What’s in your hymnal?

There is an article over at Challies Press that piqued my interest this morning, and I’m glad it did. You should read the article in its entirety, but I’ll include some excerpts here.

I don’t exist in a tradition that has abandoned the use of the hymnal. The Anglican choral tradition, and the musical tradition of the western church in general is part of our tradition. Do I object to the way that “Christian music” has developed over the last few decades? Vehemently so. This article makes a number of good points. For example:

We lost an established body of songs. Hymnals communicated that a church had an established collection of songs. This, in turn, communicated that its songs were vetted carefully and added to its repertoire only after careful consideration. After all, great songs are not written every day and their worth is proven only over time. Therefore, new hymns would be chosen carefully and added to new editions of the hymnal only occasionally. Churches would update their hymnals, and, therefore, their established body of songs, only once every ten or fifteen years.

We lost a deep knowledge of our songs. When we removed the hymnal, we gained the ability to add new songs to our repertoire whenever we encounter one we deem worthy. And we do—we add new songs all the time. As we add new songs with greater regularity, we sing old songs with less frequency. This reduces our familiarity with our songs so that today we have far fewer of them fixed in our minds and hearts. Few congregations could sing even the greatest hymns without that PowerPoint screen.

In an age where wishy washy music and even wishy washier theology is rampant, this makes complete and total sense. Not to mention, if you have an established body of hymnody, you learn it better because there is less to learn.

On top of that, as an Anglican (this obviously doesn’t apply in the author’s generic protestant context) I can go to any parish with a 1940 hymnal (1982 in the Episcopal Church and part of ACNA) and and use the same body of hymnody. (There’s also a lot of overlap between the 1940/1982/New English Hymnal.)

We lost the ability to sing skillfully. As congregations have lost their knowledge of their songs, they have lost the ability to sing them well. We tend to compensate for our poorly-sung songs by cranking up the volume of the musical accompaniment. The loss of the voice has given rise to the gain of the amplifier. This leads to our music being dominated by a few instrumentalists and perhaps a pair of miced-up vocalists while the larger congregation plays only a meager role. In fact, it often seems like all we want from the congregation is their enthusiasm.

We lost the ability to have the songs in our homes. Hymnals usually lived at the church, resting from Monday to Saturday in the little pockets on the back of the pews. But people also bought their own and took them home so the family could have that established body of songs there as well. Families would often sing together as part of their family worship. It is easy to imagine a family singing “It Is Well With My Soul” after eating dinner together, but almost impossible to imagine them singing, “Oceans.”

I won’t argue that every Christian must have the ability to sing every piece of music. The mass settings of Palestrina, Josquin des Prez, Tallis, Byrd, and others are not ones that your average Christian knows how to sing. That is ok. But the hymnal gives music that can be sung by the average Christian to the average Christian. It puts music literally in their hands, in front of their eyes and gives congregations a musical repertoire that they can sing.

One of my major issues with “contemporary christian music,” besides the fact that it is so 1970s, is that it takes the church’s music away from the church. Yes. See the point before this one, where it says, “This leads to our music being dominated by a few instrumentalists and perhaps a pair of miced-up vocalists while the larger congregation plays only a meager role.” Yes. The Great Tradition does not belong to any single person. It belongs to the One Body of Christ, to the totality of that body. It belongs to all of us, to the entire Communion of Saints, which doesn’t begin or end with anyone currently alive.

I found this graphic on Facebook a while back. It makes a good point:


Morbid? Perhaps. But we will all die, and who wouldn’t prefer the songs of the church over whatever a record label thinks will be hot next year?


Disclosure: Amazon links in this post are Amazon Affiliate links, and I earn a percentage if you purchase the linked item. 


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