A New Hymnbook: Voluntary or Mandatory?

URCNA Synod 2012Two years ago at the federation-wide meeting of the United Reformed Churches in North America, Advisory Committee 9 recommended “that Synod 2010 affirm the production of an official songbook which will be purchased and used by all URCNA churches”—a recommendation which was subsequently adopted by synod.  (2010 Acts of Synod, p. 18)

Will be purchased and used”?  What is the intent of this statement?  That’s the question many URC members were asking after Synod 2010, and one that remains a puzzle today.  In an article published in the September/October 2010 issue of The Outlook, Rev. Wybren Oord explained, “Although eventually approved, this statement was met with resistance, as many felt that synod was overstepping its authority by dictating to elders how to oversee the singing in worship.”

Did synod actually exceed their authority?  Should a new hymnbook be mandatory for all URCNA churches, or should it be a voluntary purchase on the part of individual congregations?  A resolution of this conflict of interests is requested in an important appeal to Synod 2012.  “The Living Water Reformed Church of Brantford [Southern Ontario] appeals Synod Pompton Plains (2012) to alter the decision of Synod London to read, ‘That Synod 2010 affirm the production of an official songbook and encourage this songbook to be used in all URCNA churches’” (emphasis added).  The consistory elaborates, “We appreciate the sentiment of Synod 2010 in making this decision, yet believe that altering this decision will better serve the unity of the churches and the encouragement of the songbook committee in this matter” (2012 Synod Provisional Agenda, p. 97).

The grounds given by the consistory for this alteration appeal to several key points of our Church Order as well as the penultimate importance of preserving the unity of our federation.  Here is a basic summary of the arguments of Living Water contained in the appeal, as I interpret them:

  1. URCNA Church Order Article 39 (p. 7 in this PDF version) places the responsibility for choosing psalms and hymns in the hands of individual consistories—not synod.  In fact, synod’s decisions about the proposed URC Psalter Hymnal could easily come into conflict with individual churches that do not support the contents of the book.
  2. URCNA Church Order Article 33 (p. 6) places the control of all assets in the hands of the local congregation.  But “by making a decision that mandates the purchase of an official songbook by all URCNA churches, Synod is mandating how local Consistories (or Councils) will use the assets that belong to the local church (specifically, the money they must spend to purchase these books),” in violation of that article.
  3. Many congregations in our denomination are very sensitive to change (for valid as well as invalid reasons).  Thus, by mandating the purchase of a potentially controversial hymnbook, the URCNA is most likely to engender disunity, not unity.
  4. Leaving musical decisions in the hands of local consistories would enable them to “exercise greater pastoral wisdom” in selecting songs for their churches, in line with Article 39.
  5. Two of the grounds for the original recommendation at Synod 2010 had to do with decreasing the cost of the hymnbook and providing encouragement to the Songbook Committee.  Financial considerations, Living Water points out, should be secondary to promoting the unity of the federation.  Also, the Committee will doubtless receive greater encouragement from churches that voluntarily receive the new Psalter Hymnal than from those that are unwillingly compelled to do so.
  6. The modified statement, utilizing the term “encourage,” “still communicates that Synod’s desire is to see the churches of the federation singing out of a common, solid, Biblical and Reformed songbook.”  However, unlike the faintly authoritarian overtones of synod’s previous statement, it removes the possibility of violating our Church Order and harming our federative unity.

In his Outlook piece, Rev. Oord mused on another possibility.  “Perhaps it might be wiser for the URCNA to produce a supplemental songbook that includes all the songs proposed by the committee.  Most all of our churches already have songbooks in addition to the Psalter Hymnal.  If those secondary songbooks could be replaced by the proposed songbook, it would be less threatening to those who currently resist the replacement of the Blue Psalter Hymnal.  Over time churches would become familiar with the proposed songbook and wonder why songs such as ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘And Can It Be’ are not in the Blue Psalter.  As the new book is used more and more, the Blue will eventually simply fade away.”

Is the consistory of Living Water URC correct in their appeal to synod?  That’s open for discussion, but the only effective answer to this question will be given during synod itself, when a decision is made on their request.  And similarly, even though I can see the strengths as well as the weaknesses in Rev. Oord’s argument, it seems that his suggestions (which, to my knowledge, have not been officially presented to Synod 2012) will have little effect on the course of the Psalter Hymnal publication process.  Nevertheless, it’s clear that the direction of the new URC Psalter Hymnal will depend in large part on synod’s reaction to the question aroused by Living Water’s appeal: Will our new hymnbook be voluntary or mandatory?  As we pray for God’s blessing upon Synod 2012, then, let’s keep this important matter in the forefront of our minds.  May God grant both faithfulness and unity to his congregations in the URCNA.

–MRK

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