‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’ was written by John Newton, slave-ship captain turned Anglican clergyman, abolitionist, and hymnist (he was also the author of ‘Amazing grace! how sweet the sound’  and ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds’ ; see the notes for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost).
In its original publication, the hymn is entitled ‘The City of God’ (Isaiah 33.20–21 is inscribed above it; it begins by quoting Psalm 87; like the best hymns, it is completely drenched in Scripture), and it is clearly a depiction of heaven, and thus in a way of the Church and the Sacraments, through which we most fully experience heaven here and now.
Zion is, of course, the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem is built; the vision of the heavenly realm as a ‘New Jerusalem’ is prominent in the Hebrew prophets and in the Revelation to St John. We experience the ‘living waters’ – an image found all over the Scriptures which grew up in a desert land, from the rivers flowing from Eden (Genesis 2.6, 10–14) and from the Throne of God (Revelation 22.1–2; Ezekiel 47.1–12), to the water that flowed from the rock in the wilderness (Exodus 17.6; Psalm 78.20; Isaiah 48.21; I Corinthians 10.3–4), to Our Lord’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) and his invitation to the thirsty (John 7; cf. Isaiah 55.1) – in the Sacrament of Baptism. The manna (the substance sent by the Lord to feed the Israelites in the desert of the Exodus) is the Body of Christ made present in the bread of the Eucharist. And the Eucharist (which means ‘thanksgiving’) is indeed our thank-offering, which we, the ‘royal priesthood’ (see the notes for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost), bring before God. Even the pillars of cloud and fire signifying the presence, leadership, and protection of the Lord during the Exodus are present in the Church’s liturgy: for what else is the Paschal Candle and the smoke rising from it, or from the burning of incense?
This hymn is connected to Sunday’s Gospel by, among other ways, Newton’s description of Zion as being ‘on the Rock of Ages founded’, using the epithet for the Lord found in Isaiah 26.5. The Lord is the Rock; Christ is the Rock (I Corinthians 10.4) and Cornerstone (Psalm 118 and its many New Testament quotations); but in this Gospel we learn that Peter (Greek Petros, ‘rock’) and his recognition and confession of Jesus as the Messiah are also the rock upon which the Church is built. (Our postlude is a transcription of an anthem based on a chant for the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, ‘Tu es Petrus’ – ‘Thou art Peter…’, quoting this passage.)
Christ’s reply to Peter goes on to lay a heavy responsibility on the latter: ‘I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.’ This has been interpreted in various ways, often (in connection with John 20.23) in terms of power and authority, who wields it, and how. ‘Glorious things of thee are spoken’, through its many Scriptural sources, offers other insight by which we might see Christ’s words rather as a warning concerning our individual and corporate propensity to imprison, to enslave, to bind (both others and ourselves) by not forgiving, by building walls, by setting unreachable standards of purity, and as a challenge instead to unlock doors, tear down walls, open minds and hearts, reconcile, forgive, and free (both others and ourselves). For priests serve on behalf of not only themselves, but of the whole community, and an entire nation of priests must thus exist for the sake of the whole world. Ezekiel, who as noted above had a vision of a river flowing from the Temple, flanked by trees with leaves good for healing (the ‘healing of the nations’, says the similar Revelation 22.2), makes it clear that, when the land is restored and reapportioned, the aliens among the children of Israel will have a share in the inheritance (Ezekiel 47.21–23). Zechariah, who too had a vision of ‘living waters’ flowing out from Jerusalem (14.8), also saw that city so full that no wall, but only the fiery Glory of the Lord, could contain it (2.4–5). And the very Psalm (87) quoted at the beginning of our hymn (which Psalm ends with a reference to ‘fresh springs’) goes on to affirm that everyone – the surrounding and usually embattled nations included – is to be counted and enrolled as a citizen of the glorious and beloved city of Zion.