The Meaning Of Meaning

This morning I read an article by The Telegraph under the headline "Centuries of Christian anti-Semitism led to Holocaust, landmark Church of England report concludes". The article is about a newly published report by the Church of England's Faith and Order Commission. The report's official title is "God’s Unfailing Word: Theological and Practical Perspectives on Christian–Jewish Relations". (As I write, the Telegraph article bears the typo "God’s Unfailing World" which will hopefully be corrected at some point.) What particularly piqued my interest was the following section of the article which appears to cast doubt over a hymn that I dearly love. The article says:

It also suggested that popular hymns which are interpreted in a way to “convey the teaching of contempt” of Jews for killing Jesus should be banned and “no longer be sung in public worship”.
The report offered the example of Charles Wesley’s well-known hymn, ‘Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending’:
“Every eye shall now behold him/ Robed in dreadful majesty;/ Those who set at nought and sold him,/ Pierced and nailed him to the tree,/ Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,/ Shall the true Messiah see.”

“It is possible to read lines 3-6 and imagine they are about the Jewish people as collectively guilty of crucifying the Messiah,” the report notes, “who when he comes again in power and glory recognise - too late? - the terrible crime they have committed.

So I went to read what was actually said. The C of E report in fact went on to say that there are other ways to read those lines which are not anti-Semitic at all. However, it suggested changing "Those who" to "We who" or that "a brief comment from the officiant might help to remove any doubt."

If that's the best example they have to demonstrate their point, then I wonder just how significant their point is. Another of Charles Wesley's hymns "Almighty God of Love" is cited in a footnote as an example of Christian Zionism. Perhaps Mr Wesley was one of a very rare breed - an anti-Semitic Zionist. Or perhaps it is simply that today's context and sensibilities are being read into words written in a different era and context.

Many churches who today sing Charles Wesley's "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending" also sing Stuart Townend's "How deep the Father’s love for us". I am delighted that we are one such church.

Behold the man upon a cross
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held Him there
Until it was accomplished;
His dying breath has brought me life –
I know that it is finished.

While we do need to be careful about our language as we proclaim the whole counsel of God and about words we use in worship, there will always be those who misinterpret what we say for their own ends. They do it with the Bible. "After all, there is not a heretic in the history of the church who has not claimed to be simply believing what the Bible says, or who has not quoted biblical texts by the score to justify his position." (Carl R. Trueman, "The Wages of Spin" p76-77).