By Mark Michael

A symposium at Virginia Theological Seminary, “The Once and Future Hymnal,” celebrated the 1982 Hymnal and discussed possible directions for its revision. The event, sponsored by the seminary’s Center for Liturgy and Music on Oct. 23-24, gathered dozens of scholars, musicians, and clergy from around the country. Speakers sang the praises of the current hymnal and sounded a rather hesitant note about the prospects for a new one.

“As the Episcopal Church looks toward prayer book and hymnal revision — do we? or don’t we?” said Ellen Johnston, the center’s director and a member of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music. “I was especially taken with the presentations of the Rev. Martin Seltz of the [Evangelical Lutheran Church in America] and David Eicher of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Hearing about their processes of hymnal revision opened my eyes to the many facets of this work.”

Episcopal speakers at the symposium most often expressed concerns about the time costs and difficulty of finding consensus that would attend a comprehensive hymnal revision.

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The discussion echoed the standing committee’s 2012 Hymnal Revision Feasibility Study [PDF], which discouraged proceeding with hymnal revision, especially amid strong opposition to revision among the laity and those younger than 29. In the symposium’s closing sessions, several speakers joked about a new hymnal being as yet “a glimmer in the eye” of the Episcopal Church.

The symposium was a companion to a similar event about prayer book revision held earlier in October at the University of the South’s School of Theology. Both events are part of a conversation across the Episcopal Church in response to the 2015 General Convention’s direction that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music prepare a plan for prayer book and hymnal revision.

The VTS gathering opened with presentations that traced the revisions leading to Hymnal 1982. Former music professor James Litton, who served on the former Hymnal Revision Committee from 1966 to 1982, described a painstaking process of text and musical editing, with thorough vetting of hymn selections by clergy and musicians.

The revisers, he said, were “living at a time of hymn explosion,” and could draw on compelling new texts by Fred Pratt Green and Carl Daw, as well as a distinctive genre of unison “art song” hymn tunes, especially associated with American composers David Hurd and Calvin Hampton. He suggested that a new hymnal should not be prepared until after the prayer book has been revised, because “the hymnal is really the companion to the Book of Common Prayer.”

The Rev. William Bradley Roberts, professor of church music at VTS, celebrated further achievements of the 1982 Hymnal in a lecture interspersed with vigorous hymn-singing. Roberts said the Hymnal 1982 significantly expanded the number of plainsong, American folk hymns, and African American spirituals being sung in Episcopal churches, with a few forays into Latino, African, and Native American hymnody. Ray Glover, the revision committee’s chairman, told Roberts that his great regret was that the hymnal did not include more Spanish-language hymns.

Marilyn Haskel, formerly of Church Publishing, reviewed a series of supplements that followed the hymnal. Aiming especially at expanding the use of inclusive language and introducing hymn texts in other languages, the supplements were intended to be temporary and experimental, an opportunity to “take risks and see what works,” she said.

While earlier supplements like Wonder, Love and Praise (1997) were authorized by General Convention, Haskel said Church Publishing assumed direct responsibility for later ones. The period of experimentation overlapped with what Haskel called “the Age of Congregational Musical Diversity,” as the 1991 General Convention permitted the use of “great diversity of musical styles” to address the church’s evangelistic needs, a decision that “opened the door to less musical oversight in the Episcopal Church.”

Seltz and Eicher discussed the ELCA’s Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006) and the PCUSA’s Glory to God (2013). Both men played coordinating roles for their church’s revisions. Both hymnals focused intensively on introducing texts that are “expansive with respect to God and inclusive with respect to people,” though Seltz said that the Lutheran hymnal also attended to the integrity of texts that are “in the repertoire of memory.”

The new hymnals also use texts and tunes from a wide variety of cultures, though Seltz said that in the case of Evangelical Lutheran Worship, this “reflects the diversity that a big umbrella denomination like the ELCA wishes to see in itself, to which it aspires. … It is what we would like to be, not what we really are.”

Seltz noted that Evangelical Lutheran Worship required six years of work. “We could have used more time, twice the amount of time for communal reflection.”

The Rev. Frank Wade, VTS’s interim associate dean of students and a delegate to 12 General Conventions, offered a keynote address about changes in the church’s cultural standing since 1983.

Wade’s talk was an affectionate but occasionally bracing critique of the Episcopal Church’s seeming loss of direction and inability to speak to “a world becoming more and more uncertain.” He suggested that the church’s enthusiasm for diversity ignores “an utter and complete failure in theological diversity.”

Wade also said that Episcopalians often exaggerate the church’s influence during the Civil Rights era, when “Episcopalians were well-represented on both sides of the Edmund Pettus Bridge.” Noting that in recent decades the Episcopal Church has focused intensely on the immanence of God, he suggested a change in direction might be needed: “I would wonder how to emphasize the transcendent — that we claim this lest we forget it while the world is forgetting.”

He said the church’s 1976 decisions to revise the Book of Common Prayer and to ordain women to the priesthood in 1979 brought profound and unsettling change. While stressing that he supported these decisions then and now, Wade counted their costs.

