History of Hymns: "The Church of Christ in Every Age"
"The Church of Christ in Every Age"
Fred Pratt Green
UM Hymnal, No. 589
The church of Christ, in every age
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.
Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) was born in Roby, England, just outside of Liverpool, to Charles Green and Hannah Greenwood. They were both very successful business owners as well as a strong religious influence over young Fred.
The youngest of three children, he was born into a Christian home he described as “a place where religion was scrupulously observed but never made burdensome.” Following his education, Green was ordained in the British Methodist Church in 1924 and continued his ministry in various parishes throughout England well into the 1940s.
As a minister, he rarely had time for outside interests, but when he met devout poet Fallon Webb, he was instantly fascinated. The two exchanged poetry for nearly 20 years, setting the stage for Green to focus on hymn writing after his retirement from active ministry. He died at age 97, leaving behind a legacy filled with words of wisdom for us to read and sing.
Green’s hymns reflect his concern with social issues. Many were written to serve the liturgical needs of the modern church, such as specific seasons of the Christian year. Others speak to topics for which there were few traditional hymns available.
Eminent British hymnologist Erik Routley noted that with some exceptions, the Methodist influence in hymnody had decreased since the hymns and translations of the Wesley brothers. When a supplement to the Methodist hymnal, Hymns and Songs, was released in Great Britain in 1969, Routley declared “this [trend of few significant Methodist hymn writers] has changed; it has been irreversibly changed by Fred Pratt Green.”
The Rev. Carlton Young, editor of the UM Hymnal, notes, “This hymn calls the church to be the agent of change and reconciliation in the struggle against injustice and hunger.”
Green composed the hymn in 1969, a time of social unrest throughout much of the world, including the U.S., Europe and South Africa. Published at first under the heading of “The Caring Church,” it appeared in Green’s 26 Hymns (1971) and then in New Church Praise (1975), where it came into prominence.
The first U.S. hymnal to publish the hymn, albeit with some modifications, was the Lutheran Book of Worship (1978). Since then, “The Church of Christ in Every Age” has been included in many hymnals.
Particular phrases in the hymn reveal the provocative and powerful images for which Green is known. For example, stanza one concludes that the church “must claim and test its heritage / and keep on rising from the dead.” Stanza two focuses on the poor and hungry and the paradox of those who “cry for shelter and for bread to eat, / and never live until they die.”
Stanza three challenges the “servant church” to become “a partner in Christ’s sacrifice” and to be “clothed in Christ’s humanity.” Stanza four focuses on the image of Christ “whose blood was shed,” and who as a result “can cure the fever in our blood” so that we will “share our bread and feed the starving multitude.”
An omitted original stanza four reveals the vintage prophetic Green, who according to Dr. Young, minces no words, “counter[ing] the social gospel’s optimistic view of human nature”:
And all men suffer deeper ills:
for there’s fever in our blood
that prostitutes our human skills
and poisons all our brotherhood.
The final stanza clarifies the purpose of the church: “We have no mission but to serve in full obedience to our Lord. . . .” The mission of the church is to “spread [Christ’s] liberating word.”