Home History of Hymns: Hymn's stanzas recite the Great Commission

History of Hymns: Hymn's stanzas recite the Great Commission

Jeffery Rowthorn

“Lord, You Give the Great Commission”
Jeffery Rowthorn
UM Hymnal, No. 584

Lord, you give the great commission:
“Heal the sick and preach the word.”
Lest the church neglect its mission,
and the gospel go unheard,
help us witness to your purpose
with renewed integrity.
With the Spirit’s gifts empower us
for the work of ministry.

“Lord, You Give the Great Commission” is a skillful exposition of Christ’s Great Commission found in three of the Gospel accounts, perhaps the most famous of which is Matthew’s version: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20, NIV)

The five stanzas provide a thorough exposition of the scripture—a kind of sermon in poetic form—as well as a blueprint for ministry.
Stanza one states boldly the mission of the church: “Heal the sick and preach the word” and “witness to your purpose with renewed integrity.” The second stanza focuses on our “service” which is to “baptize and preach” in Christ’s name.

The subject of stanza three is the Eucharist—a sacrament that offers all “liberty” by “lift[ing] life heavenward.” Stanza four calls for a “just society” through sacrifice that Christ modeled for us on the cross. Having served in “faith and hope and love,” the final stanza points us toward “eternity.”

The poet skillfully weaves a quotation from Christ’s ministry into each stanza:
• “Heal the sick and preach the word.” (Matt. 10:7-8)
• “In my name baptize and teach.” (Matt. 28:19)
• “This my body, this my blood.” (Matt. 26:26-28)
• “Father, what they do forgive.” (Luke 23:34)
• “I am with you to the end.” (Matt. 28:20)

A brief refrain invokes the Holy Spirit to empower the work of the church in its ministry.

The text, commissioned by the students of the 1978 graduating classes of Yale and Berkeley Divinity Schools, first appeared in a collection edited by the poet, Laudamus: Services and Songs of Praise (1984), a hymnal supplement used at Yale Divinity School.

It was written for the majestic tune ABBOT’S LEIGH, composed by Anglican priest Cyril V. Taylor (1907-1992), who held such distinguished posts as precentor at Bristol Cathedral, warden and chaplain of the Royal School of Church Music, and precentor and residentiary canon at Salisbury Cathedral. The tune was named for a little village near Bristol where Taylor served in the wartime headquarters of the Religious Broadcasting Department of the British Broadcasting Company. He composed the tune in 1941 for John Newton’s text, “Glorious things of thee are spoken.”

Jeffery William Rowthorn (b. 1934) was born in Wales. His education includes the institutions of Cambridge, Oxford, Union Theological Seminary in New York, and Cuddeson Theological College, Oxford. He was ordained as a priest in 1963 and served as curate and then rector of churches in London and Oxford.

After serving as an associate professor of pastoral theology and worship for 14 years at Berkeley Divinity School, he was consecrated as a bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut in 1987. In 1994 he was appointed Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, with his office at the American Cathedral in Paris.

Bishop Rowthorn was a founding faculty member of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University in 1973. In addition to Laudamus, his hymnological credits include A New Hymnal for Colleges and Schools (1992)—sometimes called The Yale Hymnal—edited with Russell Schulz.

Bishop Rowthorn and his wife Anne were honored by the Convocation of American Churches in Europe with the establishment of the “Jeffery and Anne Rowthorn Endowment Fund for Mission in Europe.” The Rowthorn Fund is dedicated to supporting development of new mission congregations in the Convocation and of youth ministry.

He retired in 2001 after completing eight years as the Bishop-in-Charge of the Episcopal churches in Europe. He is also the author of The Wideness of God’s Mercy (1995), a collection of 150 litanies compiled and adapted for ecumenical public worship, and Singing Songs of Expectation: Food for Today’s Pilgrims (2007), a collection of 22 of his hymn texts.

*Words © 1978 Hope Publishing Co., Inc., Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Dr. Hawn is professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.