Fighting the good fight

Is it plagiarism if you steal from yourself?

And Episcopalians are nothing if not predictable, thanks to our centuries-old worship traditions and the Revised Common Lectionary.

I do faithfully read said lectionary when planning liturgical music, and I make a conscious effort to balance incorporating new things for our choirs with repeating the traditional old Anglican favorites.

However, this week I seem to have failed – or triumphantly succeeded, depending upon your perspective.

This Sunday’s anthem (Sept. 29) is the exact same one I chose for these exact same lectionary readings on the exact same Sunday of our three-year common lectionary exactly three years ago.

All week I have been pondering about what new to say about Paul discussions of “fighting the good fight” in the book of First Timothy. Indeed, we know that the writings in First and Second Timothy are traditionally attributed to St. Paul.

Whilst pondering the good fight, and wondering what I have already said in this blog about a favorite composer John Gardiner, I found these already-written words:

Fighting the good fight of faith has always been tricky amongst Christians.

(Jackpot!)

Some of us are happy to fight the good fight, sing the hymn “Onward Christian soldiers,” and move on down the road. And some of us have difficulty with any references of fighting the good fight, conducting holy wars, and all other militaristic images in scripture and worship.

I suppose I fall into both camps, willing to fight the good fight of faith but also squirming a little when militaristic things wander into the Church. The perfect Anglican/Episcopalian via media response, yes?

This Sunday’s reading from First Timothy is one I remember asking my grandmother about as a child. She read the Bible each morning and prayed long prayers each night, and at her in-town house and her lake house, we had a big children’s book of Bible stories from which she would read to me each night that I spent at her house.

One of my favorite stories was about Paul and Silas singing in jail. I also remember asking her about the meaning of “fighting the good fight?” Why should followers of Jesus have to fight?

Of course, we are not really fighting nor does life have to be a race all the time. I remember her explanations: fighting the good fight is doing the right thing and standing up for what you believe, while finishing the race is living a good and full life right up to the end. These explanations seemed to satisfy my eager childhood mind.

So, with a non-literal grain of salt, we sing this great text of the Church, “Fight the good fight with all thy might,” as the 10:30 Offertory anthem this Sunday. Irish Anglican priest John S. B. Monsell (1811-1875) was a prolific hymnist; he wrote eleven published volumes of poetry and about 300 hymn texts.

This significant, time-tested text is set to two separate hymn tunes in The Hymnal 1982, Hymn 552 and Hymn 553. The anthem setting for this Sunday is by John Gardner, CBE (1917-2011) who is probably most famous in sacred music for his setting of “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,” which our parish choirs often sing at Christmas.

Gardner’s “Fight the good fight” is a rousing rhythmic treatment of this text; indeed, in a wonderful way, the rhythm of the accompaniment does not have much to do with the sung rhythms. Listen for the complete departure and rhythmic change for the text, “Cast care aside, lean on thy guide…Christ is its life, and Christ its love.”

Listen to The National Youth Choir of Scotland sing “Fight the good fight,” accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra here.

Learn more about John Gardner’s life and numerous compositions here.

Photo Credit: altar piece depicting St. Michael the Archangel slaying the dragon, by Netherlandish painter Gerard David (c.1460-1523), public domain.

Posted by Dr. David Ouzts at 11:24 AM
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