“We made some profound changes, and with that comes this implication: we can rethink this stuff. Very few things in our structure, very few things in our common life, are now fixed. If you can change the concept of ministry to include the ordination of women and to center it in baptism instead of ordination, you can do almost anything. You can make almost any kind of change. And so, with the uncertainties that live with us in the world around us, there is the uncertainty to change almost anything we leaned against as a church, almost anything that holds us up. That’s an uncertainty in some minds. It’s a freedom in others.”

The Rev. A. Katherine Grieb, the seminary’s Meade Professor of Biblical Interpretation, offered a similar review of theological changes. Grieb traced 35 years of shifts in theology, some of which affect hymn texts. A whole range of contextual theologies have arisen, she said, leading to “huge arguments about how to name God or whether to name God.”

Christian-Jewish relations have developed considerably, as global Christian leaders have expressed remorse for Church complicity in the Holocaust. Episcopalians, Grieb said, may need to reexamine the texts of popular hymns like “My Song Is Love Unknown” and “Lord of the Dance,” which engage in stereotypes about Jews in Jesus’ time.

She suggested that new texts are needed to address contemporary pastoral realities, like the suffering of immigrants and the need for reconciliation created by conflict across the Anglican Communion.

Grieb concluded with a consideration of the attacks on traditional sacrificial atonement theology posed by some contemporary theologians. While she is deeply concerned about the glamorization of violence in contemporary culture, a sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death is rooted in the New Testament. The topic, Grieb said, is “left hanging unresolved in theological discussions.”

Carl MaultsBy, an Episcopalian and composer of African American hymns, discussed a marked tendency toward mixing styles such as hip-hop into worship music.

Andrew Sheranian, who at 37 appeared to be the youngest speaker by a decade or two, stood out as the only representative from a congregation that still uses the 1940 Hymnal. He described an engaging choral program and a devoted hymn study group at All Saints, Ashmont, in Boston, a predominantly Afro-Caribbean and Anglo-Catholic congregation that he serves as choirmaster.

Despite other speakers’ remarks about exhaustive consultation for the 1982 Hymnal, Sheranian hears “stories of pain, very often,” he said. “Even in our desire to be inclusive with language and diverse in musical styles, the way this is perceived by people in choirs and congregations is as exclusion.”

Keith Tan, music minister at Christ Church in Glen Allen, Virginia, made a strong appeal for deeper engagement with contemporary Christian music within the Episcopal Church. His parish uses praise and worship music extensively because its leaders believe “the worship style should be indigenous to the congregation’s culture.”

Citing a recent Nielsen Music Report that ranked classical music as the least popular of ten genres, Tan challenged his largely traditionalist audience: “Ninety-nine percent of people we are trying to get to church like music with a drum beat. Using classical music, we are speaking to the music vernacular of only one percent of the population.”

Tan described an opportunity for Episcopal musicians to contribute to songs rooted in ancient faith, such as service and ritual music. “We need to sing our Creed. We need to sing canticles like the Magnificat. And they need to be written in contemporary flair, in the vernacular of 99 percent of the population, so that these ancient songs become indigenous to our people today.”

Presbyterian hymn writer Mary Louise Bringle addressed the volatile topic of revising hymns for inclusive language. Bringle served on the preparation committee for Glory to God, which revised texts extensively. She said hymnals are not anthologies, and that there is a warrant “to create texts that our congregations, in their contexts, can sing with understanding.” She said good hymns provide “a translucence to the Word and glory of God. If it arrests the singer, it’s not doing its job.”

Bringle expressed caution about altering much-loved texts. She said good editors should ask, “Is the line in a heart song? Then maybe the thing to do is to add a counterweighting body of new. We need to do … very good research into what is the heart song, that they would grievously lament having it altered or if taken from them.”

Episcopal hymn writer Carl Daw also expressed concern about extensive text editing: “You may be commissioned with power to change something, but it may be usurping the authority of the people of God.” He said the terms king and Lord have etymologies rich in theological meaning and deserve to be retained and explained more carefully.

Lutheran hymn writer Susan Cherwien said that in her younger days she would have gladly taken a red pen to many older hymn texts, but she has grown more reluctant: “When there is not something that is false, memory trumps. Why change something if it is not blatantly false?”

Panelists discussing change in technology were quite hesitant about the value of recent developments for common worship. Nancy Bryan of Church Publishing said that projecting hymn texts harms community singing. “We retain, memorize, and embody text more easily from a book than from a screen.”

David Eicher said that Glory to God was launched in a popular digital edition and as an app for tablets and smartphones. Evangelical Lutheran Worship was issued in a version for screen projection, though Martin Seltz surmised that only a small percentage of ELCA churches have abandoned hymnals in the pews.

“There continues to be a strong value placed on having a book,” he said. “It is a statement of what belongs to the whole people of God. … It’s a kind of safeguard and protection against religious professionals who will want to spoon-feed us only those things that will fit their agendas and not allow us to receive the whole compass of what’s available to us.”

Seltz shrugged off the value of discussing technological change when the real prospects for a new hymnal seem quite dim: “Nothing that any of us has said today will apply when you actually get to a [new] hymnal.”

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