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Enjoy highlights from our Faith & Moral Courage event series: read the speech by folk singer Sam Lee, delivered at St Ethelburga’s Bridging Divides, Loving Earth Conference. To watch the full speech and discover more content from Faith & Moral Courage event series, subscribe to our YouTube channel here.

The song “Awake, awake sweet England” has very curious origins in an ancient 16th century ballad from London. We don’t know who exactly wrote it but we do know that it was written in response to an earthquake that struck London. When it hit, the St Paul’s Cathedral spire collapsed. This was taken as a sign that things were not right and that we needed to return to prayer.

The song was sung and passed on, rarely written down, just handed from one generation to the next. Some of those songs flourished and proliferated across the British Isles and traveled to far-flung lands. Some of those songs were slowly forgotten, family by family, singer by singer, generation by generation.

“Awake, awake sweet England” was almost lost until 1967 when a woman called Esther Smith, a Romany gypsy singer in her caravan, was met by the folk song collector and composer Vaughan Williams. This incredible encounter marked the moment when that song was heard and taken out of the oral tradition, noted down and remembered. Esther was the last singer to remember this song. She was the endling carrier of that song. You might recognise the tune because Bob Williams appropriated that tune for the hymn “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. When he rewrote the book of hymns, he borrowed a lot of the great folk song melodies and reinvigorated the hymn tradition.

These old folk songs are so powerful in my journey as a song collector in the footsteps of Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharp, Maud Carpes, Lucy Baldwood and some of the great collectors of song. For me, it’s been a pursuit of reclaiming the songs that kept us connected. They were our sacred verses, secular in their way, but in many ways our devotional songs that recognised the power of nature to connect us to something ancient and necessary within our lives. These songs sing of the ecologies of this land that connect us to other lands, birds that migrate, bring stories to us and hold within their songs a sense of continuity, a sense of devotionality, a sense of wellbeing and a sense of good times yet to come.

These songs that come from our ancestors hold in them a key to what is to come and what we need to protect and pay attention to in ourselves. These folk songs were held as mantras, repetitively sung night after night, long after the nightingale and the turtle dove had stopped singing. These songs were a way of remembering what is important and what we have to give thanks for in the dark times. Will we be singing in troubled times to come? When the climate crisis and ecological crisis becomes fully present as it is becoming, what will we respond to through our mercy? I feel folk songs are our key to remembering what is important.

These are the songs that we need to remember because they have been our spouse, our stewards and resilience in the troubled times that we as a species have continuously endured. Old songs and new songs are our way of calling an irresistible sense of a better path, a more ecologically-minded and a more community-minded way. These are all songs that have come from the community. They have been shaped as they’ve passed down through the ages. Songs that have been evolved to sit within the circle, the gatherings, as the tellers of who we are and why we’re here.

Why faith and moral courage? 

This content is a segment of an extensive event series exploring what faith and moral courage look like in an age of polycrisis. Where does extraordinary courage come from? What can we learn from people who’ve risked everything to live up to their values? What forms of courage are especially needed in our age of unravelling, uncertainty and risk? How can we inspire ourselves and each other to grow our capacity to brave our limits? Are there insights from the world’s spiritual and faith traditions that can help us grow our courage?

Chen has a background in art history and the creative industries. She supports the Faith and Moral Courage project, Contemplative Practice event series, and various creative endeavours at St Ethelburga's. Along with her regular meditation practice, Chen enjoys exploring different contemplative practices and experiences. When she is not on her yoga mat, she can usually be found in the kitchen, experimenting with culinary art and completely immersed in the mesmerising sound of Sanskrit.