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Blakespotting: “Jerusalem” and gay Blake

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Some day soon, I shall turn my attention away from Blake’s “Jerusalem” but, for the moment, this is the hymn (or is it a song?) that keeps on giving.

Ever since it’s inclusion in the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, the Blake-Parry hymn has attracted a great deal of attention in the British and world media, with the most recent flurry of activity originating around the apparent possibility that “Jerusalem” could become the preserve of homosexual civil partnerships in the UK. This particular story is also becoming an object lesson in how potential memes spread online, though in this case “traditional” media have more than their fair share to play in the repetition of spin and disinformation.

The story was broken by The Telegraph on May 19 by James Kirkup, writing under the headline “Blake’s Jerusalem ‘reserved for homosexuals'”, and the article is worth citing at some length:

Chris Bryant told the Commons that Government plans to allow same-sex marriage ceremonies in church could unwittingly create unequal rules on the song, which was performed at the Royal wedding last month.
Mr Bryant said that for heterosexual couples getting married in church, “many clergy will refuse to allow it to be sung because it’s not a hymn addressed to God.”
The same couple having a civil service would also be preventing from playing or singing the song because of its religious aspects.
By contrast, Mr Bryant said, Government plans to allow same-sex ceremonies with “a religious aspect” could allow the song at homosexual marriages.

Upon first seeing the article, I simply rolled my eyes and prepared to add it to the list of weird and wacky media stories that have appeared in the past couple of weeks, but the way in which this article spread deserves a little more attention. Kirkup’s article, as well as providing a little more background on the genesis of the hymn and its controversy in some Anglican circles, also observes that Bryant, MP for Rhondda, is himself homosexual and was formerly an Anglican priest.

Unfortunately, Bryant’s comments have not yet been included on the parliament.uk web site so it is not, yet, possible to check his original speech. As such, from the reported speech in the Telegraph article it is uncertain whether Bryant was trying to make a general point in favour of the hymn (with, perhaps, a gibe at his former Anglican brethren, riven as they are by the ongoing tussle around homosexuality) or decrying general trends of “political correctness”. From the comments posted to the original article, the latter certainly appears to have been the reception of many readers, several of whom launched into some rough-and-ready gay bashing and declarations of Blake’s patriotism. Bryant’s own site doesn’t include any details either, but as this hasn’t been updated since last September it is perhaps somewhat foolish to wait for any news there.

As such, Bryant’s remarks have to be filtered through the great, objective lens that is the British media (though it is unlikely that he himself would object to “Jerusalem” being sung at gay civil partnerships, having tied the knot with his own partner in 2010). Neither The Independent nor The Guardian carried the story, preferring to concentrate on his involvement as one of the victims in the ongoing News of the World phone-hacking scandal, and The Sun spared us its jolly homophobia (as when, in May 2009, it asked for voters to give the MP “a Rhondda rogering”) – probably in this case because its sister paper would prefer not to give Bryant further ammunition in his battle with the Murdoch press. The only major newspaper to follow suit was the Daily Mail. Observing how popular the Blake-Parry hymn has become, it expanded on a theme included in the Kirkup report, that plans to allow “religious aspects” into gay civil partnerships will be one reason why “Jerusalem” could become popular: it is this proposal, rather than Bryant’s open homosexuality (also noted by the Mail) that could become a red rag to traditional conservatives.

By the next day, a rash of blogs had broken out in fury at the story. Australian blogger John J. Ray (M.A.; PhD) rehashed the Daily Mail article under the title “Once again homosexuals get a better deal in Britain”, and while he had nothing new to add to the story itself, its appearance on his blog Political Correctness Watch is a fine addition to the rabid right farrago that proliferates there. Sites such as The Awl asked “Will The Gays [you know, all those people who are not like you] Get Jerusalem All To Themselves?”, presumably because no decent-thinking human being could bring themselves to utter “And did those feet in ancient times” after it had been polluted by a queer aesthetic that presumably considers the opening line to be an invitation to esoteric bath house practices. It was hard to tell whether the inclusion of the Fat Les version of “Jerusalem” was ironic – was the primary reference a good, manly allusion to football, or the fact that it is sung by the London Gay Men’s Chorus as well as a community gospel choir?

The magazine Christian Today again repeated the salient features of the Telegraph and Mail articles, here contextualising it with a series of other stories expressing fear and opposition to plans allowing gay civil partnerships in weddings. Similarly, while Pink News also added little that was new to the story, unsurprisingly a very different context and response came from the numerous comments that appeared very quickly. A couple of those expressed surprise that PN was using the Mail as one of its sources, and many more were irritated with Bryant for getting sidetracked on a minor matter when the real issue was greater equality and recognition for gay weddings. Some of my own opinions are reflected in a comment by Martyn Notman: “ok maybe theres a clever point to this im missing? Is he trying to point out the ludicrous situation the whole mess over equality for marriages is in? Otherwise not sure why this is news…”

Having contributed an essay to Queer Blake (see the review by Roger Whitson), it would probably not be hard to guess that my own ridiculously liberal position condemns me in the eyes of many to an inferno, though one through which I shall walk “delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity” (Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 6). While I have a few reservations in comparison to Blake critics such as Christopher Z. Hobson with regard to how much Blake’s aesthetics can be queered in a historical context (reservations that have more to do with the degree of Blake’s homosexual sympathies rather than whether they existed), I have always very strongly believed that his “sexual commonwealth” was benevolently open to a much wider congregation than would be admitted by the Christian right in particular, and that he has been especially influential on generations of homosexual writers, artists and film makers who recognise his generosity of spirit. One thing that is very clear from Blake’s writing was that his greatest opprobrium was reserved for the “Moral Law”, which he never ceased from condemning in his art and poetry.

For Satan flaming with Rintrahs fury hidden beneath his own mildness
Accus’d Palamabron before the Assembly of ingratitude! of malice:
He created Seven deadly Sins drawing out his infernal scroll,
Of Moral laws and cruel punishments upon the clouds of Jehovah
To pervert the Divine voice in its entrance to the earth
With thunder of war & trumpets sound, with armies of disease
Punishments & deaths musterd & number’d; Saying I am God alone
There is no other! let all obey my principles of moral individuality (Milton 9.19-26)

My own guess is that Bryant’s intervention is to try and draw attention to the “mess” surrounding gay weddings, and the reference to “Jerusalem” is a spin to attract media coverage to the debate. In addition, I cannot help but suspect that the former priest is having a sly dig at his previous masters. The fury of opinion regarding homosexuality in the Anglican church is frequently astonishing to observe, often omitting any sense of Christian charity in their ferocity. Perhaps one day they will invoke their own Edward Gibbon to record this modern-day Arian controversy, where the angry denunciations over which orifice to enter stand in place of the violent conflict over which diphthong to use, homoousia or homoiousia.

Beyond this savage fracas, the national status of “Jerusalem” is also a reminder of the troubled position its writer has in relation to the Anglican, national church. Many articles repeat the Telegraph observation that some vicars regard it as a “song” rather than a “hymn”, downgrading its status as a clear inducement to remove it from the nave and vestry. Most famously in 2008, senior clergy banned “Jerusalem” from Southward Cathedral because it was “not to the glory of God” as reported in The Times. While that particular phrase seems preposterous, Tim Footman in The Guardian did make a pertinent observation at the time that the argument was much less to do with political correctness and much more to do with theology: Blake did, quite clearly, wish his work to redound to the glory of God – though it is rarely so clear that his God was the same as that worshiped in churches and Royal Weddings.

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