoning the core faith to pander to other gods. Nonsense.

The hymns that will be sung at Oadby are unashamedly Christian. But the difference is that they don’t pretend that all Allied soldiers were Christians; nor do they conjure up images of the crusades – not a particularly bright spot in the history of Christendom’s relationships with people of other faiths.

The Diocese of Leicester has issued a statement about the situation. It is worth repeating in full:

We publish the following in response to complaints by two members of the Oadby Royal British Legion Social Club about the decision agreed by their local Legion branch to change one of the hymns being sung at a Remembrance Service at St Peter’s Church, Oadby:

Rev Steve Bailey said: “We agreed the change in hymn with the Oadby Royal British Legion who run this major civic occasion because members of the community from a wide range of cultural backgrounds attend this event, which is a parade, a service in church and laying of wreaths at the war memorial.

“It is because the Legion’s Committee recognised that people from different faiths served in the Armed Forces that we will be singing All People That On Earth Do Dwell instead of Onwards Christian Soldiers. We will also sing Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer and Oh God Our Help In Ages Past. This year for the first time Oadby Multicultural Group will be laying a wreath at the War Memorial as well as the one I will lay on behalf of the parish and we do want people of all faiths, who are paying respect to those from their own faiths and cultures who served and gave their lives, to feel welcome in the service.

“I understand that the Royal British Legion branch is now discussing their Social Club members’ complaints with the individuals who raised them. I am happy to discuss the matter with them as well as to provide reassurance that the Remembrance Service in the church remains a Christian service and one in which everyone can feel welcome.”

I do not know the Revd Steve Bailey. I have never met him. But I have met enough clergy who have been slaughtered as a result of misreporting perfectly normal, sensible, routine decisions.

It is time that we in the Church at least – and preferably those in wider society – support people in the decisions they make unless and until a decision is clearly inappropriate. In this case, the priest has acted in nothing but an appropriate way.