03 August 2022

Praying with USPG and the hymns of
Vaughan Williams: Wednesday 3 August 2022

‘The Slaughter of the Innocents’ by Domenico Ghirlandaio: the fresco is part of a series of panels in the Cappella Tornabuoni in the Church of Santa Maria Novella, dating from 1486-1490

Patrick Comerford

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music is celebrated throughout this year’s Proms season.

In my prayer diary for these weeks I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a hymn or another piece of music by Vaughan Williams, often drawing, admittedly, on previous postings on the composer;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

The Gospel reading at Morning Prayer in Common Worship this morning is:

Luke 22: 39-46 (NRSVA):

39 He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ 41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, 42 ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ [[43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength. 44 In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.]] 45 When he got up from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping because of grief, 46 and he said to them, ‘Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’

Today’s reflection: ‘The Holy Innocents’

Ralph Vaughan Williams was the composer of symphonies, chamber music, opera, choral music, and film scores, a collector of English folk music and song. With Percy Dearmer, he co-edited the English Hymnal, in which he included many folk song arrangements as hymn tunes, and several of his own original compositions.

This morning I have chosen Vaughan Williams’s setting of ‘The Holy Innocents’ by Laurence Housman. Houseman was born in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, a younger brother of the poet AE Housman (1859-1936), who is best known for A Shropshire Lad, including the ‘Six Songs’ and the poem ‘Wenlock Edge,’ set to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Laurence Housman first worked as a book illustrator in London, and the first authors he illustrated included the poet Christina Rossetti. At the same time, he also wrote and published several volumes of poetry and a number of hymns and carols.

His first literary successes came with the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-Letters (1900), and the drama Bethlehem (1902). Some of his plays caused scandals because of his depiction of biblical characters and living members of the royal family. As a consequence, the Lord Chamberlain ruled in 1937 that no British sovereign could be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after the beginning of his or her reign.

Housman also wrote socialist and pacifist pamphlets and edited his brother’s poems which were published posthumously. For the last three or four decades of his life he lived in Street, Somerset.

In 1945, he opened Housman’s Bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London, founded in his honour by the Peace Pledge Union, of which he was a sponsor. The Peace Pledge Union, one of the earliest pacifist organisations in England, was founded in 1934 by Housman’s close friend, Canon Dick Sheppard (1880-1937) of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, a former Vicar of Saint Martin-in–the-Fields (1914-1926) and former Dean of Canterbury (1929-1931) who had been radicalised by his experiences as a slum priest in the East End of London.

In 1959, shortly after his death, the shop moved to 5 Caledonian Road, London, a two-minute walk from all the King’s Cross and Saint Pancras stations. In 1974, an IRA bomb blew up the pillar box directly outside the shop – the building once housed the local King’s Cross Post Office, from the late 19th century until the 1930s. The explosion destroyed the first issue of the newsletter of the Campaign Against Arms Trade, which had just been posted.

I was first introduced to Housman’s Bookshop two years later in 1976 by its co-founder and its manager until that year, Harry Mister, after meeting him with Bruce Kent at the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, that year. Harry died on my birthday in 1996, less than a fortnight after his own 92nd birthday.

Housman’s Bookshop remains a prime source of literature on pacifism and other radical values. Many memories rushed to the fore as I walked past the shop last month on my way to Bruce Kent’s funeral.

The Peace Pledge Union has ‘consistently condemned the violence, oppression and weapons of all belligerents.’ It opposed the Vietnam War and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it has promoted the ideals of pacifists such as Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, it played an active role in the first Aldermaston marches, its members were active in the formation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), and in recent years it has protested against the war in Iraq.

Today, the Peace Pledge Union stands in solidarity with peace campaigners in Ukraine, Russia and throughout the world who are resisting the war in Ukraine. Condemning the invasion of Ukraine and renouncing all war, it stands against both Russian militarism and NATO militarism.

The PPU is supporting the Ukrainian Pacifist Movement, the Russian Movement for Conscientious Objectors and other groups who resist militarism in their own countries and seek to tackle the causes of war.

And so, given Housman’s association, even long after his death, with campaigns against war, as the USPG prayer diary this week reminds us of the plight of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, and in the week we remember of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, it is appropriate on this day to select his poem, ‘The Holy Innocents.’

The Holy Innocents by Laurence Housman

When Christ was born in Bethlehem,
Fair peace on earth to bring,
In lowly state of love He came
To be the children’s King.

And round Him, then, a holy band
Of children blest was born,
Fair guardians of His throne to stand
Attendant night and morn.

And unto them this grace was giv’n
A Saviour’s name to own,
And die for Him Who out of Heav’n
Had found on earth a throne.

O blessèd babes of Bethlehem,
Who died to save our King,
Ye share the martyrs’ diadem,
And in their anthem sing!

Your lips, on earth that never spake,
Now sound th’eternal word;
And in the courts of love ye make
Your children’s voices heard.

Lord Jesus Christ, eternal Child,
Make Thou our childhood Thine;
That we with Thee the meek and mild
May share the love divine.

Harry Mister in Housman’s Bookshop before his death

Today’s Prayer:

At the annual conference of the USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) in High Leigh last week, we were updated on the work of USPG’s partners in Ukraine, Russia and with USPG’s partners with Ukrainian refugees. The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Refugee Support in Poland,’ and was introduced by the Revd David Brown, Chaplain of the Anglican Church in Poland.

Wednesday 3 August 2022:

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for the people of Ukraine as they rebuild their lives in the wake of the war with Russia.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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