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Hallo again to all.

We've no idea why the rather grim first line of a lesser Wordsworth ode stuck in our heads this week. It's associated with no hymn tune that we know of and it certainly wasn't a schoolroom must-memorise poem. But however it came, there it stayed: 'Stern daughter of the Voice of God! O Duty!'

O Duty. Is there any word that once loomed so large in sermons, hymns, and poems that has now so fallen out of favour? No matter which corner the Victorians rounded, there it loomed. A quick romp through some of the task list:

Where duty calls or danger, be never wanting there.
Awake, my soul, and with the sun, Thy daily stage of duty run
Very meet, right, and our bounden duty
England expects that every man will do his duty.
While we in sleep our duty have forgot
A daughter's duty

Such a hard, seemingly Anglo-Saxon word in fact has its origins in old French, and it originally implied the obligation of a lesser ranking person to a superior. The word soon took on wider connotations, coming to mean what we think now: 'An act, that is due in the way of moral or legal obligation; that which one ought or is bound to do; an obligation' (Oxford English Dictionary). If the Victorians tripped over the word, we can scarcely find it outside prayer books and the Bible.

If the word itself has disappeared from popular use in the church, what of the concept behind it? Rough synonyms — say, obligations and responsibilities — are still with us, but used in less exalted ways: an obligation to support the parish jumble sale, a responsibility to serve as churchwarden, an obligation to pay taxes... The word 'duty', it seems to us, was once used to stir the heart. To spur the languid. To get one up and going when nothing else served. To call; and often duty 'called'. Whatever responsibilities and obligations suggest, they don't energise us in the way duty can. So call us old-fashioned.

Of course duty, like love, can be debased. It can become patronising and promote self-righteousness. And even funny in its manifestations:

Lady Carbury always went to church when she was in the country, never when she was at home in London. It was one of those moral habits, like early dinners and long walks, which suited country life. And she fancied that were she not to do so, the bishop would be sure to know it and would be displeased. She liked the bishop. She liked the bishops generally; and was aware that it was a woman's duty to sacrifice herself for society. [Trollope, The Way We Live Now]

Despite the Lady Carburys then and now, in 'duty' we find a resonance and a depth lacking in 'responsibility'. Duty seems to embody love in its active, love-thy-neighbour form. When not catalysed by the personal and the passionate, perhaps love can channel itself into another active incarnation, that of duty. And if so, why have we let that word slip out of our churches and our lives, leaving it now to be found only in 'tour of duty' and 'duty-free zone'?

At its best, surely duty could be love's impersonal walk through this messy world. And if love and duty can sometimes conflict, we suspect it's not a conflict of opposites necessarily, but rather an internecine battle between differing degrees and kinds of love, whose claims and demands can be nearly equal.

See you next week, out of love and duty...

Brian Reid's signature
Cynthia McFarland
Brian Reid

Last updated: 27 October 2002

©2002 The Society of Archbishop Justus, Ltd