A rousing mosaic of Scripture

Posted in Blog, Hymns

One of the things I shall remember about the joyous service of Installation of Revd Mark Ruoff as Vicar of the Combe to Combe Benefice at Pip and Jim’s church, Ilfracombe, on 13 June 2022, is our singing of Charles Wesley’s hymn And can it be. Like his brother John, Charles was also a preacher but is mainly remembered today for writing between 6,500 and 10,000 hymns many of which are still popular. Although John and Charles are associated with the foundation of Methodism, Charles would have been happy for his hymn to have been sung at the installation of a priest in the Church of England.  On his deathbed Charles sent for the Rector of St Marylebone Parish Church, John Harley, and is reported to have said to him ‘Sir, whatever the world may say of me, I have lived, and I die, a member of the Church of England. I pray you to bury me in your churchyard.’ At the age of 80, he died on 29 March 1788, in London, and his body was carried to the church by six clergymen of the Church of England.

The hymn And can it be is a classic statement of joy and enthusiasm from a newly converted believer. On Whit Sunday, 21st May 1738, Charles, then aged 31, was very ill with pleurisy and feared he might die. While reading his Bible, he felt he heard a voice telling him to rise and believe and he found himself at peace with God. On the following Wednesday his brother John wrote in his diary, ‘I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street …’ There John also found peace with God. Some people describe this as John’s ‘conversion’, but actually he had already been nicknamed a ‘Methodist’ at Oxford and gone as a missionary to Georgia in America.

Although Charles Wesley expressed his own experience of conversion in And can it be, he is not introspective and does not dwell on his own feelings. Instead, he moves quickly from himself in verse 1 to Christ in verses 2 and 3, so this hymn of praise can be sung by all Christians. The final verse, which we sang in full, is remarkable and brings the hymn to a fitting climax. The ‘imprisoned spirit’ of verse 4 is replaced by peace and boldness and the whole verse is a marvellous mosaic of Scripture (from the King James Bible which Charles used). Here is the mosaic:

Line 1: No condemnation now I dread Scripture: Romans 8:1 ‘The is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus’.

Line 2: Jesus, and all in him, is mine! 1 Corinthians 1:30 ‘But of him are ye in Christ Jesus’.

Line 3: Alive in him, my living Head Romans 6:11 ‘… alive unto God, through Jesus Christ our Lord’.

Line 4: And clothed in righteousness divine Isaiah 61: 10 ‘… he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness …’

Line 5: Bold I approach the eternal throne Hebrews 4:16 ‘Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace …’

Line 6: And claim the crown, through Christ, my own 2 Timothy 4:8 ‘… there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness’.

The hymn has rightly become a favourite far beyond Methodism especially when sung, as we did on 13 June, to the rousing tune Sagina with its bouncy repeats and vigorous rhythms. Occasionally people have complained that the tune is unsuitable for words of such devotional intensity and some hymnbooks have attempted to dislodge Sagina with other tunes, but none has succeeded. I, for one, am glad.