Archive for May, 2012

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.


Behind the Scenes of Church Music

Grace Reformed Church, where the URC plant meets

Grace Reformed Church, where the URC plant meets

Over the past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit a number of friends and family in the Maryland/Virginia area.  All of the visits were greatly enjoyable, and a few were very musical as well!  On Sunday we worshiped with Dr. Brian Lee’s congregation at Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC.  Dr. Lee was gracious enough to extend the offer for me to play the organ during their service.  This was an incredible treat, as well as a great learning experience in organ performance.  Here’s a short video of my practice time before the service, to give you an idea of the beautiful sound of this 1931 Möller.

The logistics involved in coordinating accompaniment for worship, especially when visiting an unfamiliar church, can be pretty complicated.  That got me thinking: What is the best way to coordinate music in a Reformed church both efficiently and effectively?  To help answer this question, here are a few of the general steps involved in providing the music at my home congregation, West Sayville Reformed Bible Church.  It’s a look behind the scenes, if you will, at the logistics of church music.

Keep in mind that I’ve included every possible step in the outline below.  While this is the way I would like an ideal week of preparation to roll out, oftentimes my plan is just that—an unrealistic ideal.  With that disclaimer out of the way, here are the steps.

  1. As soon as possible, I find out what our pastor’s sermon topic is, read through the Scripture texts, and begin looking at possible choices for service music (using mainly the topical index in the front of the hymnbook).  Since my preludes and offertories are usually built on simple medleys of Psalter Hymnal tunes, I try to find selections that blend well with each other.  If I am coordinating my playing with another musician, we share ideas and form tentative plans for our choices.
  2. Pastor picks the congregational songs, usually on Friday.  I run through his selections on the piano or organ at home, and let him know if anything seems like an unwise choice for our congregation.  Often the correction can be as simple as an alternate psalm setting or a tune change.
  3. After the congregational songs are picked, I finalize the service music.  Then I create a bulletin insert with the lyrics to the music (more on this beneficial practice in a future post).  I send this to the church secretary before the bulletin deadline, hopefully by Friday night.
  4. I practice the congregational hymns at home, and if possible, at church.  I evaluate the tunes as to tempo, phrasing, difficult spots, and so on.  I also comb through the lyrics to find any phrases that might need some special emphasis in the accompaniment.
  5. I also practice my service music and, if it’s my own improvisation, I work on the arrangement.  If I get a chance to practice on the church organ, I work out which registrations I’ll be using.
  6. On Sunday morning, I try to get to church a bit earlier than usual and set up the organ—preparing my sheet music, finalizing the registrations, and so on.  Having estimated the length of the prelude at home, I work backwards to figure out when I should start it during the service.  Usually I berate myself for forgetting to bring a watch, but in a pinch, my cell phone will do (provided the ringer is off).
  7. I play for the service.  During each song I try to keep one ear on the congregational singing to decide whether I need to play faster or slower, be louder or softer, &c.  This constant attention to the sound of the congregation is more important than it might seem!
  8. Our sound technician generously records the music from the service for me, so I take the CDs home and copy the music from them.  I add these recordings to a growing collection at home.  Why?  Well, it’s not because they’re always particularly pleasant for listening, but because I want a record of the arrangements and registrations I used, the nuances of the congregational singing, and so on.  All of these factors will play into what I’ll choose for the next service.

Is this list obsessive?  Maybe it’s more than an average musician can fit into an already busy week.  But like I mentioned above, this is an ideal scenario—one we can always aim for, even if we usually miss.  That said, this system is still weak in a few areas:

  • I happen to live a fairly significant distance from the church, so the travel time is prohibitive when it comes to practicing on the organ during the week.  Although I’m incredibly blessed to have an organ here at home, there’s no replacement for the stops and sounds of the actual church instrument.
  • In order for this schedule to work, the pastor has to pick the hymns unusually early, and the secretary has to print the bulletin unusually late.  I regret having to impose on the schedules of the church staff in this way.
  • Any of these carefully-laid plans could change at a moment’s notice.  Whether it’s a sudden change in worship order, a copier malfunction, or an organ breakdown, anything can happen at any time during the week.  My humorous but often-true rule of thumb is that at least three unexpected things will happen on any given Sunday morning.  Thus, while the planning stages are important, I try not to devote an excessive amount of time to meticulous details.

