A Heart to Praise Our God: Celebrating Lesbian & Gay Poets & Composers

Article excerpt

A HYMN FESTIVAL

ADDITIONAL RESEARCH BY NANCY HALL

PRESENTED BY JIM MITULSKI, ASSISTED BY GERALD ASHEIM, ORGANIST, AND ROBERT CROCKER, CHOIR DIRECTOR

The following hymn festival was presented on July 18, 2011, at First Congregational Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, as part of The Hymn Society's annual conference. With some modification, this festival could be presented in many other settings. We are grateful to the publishers, authors, and composers who granted permission to reprint their hymns here.

The festival began with the organ prelude Magnificat - My soul magnifies the Lord, composed by Gerald Asheim for a gay friend who loves organ music, followed by a solo, "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child," arranged by H. T Burleigh, and sung by Charles Lynch.

"Sometimes I feel like a motherless child" - that's how many gay and lesbian people have felt throughout the ages. Particularly in this last century, and especially in the last thirty years, gay and lesbian people have been presented as an issue, a "church-dividing issue," to quote some. And yet, for those of us who are gay and lesbian, we know that we are not motherless children. We know that the church is also there for us. We know that people who have tried to say we don't belong in the church are wrong, and that we have always been in the church. And in fact, even when churches say they don't want us in die pews, here we are in die hymnbooks.

Our festival title recalls the words of a prolific, historic hymnwriter and a hymnal editor, Charles Wesley and his brother John Wesley. Charles Wesley's text, which we have paraphrased, refers to the humble and contrite heart of Psalm 51. John Wesley was famous for welcoming persons into the Methodist Movement with only the one condition, "If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand," a model of welcome and inclusiveness well suited to the subject of this hymn festival.

At the end of Radclyffe Hall's 1928 classic literary novel, The well of loneliness, is a prayer for vindication by God and by the church, spoken by the lesbian heroine of the story. This book was considered obscene when first published. It was banned both in the United States and in Great Britain, where it was written, because it did not present homosexuals as repenting of their sin. This is an excerpt from the prayer that closes Hall's novel in which her character imagines all the gay people throughout time:

. . . they possessed her. Her barren womb became fruitful. It ached with its fearful and sterile burden. It ached with the fierce yet helpless children who would clamor in vain for their right to salvation. They would turn first to God and then to the world and then to her. They would cry out, accusing, "We've asked for bread. Will you give us a stone? Answer us. Will you give us a stone? You, God, in whom we the outcasts believed. You, world, into which we are pitilessly born." . . . And then there was only one voice, one demand, her own voice, into which these millions had entered. A voice like die awful, deep rolling of thunder. . . . "God," she gasped, "we believe. We have told you we believe. We have not denied you. Now, rise up and defend us. Acknowledge us, O God, before the whole world. Give us also the right to our existence."1

This hymn festival is intended as an answer to Radclyffe Hall's prayer. As she recognized, all that gay or lesbian people have ever asked is to be acknowledged.

Tom Sopko, then a member of the Metropolitan Community Church in Boston, wrote "Once we were not a people" for a gay pride service in 1987. This is one of the earliest hymns written specifically for gay people, and including the words "gay" and "lesbian." The first Une sounds like the lament of an entire people as bereft of acceptance and comfort as a motherless child. But then the Une continues, "God's people now are we." The hymn is an expansion and restatement of 1 Peter 2:9-10: "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. …