We used an alternative rendering of Once in Royal David’s City this morning, one of my favourites from the Iona Community. The new version, written by John Bell and Graham Maule in 1987, deconstruct the sentimentalism and triumphalism embedded in the original nineteenth century lyrics by Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander. The original was published in Cecil’s 1948 book, Hymns for Little Children.
Cecil Alexander’s Verse One
Once in royal Davids city,
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby,
In a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ, her little Child.
Iona Community’s Verse One
Once in Judah’s least known city
Stood a boarding house with back-door shed,
Where an almost single-parent mother
Tried to find her new born son a bed.
Mary’s mum and dad went wild
When they heard their daughter had a child.
Words Â© 1987, 1997 WGRG, Iona Community, Glasgow G2 3DH, Scotland.
As can be expected, some of the congregation were delighted with the fresh and realistic approach to the Christmas story, while others were offended at the departure from reverence and poetry they’d learned to associate with Sunday morning worship. I would not suggest using this approach with all our Christmas carols. But it does open our eyes to the nineteenth century perceptions that filter through into our 21st century expressions.
The song, by the way, is available in Heaven Shall Not Wait, a book, CD from Iona Community.