The BBC's bowing to political correctness in removing the sung versions of time-honoured 'Last Night of the Proms' classics, is causing a mighty roar of disapproval.
In question are the words of, for many, treasured musical highlights: 'Jerusalem', 'Rule, Brittania!' and 'Land of Hope and Glory'. The BBC hierarchy, who run the world-famous concerts, are claiming that the lyrics of these old favourites are likely to incite and aggravate strong reactions and opposition from certain ethnicities. They say these particular pieces could be construed as insulting, demeaning and out of touch: so showing insensitivity to certain black and other ethnic minorities. This, it is thought, is because some of the lyrics contain jingoistic sentiments and anachronistic references, possibly exulting national achievement and even white superiority.
Are the BBC bosses right to be cautious? Yes. Are they right to be sensitive? Yes. For 45 years, until my retirement in 2019, I served as Conductor of the All Souls Orchestra's annual 'Prom Praise' concert at the Albert Hall, an Easter Celebration, which is unashamedly based on the formula of the 'Last Night of the Proms'. In choosing the yearly 'Prom Praise' programme, many of these same issues and questions were reviewed and considered. The issues of triumphalism and inclusiveness, of witness, image, stye and communication were always there under the microscope - just as for the BBC in these days.
Ultimately, I disagree with the BBC's decision to play instrumental versions of 'Land of Hope and Glory' and 'Rule, Britannia!'. To understand why, it is important to explore the Christian conscience that spawned the writing of these patriotic songs. For over 200 years, successive British Parliaments and key individuals have initiated positive and life-changing movements for the freedom and emancipation of all people. The Proms organisers would do well to seriously consider these. There are many. But one example is that between 1807 and 1869 the Royal Navy conducted a very difficult maritime campaign against the Atlantic slave trade; it was an act of national intent. And according to Huw Lewis-Jones, Curator of the National Maritime Musem, Greenwich, without Britannia ruling the waves, this campaign could not have been attempted.
This isn't the first time the Proms has come under scrutiny. There have occasionally been whispers of 'elitism', or 'resistance to change', or 'exclusivism', or being 'out of touch' with popular culture, but the popularity of these concerts defies the critics. They regularly attract a huge worldwide TV audience of 60+ million.
Some of the current criticisms cite odd turns-of-phrase and outdated language and concepts to today's world. So are the original lyrics divisive? 'Rule Brittania', with it's concluding motto: "Britain never, never, ever shall be slaves" was intended to embrace all under the national flag. After all, Christians, who are set free by Christ, reject all divisions of gender, denomination or slavery (Galatians 3:28). We can sing, all together now, "we'll never be slaves of Satan or his cohorts, only of Christ." And the historical context is crucial too: as when we sing 'A Mighty Fortress is our God' from the early years of the Reformation; or Henry Francis Lyte's 'Abide with me' from the mists of Poldark's time, church folk are happy to internalise ancient texts and apply them to contemporary contexts. So too at the Prom concerts: we can't put back the clock, or alter history: we learn from it, embrace and reject different aspects as we make that application for ourselves. Therefore, to me, there seems a weight of good reason for the singing of these texts to go ahead and for their truth not to be muzzled or silenced, but to be publicly celebrated. Any removal or watering down of these affirmations denies the majority of the United Kingdom citizens the chance to celebrate this annual end-of-summer festival of British music-making.
What is a Christian attitude to singing historic words and recognising a national identity? The answers come in the music itself. The three songs: 'Land of Hope', 'Jerusalem' and 'Rule Brittania' are gallant and joyous expressions of freedom from evil and oppression. All are set to tunes we all mainly recognise as robust and singable, and some commentators even add 'sacredly British' too.
Who was responsible for setting such stirring music to these three songs? Actually Elgar's tune was written first and only later was the lyric of 'Land of Hope and Glor'' assigned and matched to it. His friend, Charles Hubert Parry, provided an equally melodious tune to William Blake's epic poem: 'Jerusalem'; while Prom founder, Henry Wood, produced a catchy and much-loved orchestration to the older Thomas Arne's 'Rule Brittania'. All this musical outpouring is clearly the work of a stellar musical cast of all-British composers. Truly these men have penned notes that lift the heart to heaven. Their music bestows freedom and goodness - undoubtedly, and to this history and statistics attest - that great congregational tunes, especially those by this All-England Team, sung by a large and vibrant audience is a totally, all-absorbing, all-engulfing, emotional and community experience.
The real issue for the BBC to consider is, what most happily builds up the national community and its common identity? What establishes unity? What breaks down division and segregation? What brings people together to embrace a common identity today? Answer: the unifying force of music - singing together, yes of our history (what God has done for our nation over the years) but also of our contemporary experience: both matter and both have a crucial role of completing the full picture of God's interaction with his one world. Singing heartily together builds bridges, and brings comfort, peace, and joy to a fragmented community. Singing is fun and healthy. Singing releases the endorphins that liberate our personalities and relationships. We can get 'high' on singing, we experience elation and, as all Christians testify, corporate singing brings Christ down into our lives: we experience his living presence, thrilling us and binding all our hearts together - in unity and peace. Jesus promises that. So, release us Lord, to sing of your timeless goodness and help to us all, both now, and also in ages past.
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