I hear a lot of arguments about hymn singing. I am grateful that those arguments are not happening in the church where I serve as Minister of Music. The arguments for and against the use of the traditional hymn in worship usually seem a little obsessive and ridiculous. I wouldn't question the strong feelings of those who argue, but I think the points of the argument are usually ill-conceived. They are the arguments of specialists, and singing in worship is a populist enterprise.
I serve a church where worship includes hymns from a wide swath of protestant tradition. We sing hymns from Martin Luther, John and Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts and many others from the Western European traditions. We also sing (less frequently) hymns from the American gospel traditions. They tend to be more bloody, and we're a little skittish. And we are open-minded about the wealth of modern hymnody that enters our awareness.
This Sunday's service will be completely devoted to the dedication of new hymnals. We decided a few months ago to purchase the new Celebrating Grace hymnal from Mercer University Press. It was an easy decision since one of our church members, Milburn Price, served on its Editorial Board, and others in our church were also involved in its creation. We have planned a service that celebrates the old and new things in the hymnal, and points out the connections our congregation has with its content.
As I have given some thought to the use of the hymnal in worship, I have found it uninspiring to consider the apologetics that are frequently offered for its use.
I often hear the argument that hymns offer theological instruction. Certainly that is true. But we already offer Sunday School classes with fine teachers. Hymn singing is an enjoyable but inefficient way to delve into theology. It offers no chance for discussion or dissension. The power of music is intrinsic. Beautiful music is worthwhile because it is beautiful, not because it teaches us a non-musical lesson.
I often hear a defense of hymn singing based on musical value. It is definitely true that hymn tunes that have outlasted their composers by several centuries have demonstrated a musical value that should be the envy of the composers of trendy pop tunes, whose shelf life can only hope to be measured in weeks. Nevertheless, music mysteriously appeals to different people differently. There is little future in trying to dictate taste. And the average worshiper is ill-equipped for an argument over voice-leading or syllable stress. It's not fair or helpful to engage a person who desires to worship God in an argument over music theory, because for the duration of the argument worship is not happening, and after the argument they will return to the music they like, only angrier.
I think our congregation worships meaningfully using hymnals and hymns for simpler reasons. In our church, hymnals reside in racks on the backs of the pews. There are usually three hymnals per rack, although there may be more people per pew. So the first thing that happens in worship, before a note of properly-composed music is sung, and before a word of appropriate theology is offered, is that the people of the congregation have to share with one another. The use of hymnals creates an atmosphere of community before the singing has even begun.
Another circumstance that must always be part of our hymn singing is the posture of holding the hymnal. In order to sing while reading a hymnal that is shared with another person, the hymnal is held at elbow-level, adjusted to the height of the shorter person. It is a picture of bowing in worship. While it doesn't quite live up to the scriptural choreography of "every knee shall bow...", it is a good start toward a humble countenance. There are many proponents of singing while looking upward in worship, finding the words of the song projected above the heads of the congregation. There is a case to be made for singing strongly while looking upward. But I think our singing sounds just fine while humbly bowing as we sing.
About ten years ago I was planning a choir tour to Italy. We had a large choir traveling, and the travel company gave me an inspection tour a few months prior to the trip. I visited our hotels and restaurants, spending a week in Italy with a chauffeur and guide. Needless to say, it was an overwhelming experience for a Baptist from south Alabama. On my last night in Rome, the manager of the travel company came into the restaurant in which I was eating to give me a surprise. The travel company's owner was personally acquainted with the Holy Father, and had arranged a private visit for me in the Papal Apartments. We went into the diplomatic entrance and climbed the famous Bernini staircase. After seeing the "Sala Regia", where John Paul II would later lie in state, we entered the Pauline Chapel, where he had his private mass every morning. Then we entered a short hallway behind the altar, and I found myself in the Pope's private sacristy. The priest who was guiding us opened the closet doors, and I beheld the beautiful robes I had seen on television, a different robe of golden thread for each important day of the liturgical calendar. As I turned, he was handing me an object. It was the crucifix seen every time the Pope appears in public, that affixes to the top of his staff. I held it with both hands, aware that I was holding something quite holy, and that I was certainly unworthy of having it placed in my hands. As my visit concluded by standing alone in the Sistine Chapel, attempting to burn a memory of it into my brain and heart, I couldn't get the feel of that crucifix out of my hands.
I relate that story because I like the fact that worshipers in our church hold something holy in their hands while they sing their praise. To our children, the hymnal is special and holy, and being the one to hold it and share it with a neighbor is a great responsibility. To their parents, the hymnal is a beloved tradition, and passing the tradition of singing in worship along to the children is a holy responsibility, made easier and more meaningful because it is an object to be held, rather than a concept to be awkwardly described. To the wisened worshipers of our congregation the hymnal is a milestone. They remember with fondness the older hymnals, and the ones before those, and they know that the church is healthily progressing as they challenge the arthritis in their joints by holding the heavy book in their hands. It feels good to hold it.
I am grateful for those who passionately advocate for meaningful musical worship. And I embrace the worship leaders and congregations who sing their praise in other ways, using other resources. I have no doubt that God is pleased to receive the praise of God's children, and doesn't grade it according to its adherence to western music theory ideals. But I like that our congregation has chosen this path. I don't mind bowing my head to read the words and music, or hearing a weak voice as I share the book with my neighbor. I like being the one to hold it, and I don't mind sharing. I appreciate the theological basis of the hymns, but I am not hopeful that I will attain some complete understanding of God. I just appreciate the opportunity to sing. And holding this holy object in my hands reminds me that, although I am unworthy to offer my praise, God is gracious beyond measure, and is pleased to receive it. I am grateful for the opportunity to join others in Celebrating Grace. ]]>]]>