Bishop Peggy Johnson offers in her Bishop's Blog some background about a favorite hymn that speaks of saints departed but still watching over us, praying for the unity of their beloved, though beleaguered church.
Anglican priest, Rev. Samuel J. Stone penned the words to the beloved hymn: “The Church’s One Foundation” in 1866. (Book of Hymns #545) According to Warren Shiver, author of Stories behind the Hymns, it was written as a call to unity in the church during a time of controversy.
South African Bishop John William Colenso (1814–1883, first Church of England Bishop of Natal, mathematician, theologian, Biblical scholar and social activist) had contended that the Bible was a myth. He was deposed for heresy, then later reinstated; but all the while there was deep division in the South African Church about these issues.
Rev. Stone writes: “Though with a scornful wonder we see her (the church) sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.”
This humble parish priest was passionate about the church remaining unified as a body here on earth even in the midst of controversy. In his hymn he connected the church of the living with the church triumphant.
The saints in heaven are depicted as those who are encouraging the church by keeping watch and praying as the divisions raged on below. This imagery can be helpful for us today as we struggle with disagreements over Disciplinary paragraphs.
Another of Stone’s passions was to teach the church the meaning of the Apostle’s Creed. According to Warren Shiver, he wrote a series of twelve hymns that explain the theology of the creed. “The Church’s One Foundation” was the ninth in the series that taught about the holy, catholic (universal) church and the communion of the saints.
My favorite line in the hymn speaks of that “mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” As I reflect on the passing of my parents this past year and I anticipate “All Saints Day” this week it is comforting to remember that sweet communion, that unexplainable fellowship with the “great cloud of witnesses” above (Hebrews 12:1) who, even in glory, are cheering us on.
We should remember that the saints who lived before us faced theological controversy and suffered persecution and even death for the cause of Christ. It is our turn to take up the mantle and continue the ministry of Jesus in this present age.
When our way forward is not clear, the sound and fury of contention can be deafening, and our ministry can get stalled at times. As Christians debate each other, what a comfort it is to know that “the great church victorious shall be the church at rest” someday.
We will one day enjoy reunion with those saints who pray for our reunion here and now. And best of all, we will have “union with God, the Three in One,” our one true foundation who supplies our every need.