PAM’S THOUGHTS ON THE HYMN TEXT
As Matthew tells it at the very end of his book, after Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” encountered the risen Jesus on Easter morning, they ran to tell the disciples. Astonished, the men made their way up a mountain in Galilee, where Jesus gave them the Great Commission — to spread his teachings to all the nations.
In 1978, British-American Jeffery Rowthorn wrote a hymn text to fit the tune ABBOT’S LEIGH — “LORD, YOU GIVE THE GREAT COMMISSION.” The words make clear that the mission of the church is to build a just society, one of mercy and love. Each of the five verses ends with the prayer, “With the Spirit’s gifts empower us / For the work of ministry.”
GREAT COMMISSION + GREAT COMMANDMENT
As I write this, U.S. citizens are preparing for another election deemed “crucial.” Once again, Christians seem to be split between those who stress the Great Commission (to evangelize — make disciples, baptize, preach) and those who emphasize the Great Commandment (to serve — love God and love your neighbor as yourself). Our attitude about these two strongly influences our faith perspective.
In a magazine interview (linked below), Dr. Diana Butler Bass, scholar of American religion and a leading voice for progressive Christianity, explained the problem of excluding one or the other:
The Great Commission without the Great Command is intolerance, militarism, and crusades. The Great Command to love God and love your neighbor, without the Great Commission, on the other hand, can wind up being kind of self-centered, but at least it’s a loving, isolated reality.
Bishop Jeffery Rowthorn neatly folds the commandment into the commission in this hymn text, written expressly for the tune ABBOT’S LEIGH. Born in Wales in 1934, Rowthorn studied at Cambridge, Oxford, and Union Theological Seminary, served as both priest and professor on both sides of the Atlantic, and was a founding faculty member of the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale in 1973. He was named Bishop in Charge of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe in 1994.
DEANNA’S NOTES ON THE HYMN TUNE
British composer and Anglican priest Cyril Taylor (1907-1991) wrote the tune ABBOT’S LEIGH in 1941 during World War II. Taylor was working at the time as the BBC’s producer of religious broadcasting. “Abbot’s Leigh” is the name of a village near Bristol where the BBC was based during the war.
While “Lord, You Give the Great Commission” is a much-loved text paired with ABBOT’S LEIGH, the reason that the tune came into being had its roots in another text, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.” Apparently the BBC was receiving complaints during the war regarding its broadcasting “Glorious Things” as sung to the tune AUSTRIA (the melody of the Austrian national anthem). Taylor penned ABBOT’S LEIGH to be an alternative tune to be sung with “Glorious Things.”
ABBOT’S LEIGH first appeared in several early hymnals from the 1950s, including the BBC Hymn Book (the BBC has a hymn book! This is cool!). This hymn tune is a 20th century staple in many modern hymnals. It’s also the only non-public domain tune on my trio recording, Makes the Heart to Sing: Jazz Hymns.
TO GO DEEPER
Words and music on the Hymnary website
“Hopeful Discontent: Tracing Spirituality in Christian History with Diana Butler Bass” Interview with Joelle Chase, Spectrum Magazine, September, 2014
A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story by Diana Butler Bass, HarperCollins, 2009. My favorite of Bass’s books, this is the story of our faith told in the same spirit as Howard Zinn’s 1980 classic text The People’s History of the United States.