Thought for the Month (September 2015)

You may have noticed there seem to be a lot of programmes on television these days about food and cooking some of them being little more than vehicles for celebrity chefs to travel round the world to exotic places and sample the delights of foreign cuisine (some of which appears distinctly unappetizing to the more conservative British palate!). Although Sue and I have watched many of these programmes over the years, after a time they can become rather "samey" and boring, so now we tend to watch very few of them.

One series we do still enjoy, however, is called "The Great British Menu" a yearly competition in which chefs from various regions around the UK compete to produce a four-course menu to be served to the guests at a special celebratory dinner, usually in London. Most of the chefs featured, although all professional, are not especially well-known to viewers, and very rarely can be called "celebrity".

For the 2015 series, the competition is to produce a slap-up dinner to celebrate the centenary of the Women's Institute in the United Kingdom. The slogan of the WI is, I am sure you will be aware, popularly referred to as "Jam and Jerusalem". When the hymn Jerusalem was chosen recently to be sung at a Sunday service at Hawkenbury, l was proudly informed by a member of the congregation that she and her fellow past and present WI members wouldn't need a hymn-book for this hymn, as they would all have learnt the words by heart many years ago! Indeed, Jerusalem is a very popular and familiar hymn, and I dare say that the majority of the congregation including the men knew almost all the words without having to read them from the page!

Jerusalem was not, however, originally written as a hymn, but as a poem. "And did those feet in ancient time" was penned by the visionary artist and writer William Blake in 1804, and first published in 1808. The words reflected his deep concern at the way the Industrial Revolution, then already well entrenched in Britain, was adversely affecting the lives and well-being of so many of his fellow countrymen, especially the poor, and particularly those who were obliged to toil in what he called the "dark satanic mills" to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. The changes he could see happening to his homeland his "green and pleasant land" were immense and, in his view (as in that of many others), seriously detrimental to the future of the country and its people.

The poem was also inspired by the Apocryphal story that Jesus, as a young man, during the years about which the Bible tells us nothing, came to England in the company of Joseph of Arimathea, and visited Glastonbury (though not, I think, to watch the famous music festival!). There is, however, no evidence that any such visit ever took place but, if it had, then Jesus's feet would certainly have walked upon the green pastures of Somerset, and maybe other parts of Southern England as well (Tunbridge Wells Common, perhaps?). We shall never know, but it's a nice idea!

Blake's poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916, and has since become one of the most popular of all British hymns, widely sung and hugely loved, notwithstanding that, technically, it is not a hymn at all, as it contains no words of praise to God. You may recall it also featured heavily in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire, the title of which is itself taken from the poem, and an instrumental version of it was released by rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer in 1973. Surprisingly, though, the record of this interpretation was banned by the BBC, which would not accept it as a serious piece of music! Tell that to the WI!

The Women's Institute was founded in Canada in 1897 and the first branch in Britain opened in the Welsh village of (take a deep breath!) Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantisiliogogogoch in 1915. The WI first became associated with Jerusalem in 1924 when Sir Walford Davies was asked to write an arrangement of Parry's setting of the poem to be sung by WI choirs at the AGM of the National Federation of Women's Institutes in London. The hymn thus became associated with the then struggle for women's emancipation, and it has remained the "theme song" if you like of the WI ever since, and is sung every year at the National Federation's AGM.

But we don't need to be WI members to enjoy the hymn both hearing it sung and singing it ourselves and I think it does serve extremely well as a reminder of everything that is great about Britain (not just England) and, for Christians, gives us an opportunity to focus on the fact that Jesus whether his divine countenance ever shone upon our "clouded hills" or not came to Earth for the sake of all of us throughout time, not just the inhabitants of t111he city of Jerusalem in the first century. And, even if we have no Jerusalem builded here in the UK, we do have many, many churches, all dedicated to the God of whom Jesus was and is a third part, and, as Christians, a proud and honourable tradition of service to and concern for our fellow men and women. Whether in Tunbridge Wells, Rusthall or Hawkenbury, we can justifiably look upon our own church as a little Jerusalem of its own. And let's finish by wishing a "happy hundredth birthday" to the Women's Institute in Britain, and wish them well for the next hundred years.

Derek Fickling (Group Preaching Plan Secretary)

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Tunbridge Wells United Reformed Church