Philip Hensher: Building a New Jerusalem on arrogance and self-delusion

'The thing that cheers me greatly is that the C of E is not interested at all in great art or literature'
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I have a sneaking suspicion that Blake himself might have been rather amused by the story of the young lovers, the thick vicar and Jerusalem in Stockport. He had, after all, so little interest in or respect for organised religion that he cheerfully reflected that brothels were made with bricks of religion. One likes to think of him being amused by any prospect of the church making itself look ridiculous, and rather thrilled to think that his works were still being fiercely denounced two centuries after his death.

The story began when a young couple, Stuart Turton and Victoria Williams, booked Cheadle parish church for their wedding. All seemed to be going well until they communicated their choice of hymns to the vicar, Mr Donald Allister, and the organist, Mr Martyn Barrow. They would like, they said, to have Parry's setting of Blake's Jerusalem lyric.

Martyn just said "No, not approved" and went on to explain that "neither he nor the rector agreed with it". It was "too nationalistic". The couple, amazed and rather upset, took their custom elsewhere. A couple of days ago, Donald was doing his best to put his disapproval of Blake into words. It was "a socialist-type Utopia", "a mystical poem, not a prayer... nor does it contain any of the themes you would expect from God".

The poem, and the whole of Milton, the long poem that the lyric prefaces, have long puzzled scholars – it can't quite be reduced to the proposition that "The possibility of building heaven on earth, here in England, may suggest that England, like the world, has been blessed by the holy presence of Jesus". That's not the whole of it, and the poem deliberately evades a single meaning. However, Donald, who knows what themes he expects from God – and, I suppose, from Blake, too – pressed on in dauntless fashion, proposing a single meaning of his own invention. "What it is actually saying is 'wouldn't it be nice if Jesus had lived in England?' Yet we all know that he did not, so it is just nonsense."

This seems rather hard of Donald, I must say. I mean, if he believes the Bible, he believes five impossible things before breakfast for a living (the Creation, the Resurrection, Noah's Ark, Jonah in the whale, slavery being a good idea, etc etc etc). So I don't see that it would have done him much harm to have listened to Blake asking whether Jesus had come to England for a couple of minutes, even if that were really what the poem was saying.

In fact, although Blake is pretty definitely not talking about anything approaching the Christian New Jerusalem – nor, indeed, about anything like a "socialist-type Utopia" – there is no harm at all in chopping off this beautiful lyric and allowing Christians to think that this is about the spread of Christianity. To be honest, they should consider it fortunate that there is a poem so stirring and profound that can be used in this way.

The thing that cheers me greatly is that Christianity and the Church of England are, apparently, not interested at all in great art or literature, or anything that might conceivably inspire the deeper passions. They've given up on Blake, and wouldn't have any use for Milton, and are content, apparently, to let themselves wither away and die with a lot of prayer-group idiocies. The final, blissful, detail to the whole story is that Donald seriously proposes that people only like Jerusalem because of the tune, and "Martyn [his organist] has himself written a hymn on marriage and God's love to the tune of Jerusalem".

The degree of self-delusion and arrogance here is almost too spectacular to be worth pointing out. But the idea that people will be just as happy with Martyn's thoughts about marriage instead of the wonderful lines about the bow of burning gold, the arrows of desire and the mental fight, strikes me as somewhat implausible. It may well be that not everyone who requests the hymn fully understands it. I don't fully understand it, and Donald obviously doesn't understand it at all. But the great cloudy imprecations to something, the tremendous invocation to action and the fulfilment of desire are clear enough, and exactly the sort of thing that people are right to want at their wedding.

Enough, really, of the flannelled fools at the organ. Religion is something that people need less and less as the human race grows up a little, and at some point it will just wither away, as the worship of Jupiter and Thor just withered away. When it does so, Blake will still be there with his shining wisdom.

For the moment, the Church of England should count itself lucky that it can, in any circumstances, enlist so very distinguished a witness, however dubiously, in a worn-out cause. If it had any sense, it would hang on to the inspiring lines of the great English poets as long as it possibly could, and not denounce them on the grounds that they mistakenly suggest that Jesus came to England. But then, if the Church of England had any sense, it would instantly stop being the Church of England.

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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