Article

History of Hymns: “When the Church of Jesus”

by C. Michael Hawn

"When the Church of Jesus"
Fred Pratt Green
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 592

Fred Pratt Green

When the church of Jesus
shuts its outer door,
lest the roar of traffic
drown the voice of prayer,
may our prayers, Lord, make us
ten times more aware
that the world we banish
is our Christian care.*


If there is anyone worthy to be called a successor to hymn writer Charles Wesley, it may be Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000). 

An Englishman educated at Didsbury College in Manchester, Green was ordained in the Methodist ministry in 1928, serving circuits throughout the country between 1927 and 1969. During his ministry he wrote plays and hymns and published three collections of his poems. 

But it was not until his retirement that Green’s hymn writing blossomed, and he composed over 300 hymns. 

Generally considered to be the leader of the “hymnic explosion” that began in the 1960s, Green’s hymns appear more often than any other 20th century hymn writer in English language hymnals published in North America since 1975. The United Methodist Hymnal contains 15 original hymns and two translations by Green. 

“When the church of Jesus,” based on James 2:14-17, continues the tradition of hymns that focus on the needs of the cities. That tradition began in the early 20th century with Methodist minister Frank Mason North’s hymn, “Where cross the crowded the ways of life” (UM Hymnal, No. 427) and continues into the mid-century with British musician/theologian and hymnal editor Erik Routley’s “All who love and serve your city” (UM Hymnal, No. 433). 

This hymn has is one of the most prophetic hymns of the 20th century. “When the church of Jesus” was written in 1968 for the Stewardship Campaign of Trinity Methodist Church in London. UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young notes that this hymn “was the poet’s first effort in an amazing retirement career as a hymn writer.” 

While North’s 1903 city hymn was written in the context of the Industrial Revolution and the swelling of the cities of the northeastern United States as people moved north to find work or immigrants became a source of labor, Green’s hymn was composed amidst the turmoil of the 1960s, when urban decay was rife, yet long-established urban congregations appeared to ignore the plight of the changing neighborhoods around them, continuing in the manner of earlier decades when life in the cities seemed less complicated and hostile. 

The closed “outer door” of stanza one is a powerful image that serves as both a reality and a metaphor for a congregation that appears to blithely continue its sacred rituals with little awareness of or response to the human suffering of those who pass by the church or rest on its front steps. 

The second stanza exposes the false dichotomy between offering worship where “our hearts are uplifted” and engaging the “hungry, suffering world of ours.” The reference to uplifted hearts echoes the opening of the Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts. . . . ”) that begins the opening dialogue leading to the celebration of Communion. One of the most unusual ironies of 20th-century hymnody appears in the second stanza, which reads, “lest our hymns should drug us to forget [the world’s] needs.” 

The author does not let up on the hymn singer in the final stanza. Just because “we offer . . . money, talents [and] time” as a part of our gifts to the church, these offerings should not “serve to salve our conscience, to our secret shame” of ignoring the suffering world around us. 

The final stanza ends with a petition to “reprove [and] inspire us” to follow Christ’s example, and to “teach us, dying Savior, how true Christians live.”
 

*© 1969 Hope Publishing Company, Inc. Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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

Categories: History of Hymns