“One Sunday morning an elderly member of my congregation -- I’ll call him ‘Archie’ -- stood up in the sanctuary and said he really wished we could sing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ in worship. Why, asked Archie in a plaintive voice, was this song no longer welcome in our Presbyterian hymnal…But I do remember the awkward silence that followed the outburst. It was painfully obvious that most of the rest of us in the church did not share his taste in hymns.”I certainly hope that we are not calling this man, Archie, as an allusion to Archie Bunker--the backward thinking bigot. Reducing this elderly man to a caricature really isn’t fair. Apparently, members of the church are offended by the use of militaristic imagery in “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Back before the term, “politically correct,” was in vogue, mainline hymnals were purged of sexist, militaristic, and insensitive lyrics. Many “Archies” are still hurting from being told that their beloved hymns are immoral. In fact, truth be told, I am an “Archie.” I see nothing wrong in the hymn.
But the story doesn’t end here. Archie is diagnosed with cancer. He is dying. One of the last Sundays that he is able to attend church, the congregation sings, “Onward Christian Soldiers.”
“Even the committed pacifists in our pews belted out lyrics about the church being ‘like a mighty army’ and ‘marching as to war.’ For a moment those of us who normally cringe when militaristic images are applied to faith were experiencing the hymn as our friend Archie did -- not as a throwback to the Crusades, but as a rallying cry to discipleship in a time of fear and danger. Archie’s face shone. It was a moment of true community.”I hate to argue with a moment of true community, but on a certain level this troubles me. If the hymn is inherently immoral, why sing it at all? If it is not, which is one implication of the story, why do we have to wait until Archie is in the final stages of cancer before we can sing it? I know these people were being gracious and loving, but indulging a dying man like this seems patronizing. What would be so wrong singing the song once a year while the man was living? What about singing it now that Archie is gone as we remember the communion of saints? Could a moment of true community be expanded or extended?
I thought that the hymn has always been meant to be a “rallying cry to discipleship.” If it has been taken as otherwise, the wiser course would be to correct misunderstandings, not ban the hymn.