Canticles: songs of the church | Part 6: A Song of the Heavenly City

people streaming onto Millennium Bridge in London, St Paul's cathedral in background


Portrait photo of Ian Adams

Over two millennia the Christ story has been prayed, lived and shared by a huge variety of people in different contexts, shaping the mission of the church. One brilliant repository of this experience lies in the collection of texts we know as canticles that emerged from some of the earliest songs of the church.

These songs have been sung in times of plenty and in times of need, in times of joy and in times of persecution. Grounded in Scripture and shaped by experience, they offer gifts to us now as we seek to live and share the Jesus Way.

What might happen if we begin to speak or sing these canticles again? How might we be changed if we allow them to seep into us? This series in The Call continues by exploring the canticle A Song of the Heavenly City, inspired by Revelation 21–22. The photo was taken on a sunny winter’s day in London pre-Covid-19.

A Song of the Heavenly City

1  I saw no temple in the city,
for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

2 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, 
for the glory of God is its light,
and its lamp is the Lamb.

3    By its light the nations shall walk,  
and the rulers of the earth shall bring their glory into it.

4    Its gates shall never be shut by day, nor shall there be any night;  
they shall bring into it the glory and honour of the nations.

5    I saw the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,
flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb.

6    And either side of the river stood the tree of life, yielding its fruit each month, 
and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

7    The throne of God and of the Lamb shall be there, and his servants shall worship him;
and they shall see his face and his name shall be on their foreheads. *

This canticle is a song of imagination and mission. It calls us to reimagine our contexts in the light of Jesus’ liberating mission. The challenge of this canticle is to see this act of imagination not just as a future dream, but as a current possibility.

The opening lines bring strange encouragement. If in many places we see the apparent receding of visible church life, we are also invited to see something else. Namely that the temple – think of the visible church – is in fact the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb (note that mix of strength and humility). Not a building, as helpful as that can be. Not even a people, as vital as they are. But the Lord who will provide all the Light that a place needs.

This revelation of God’s presence at the heart of every place sets the tone for the rest of the canticle. It invites us to reimagine what we see in that Light, encouraging us to see how the mission of God is already underway, wherever we are. Even where I am, even where you are!

It encourages us to ask a series of imaginative questions:

  1. What might it take for people to once again walk here without night fears?
  2. How might the barred shutters and closed doors of this street be reopened?
  3. Can you recognise the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, that is flowing here?
  4. What might be the tree of life already growing in this place?
  5. Can you taste the fruit that will grow here?
  6. What is the healing that is needed here, for which the tree’s leaves will both flourish and fall?
  7. How might barriers of nation, ethnicity, gender and other perceived difference begin to break down?

The canticle ends not with a temple but with a throne. And a relationship. With God, and with God’s people, connected in intimacy and devotion: and they shall see his face and his name shall be on their foreheads.

We, and all the people around us, carry “names” around with us. Usually invisible, but there all the same. The names are our fears and our losses, our hopes and our desires. One day the only name we will need is his name.

The Song of the Heavenly City is an invitation into a radical new way of seeing. This will not be easy. The way things are can often feel like the way things will always be. But the canticle invites us to imagine another possibility, one that will enable our participation in a mission that is already, gloriously, underway.


You can do this exercise on your own, but it can be particularly insightful to do it prayerfully with others. Walk the streets of your village, town or city together. Take photos. Try to see the place with love. Look for the good, but don’t hide whatever is discouraging. Print the photos onto large sheets of paper. Take a prayerful pause. When the time is right, start to write phrases or lines from the canticle around the photos. Reflect prayerfully on what, in God’s grace, this exercise may be revealing to you.

To the One who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might, for ever and ever. Amen.

*Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England © The Archbishops’ Council 2000 and published by Church House Publishing

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