Hymnal Studies: Language Matters

The Once and Future Hymnal was the title of a conference I attended a few weeks ago at Virginia Theological Seminary. Though I don’t think there was any intention to make a connection with T.H. White’s fantasy novel about King Arthur, exploring human nature in connection with justice and power may well be a common theme between Episcopal hymnody and The Once and Future King. That would be something, however, to explore another day!

It was a privilege to step out of my routine and gather with colleagues from around the country, both clergy and musicians, to think about the Episcopal hymnal. Beyond privilege, it was a pleasure to hear from some of the original members of the planning committee for The Hymnal 1982, as well as from those who worked on the hymnals that have been put out more recently by the Presbyterian and Lutheran churches. The Reverend Frank Wade spoke to us about some of the changes the Episcopal Church has lived through since 1982, leaving it to the musicians in the room to figure out how those changes might have influenced what we sing.

The biggest take-away for me, and many that I talked to there, seemed to be an agreement that The Hymnal 1982 remains a valuable resource for the Episcopal Church, with gifts still to be explored by many churches. The hymnal’s General Editor, Ray Glover, established a guiding principle that “we should always be able to sing what we believe and believe what we sing.” That editorial committee, which worked for more than a decade, took some risks by including a few more experimental hymns, but, with rare exception, it is indeed a book which allows us to sing what we believe, even 35 years later.

This conference was a celebration of word more than of music, however. The Episcopal Church, we were reminded, prizes questions over answers, and language in the church is most valuable when it provides access to the mystery of faith, not answers. Church at its best gives us language to deal with uncertainty, and is likely one of the few places in our culture where mystery is valued.

One of the speakers, poet and hymn writer Susan Cherwien asks herself four questions as she is writing: Is it true? Is it beautiful? Is it excellent? Does it glorify God? What are we singing out into the world, she wonders. Is it about compassion, nobility, God’s beautiful creation? She cited scientific studies which found that the part of our brains connected to smell light up when we are simply reading about a scent. Other places in the brain connected to physical activity light up when reading about running. Language matters.

Language matters to the point that even a preposition can make all the difference. Frank Wade talked about the single resolution on diversity which came out of the 1976 General Convention. That resolution expressed the belief that the Episcopal Church should endeavor to minister more fully “to” people from diverse backgrounds. Oh my, how patronizing.

Carl Daw, Episcopal priest and acclaimed author of many hymn texts, warned about the dangers of using language as a weapon instead of a tool. Those times when words are used to diminish people, which can get into the tricky area of gender-based language…definitely a topic for another day. He mused, as well, on the word “Lord.” A troublesome word in today’s enlightened recognition of all the ways that patriarchal hierarchy has not served us well. He wishes we would look more deeply at our words and reclaim some of their original meanings. So many words fall into that category: Anglican, traditional, conservative…just to name a few. “Lord,” he told us, comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “loaf warden.” The keeper of the bread. One who provides.

We were cautioned about music’s ability to hide the venom inherent in some language. Frank Wade wonders why we sing some of the wrath-filled psalms that we do, without explaining them to our congregations. Good point. Singing a refined Anglican chant setting of Psalm 149:6-9 only serves to soften a harshness I don’t think we believe. Again, we should be able to sing what we believe, and believe what we sing.

This conference was a very preliminary conversation, one that simply wondered about all that goes into planning a new hymnal, without any intent to actually begin that planning. A new hymnal for the Episcopal Church is something, by the way, which can’t happen until there is a new Book of Common Prayer, and I suggest we not hold our collective breath waiting for that to happen.

Why have a hymnal at all? How about having iPads in the pews which can access whatever the clergy and church musicians find online to create a unique worship experience? I can think of several good reasons to have an real book. The tactile message of stability which a book conveys might be more important than ever in our quickly changing world. A body of hymnody which is shared across the broad spectrum of the Episcopal Church has the ability to bind us into a community as much as The Book of Common Prayer. A hymnal honors generations of thinking and leaves room for a current generation’s contribution to hymnody, becoming a repository of tradition in a way that connects past and future.

No editorial committee, however wise, is able to know what will last, of course, and determining the quality of a hymn’s tune or a text is largely subjective. Even so, what I hear again and again when I’ve asked people why they are drawn to the Episcopal Church, is that they fell in love with the beauty of the language which shapes our liturgy, whether spoken or sung. Language matters. Great hymns have great texts. Where else in today’s culture will we hear, say, and sing words which cause our minds, hearts, and spirits to soar?

Exhibit A: Hymnal 1982 #382, tune: General Seminary



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