Monday, November 19, 2007

On making a hymnal, 2

Some more thoughts on why to create a hymnal for a local church:

Theological unity As we are not a denominational church, there is not an official hymnal with distinctly theological, liturgical, historical and practical decisions already worked out. Sure, we could buy into a denomination’s hymnal, but then we would be in the same place as we are with generic hymnals – choosing or ignoring hymns based on their theological appropriateness for our particular setting.

Open the book and sing What if we had a hymnal that you just knew any item in it was apt for this congregation’s history and theology, useful in its regular and seasonal services, and worked in our liturgical structure? Further, what if you could be confident that a person using the hymnal devotionally would not be confused or led astray theologically? Wouldn’t that be great?

A mix of old and new Respecting the old in its given form (I wrote about this previously), without the kind of changes that come from the impatience or arrogance of the present. Embracing the new, especially those hymns that speak freshly in language not likely to be quickly dated. It is amazing to me how many of the old hymn writers (from the work of Newton, Watts, and Wesley, for example) still “speak” today, because their language was fairly simple and straight-forward. Living hymn writers who do the same, and who do not spend a lot of energy bringing contemporary “issues” into their work, will likewise last. Oh, for a book that brings the generations together!

There is of course room for adjustment in regard to the older hymns:

  • Some archaisms might well be changed without harming the poetry or changing the meaning. Why lose an otherwise perfectly good hymn because one word (let’s say it is “fain”) is simply no longer in use, even among English literature scholars?
  • Some – perhaps many – of the 19th century translations into English from German, Latin, even Greek hymns, can stand to be re-done. Isn’t it time for poets and linguists to re-visit powerful non-English texts, and to rescue them for today’s English-speaking congregation.

And there is a risk worth taking on newer hymns. We simply do not know which hymns we could be disappointed with, tired of, or even embarrassed by in a decade. We can make some very well informed judgments. But we cannot know if a new hymn will stand the test of time. It is, after all, “the test of time.” But the risk is worth taking. The beauty of making a local hymnal is that it can be edited, changed, enlarged or abridged in subsequent printings.

Finally, a word about why a hymnal and not a worship book or Psalter:

  • As for a “worship book” – by which I mean a book guiding the congregation through the liturgy of the church especially as expressed musically … well, we’re just not that kind of liturgy here. The book will include Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, a couple of the documents of the church, and Doxologies.
  • In my dreams (well, now my nightmares) there will be a 2nd edition, and it will include a full Psalter. But at present this congregation does not sing the Psalms with any consistent intentionality. (As the music pastor, I acknowledge that this is a self-condemnatory statement.) Better for now to keep this more limited and direct (and get it done), to lead the congregation to become a Psalm-singing community, and to add the Psalms to our next edition.

"Our next edition." Well, let’s get this one done first …

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