Saturday, November 3, 2007

On making a hymnal

“We sing hymns.” This is probably the best short-hand description of the nature of gathered worship at College Church.

“What are your services like?” “We sing hymns.”

In our morning services we rarely sing congregational songs that do not somehow fit the description. Our evening services have a broader range, but it is a rare evening service that does not include at least one hymn –which we nearly always open the hymnal to sing. “We sing hymns.”

Even when the evening service is led by college or high school musicians, it includes hymns. Now, sometimes those hymns are the standard melodies with an eccentric accompaniment, pace, or harmonization. (“A mighty fortress” with guitar and djembe) Or they may be familiar old hymns with new melodies. (“O love that will not let me go” from the RUF hymnal) Or forgotten old hymns with new melodies that have brought them back to life. (“Before the throne of God above” from Sovereign Grace ministries) At College Church the music does not sound the same from room-to-room, but one thing unites it all: “We sing hymns.”

I have just spent a week out of my office, working on a hymnal to be printed and used at College Church. It is a project long in the making, and long overdue. Almost 4 years ago I disbanded the initial selection committee as I prepared to “complete” the work on my sabbatical. Three years ago I was on that sabbatical, the second half of which (Fall 2004) was pretty much given over to this project. The press of life and work being what it is, the project has moved along in fits and starts since then. This week it moved along significantly. Now if I can just keep it going when I’m back in the office!

Te decet hymnus exists, in part, as a vehicle for reflections on hymns, hymnists, and hymn-singing. It will also chronicle in some obscure fashion the completion of the College Church Hymnal. A few words here about that project.

College Church has used the excellent Hymns for the Living Church (HLC) since its publication in 1974. It is still quite useable, but I am convinced it cannot stay in print forever. (Sometimes I wonder if Hope Publishing Company keeps it in print just for us!) We regularly use about one-third of the selections in it; just under one-half of the selections have ever been sung in morning services. Why not buy a newer hymnal? Briefly:

Text changes – updates often change or obscure the author’s intent, the theology, or the poetry.

Archaism removal – changing Thee/Thy to You/Your often interferes with the poetry. Where a hymn’s language is simply too archaic, we are not retaining the hymn. Otherwise, we are respecting the poetry. (In the case of 19th century translations on non-English hymns, we are more free to make these changes or to find newer translations.)

Political correctness – in many instances it would not be unfair to say that when it comes to hymn-singing (as to theology generally) we do not give a fig for political correctness.

Inclusion of Praise & Worship songs – here is a category of perfectly acceptable congregational song that for the most part is too short-lived to justify putting them under hard covers. HLC may not have been the first to do this (“Pass it on” and “The New 23rd” are in it), but it is a case in point. Printed in 1974, certainly by 1980 congregations were not still singing these items.

Well, and I could say more. Come to think of it, I will say more, as time goes on. For now I will end with this caveat: Kids, don’t try this yourselves! If this project ever ends, it will be an exciting day. But that is one big IF. More on that later.

No comments: