Saturday, July 28, 2012

A hymn nerd gets his "Glory to God" sampler

After a few bumps and missteps I've finally gotten a copy of the Sampler for Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal that I've been trying to get for a while now.  I took not just the required one, but both of the hymnology courses offered during my first ride through seminary (the one I mostly try to forget these days); I've off-and-on been a member of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (and I need to get back on again), I taught hymnology during my academic career (only once, mind you, but it counts), and as noted in earlier posts on this blog, I've dabbled in writing hymns here and there, as well as offering the occasional reflection on a hymn and its content.  With that in mind I feel relatively confident in labeling myself a hymn nerd.

I do so with all intentional use of the word "nerd," aware of its implications in not being one of the "cool kids" or "hip" or "contemporary" or whatever you choose.  I can't quite embrace a mode of worship (liturgical order or lack thereof as well as particular songs sung) that exerts a great deal of energy trying to make me feel like worshiping or like I have worshiped; better a mode of worship that will drag me into worship kicking and screaming, if need be, and will if need be put the words in my mouth that I'm not capable of coming up with on my own, and that (yes, I'm going there; deal with it) that will not ask me to check my brain at the door.  Whatever may be the case with such a mode of worship, as I can best grapple with it, it will include hymns and other varieties of service music.

With that in mind, I offer a totally uninformed, outsider's-point-of-view, knee-jerk response to the contents of this Sampler.  It is not at all professional or academic or any such thing, but merely a quick impulsive response which is meaningful to exactly one potential Presbyterian pastor.  Make of it what you will, including nothing at all if you choose.

One of the things I see that makes me happiest of all is that, if this Sampler is any indication, the hymnal will be a tool for many aspects of the church's life, teaching as well as worship.  Each hymn here is accompanied by the usual information about composer of tune, author of text, poetic meter, and so forth, but also includes a small note about the hymn, typically about its creation but potentially about its content.  For example, the note accompanying "Holy, Holy, Holy" notes that the imagery included in the hymn echoes Revelation 4:2-11; points out that the author, Anglican bishop Reginald Heber, would have known that text as a reading for Trinity Sunday; and also notes that the tune plays up the Trinitarian subject by emphatically spelling out the D-major triad in its first two measures (quick and dirty for the non-musically informed: when you sing "ho-ly, ho-ly, ho-ly," you're singing the notes D-F#-A, which is the major triad on the pitch D).  They aren't always great statements, mind you.  Still, anything that invites a fuller, more informed reflection upon the hymn is a good thing in my book.

The Sampler also indicates a greater emphasis or at least forwarding of service music, whether free-standing or included in service orders which will now appear in the hymnal.  Here it strikes me that the principal virtue is transparency.  The Sampler includes a Service for the Lord's Day and an order for Evening Prayer, which is suggested for retreats, small groups, individual or family prayer, or "at councils of the church (session or presbytery meetings, e.g.)."  It strikes me as a good idea to lay it all out on the table in a source that's consistently available to anybody who happens to show up.  If a given week at your church happens to deviate from that order, it's good that people can recognize that and have a basis for comparison, particularly if they're visitors to your church.  Is it necessarily an important thing?  I don't know, but I think it's a good thing.

As to the hymns chosen for sampling; we find out that "Holy, Holy, Holy" will in fact be the first hymn in the hymnal.  Was this a tradition in Presbyland before the "blue hymnal"?  I don't know, but I know it was extremely traditional in other denominations.  O.K., whatever.  The hymnal also appears to be chasing after an older/evangelical/? audience, so to speak, with a number of "gospel songs" rooted in the late nineteenth century either included or re-included in the book.  "I Love to Tell The Story" and "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms" represent the trend in the Sampler, and quite a few more show up in the complete list put out earlier this year.  I suppose I thought I was getting away from that when I became a Presbyterian, but again, whatever.

The globalization push continues, perhaps a little more broad than in the new hymnal.  Here I think the informational notes mentioned above might be the most helpful; knowing something about the song -- not just where it comes from, but why or how it came about -- may well be helpful in getting past the alienation some congregants might feel about hymns from the African continent  or Korea or wherever its source might be, and get on with the business of understanding and taking in what the hymn has to say.

"New traditional" hymnody is prominent, as far as I can see, in the Sampler, which makes sense.  (Mind you, 50% or more of the "blue hymnal" continues into the new book, so it's hardly a takeover.)  Clearly as someone who dabbles, I can't complain about new stuff.  To take one example, "For Everyone Born" is a new one to the Presbyterian hymnal at least, although Shirley Erena Murray should be counted as a well-established and respected hymn writer by now.  To my eyes it's a strong hymn, but I'm curious about how the tune is going to work in some congregations.  Mostly in 12/8 (with some 6/8 measures thrown in), the tune mostly lilts along in the 3+3+3+3 pattern typical of that meter; every now and then, though, the tune throws the singer a curveball by breaking into a (2+2+2)+3+3 or even 2+2+2+2+2+2 pattern momentarily.  By no means is that unsingable, but it will flummox a few congregations the first time they try it out.  Given enough repetitions that kind of thing eventually works; the question becomes how many chances will a congregation give a song like that?  It's tragic when a good hymn is defeated by an unworkable or unsuitable tune, as is likely the case with many of the hymns that didn't make the cut from the "blue hymnal" to the new one.

There are a couple of representatives of more contemporary song traditions.  Interestingly, the accompanying notes for "The Trumpets Sound, the Angels Sing," for example, probably are a little too apologetic or defensive: "Despite its new sound, the emphasis on Communion as a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet is a very traditional theme."  To me at least, that sounds like a fearful note.  Having already admitted to not being a fan of many contemporary modes of worship, I still would say that if you're going to include such songs (Contemporary Christian?  "Praise and worship"?  "Emergent"? I have no idea.  I can't keep up with the terminology anymore, and frankly that may be a better place to be in some ways.  But that's a separate blog entry), it's probably a self-defeating move to forward the idea that the song has a "new sound" before anyone's even had the chance to sing it.  The walls will go up for some folk before anybody even starts to play.  I suppose vice versa is also possible; some might decide it's the greatest thing since sliced bread before anybody even starts to play.  I'm not sure that's any better.  A similar linguistic feat is performed on "Men of Faith, Rise Up and Sing," something from an "English Christian rock and worship band" (is that the formula nowadays?  I feel old); "really, the words are o.k. even if the music is kinda scary" is about what the note boils down to in its content.

Still, on the whole, the Sampler seems to do well at getting this one potential Presbyterian pastor anticipating the whole book.  Emphasis on "book."  It will also be electronically available, of course.  And when we're content that our pastors and congregants should have the Bible available only in electronic form, I'll gladly consent to the hymnal being available only in electronic form.  It's not the Bible, no.  But a hymnal is, for good or ill, the most directly accessible distillation of the theology and convictions of its creators you will ever find.  Every family, every individual even, ought to have it at hand, not just in the pew on Sunday.  Much like the church's confessional statements, the procession of its hymnals speaks to the growth of that church and God's continuing movement within and through it.  The new hymnal should not look like the "blue hymnal," certainly not like the "red hymnal," and not like any other compilation of songs for congregational worship that has come before it.  A hymnal that looks too much like its predecessors is as good a sign of a stale or stagnating church as you will ever find (and a much better sign than any numbers game you want to play).

So, bring it on.  No such book is ever going to be perfect, not as long as human beings are involved.  Still, now I really want to see the whole book, which I suppose is the point of a sampler.

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