Now, fellow church musicians: What are your preferred methods for planning and coordinating the music in a worship service?  Do you use something like the system described above, or have you found a better method?  Do you have any comments or suggestions for improvement?  I look forward to hearing from you.

To God be the glory,


Synod Agenda Summary

Glenda Mathes has just published a summary of the agenda for Synod 2012, which covers many of the musical aspects as well as other general topics. It’s a helpful synopsis for anyone interested in the proceedings of this year’s synod.

Glenda Faye Mathes

[The following article will appear in the May 23, 2012 issue of Christian Renewal. I’m posting it now with editorial permission so that it is available in a timely manner. ~ Glenda Mathes]

At 403 pages, the provisional agenda for the URCNA Synod Nyack 2012 may seem overwhelmingly deep, but it’s not as difficult to wade through as it initially appears.                                                                                             

Most individual items in the agenda are less than five pages long. The largest sections include extensive documentation regarding the Proposed Joint Church Order (82 pages) and proposed liturgical forms (73 pages). Several appendices bring the CECCA report to 44 pages, while the CERCU report equals 25 pages. Study committee reports range from 22 pages on Missions, down to nine pages on Emeritation, and six pages on Doctrinal Commitment. Although many pages of overtures and even an appeal relate to the URCNA songbook, the Songbook Committee’s report is only nine…

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Psalm 113

(My sincere apologies for the dormancy of URC Psalmody over the past week.  I’ve been enjoying a much-needed vacation, including an exciting visit to our church plant in Washington, DC.  But more on that later…)

Praise the LORD!
Praise, O servants of the LORD,
praise the name of the LORD!

–Psalm 113:1 (ESV)

Psalm 113 is one of six psalms in a collection that is often called the Egyptian Hallel or the Egyptian Hallelujah.  The Jewish liturgical year featured Psalms 113-118 prominently, especially during the season of Passover.  In fact, it is entirely possible that the hymn Jesus sang with his disciples in Matthew 26:30 was taken from this set.

The cover of one of the oldest hymnals in my collection, proclaiming the command of Psalm 113:3: "From the rising up of the sun to the going down of the same, the Lord's name is to be praised."Psalm 113 opens with a rousing thrice-repeated command to praise the LORD.  In vv. 2 and 3, this praise is extended through all of space and time.  The rest of the psalm gives us two reasons for praising God: because of who he is (vv. 4-6) and because of what he has done (vv. 7-9).  For a short poem of nine verses, this psalm is one of the most powerful exhortations in all of Scripture to worship and adore our God.

224, “Praise God, Ye Servants of the Lord”

(Sung by Cornerstone URC in Hudsonville, MI)

For such a beautiful and powerful song, I believe Psalm 113 is slightly underestimated in the blue Psalter Hymnal.  One might argue that the fault originates in the 1912 Psalter and the 1934 Psalter Hymnal, which devote only a single woefully incomplete setting to Psalm 113—equivalent to the first four stanzas of this version.  The older versification simplifies v. 7, then completely skips v. 8 and the majority of v. 9.  It ends instead with an elaborate repetition of the closing command to praise the LORD.

In this respect, we can be thankful to the editors of the blue Psalter Hymnal for including a fifth verse to complete the text.  Even with this solution, however, the flow of thought of the psalm is interrupted, and the rhyming scheme of the last stanza (A-B-A-B) clashes noticeably with the scheme of the first four (A-A-B-B).  Although Psalm 113:1-6 is versified well enough in Psalter Hymnal number 224, it seems to me that the fourth and fifth stanzas (vv. 7-9) would need a minor overhaul in order to properly represent this majestic text.

The tune, ANDRE, also has its drawbacks: it is both repetitive and unnecessarily high.  Though I tend to be a stickler for preserving the original keys of tunes, even I must admit that ANDRE would be much better suited in the key of E-flat or F.  Although my aversion to this setting is admittedly subjective, it does seem that a much better tune could be implemented for number 224.  With the abundance of long-meter ( tunes available within the Psalter Hymnal as well as in other books, a replacement shouldn’t be hard to find.  Some possibilities that immediately come to mind are numbers 35 (PARK STREET) or 170 (WINCHESTER NEW).

You might point out that regardless of whether or not we approve of the blue Psalter Hymnal version of Psalm 113, we’re simply stuck with it for now.  That’s partially true; the average United Reformed congregation isn’t going to tear out pages of the old blue hymnbooks to replace them at will.  However, even for small, budget-conscious churches, there are a number of plausible solutions to the problem of substandard psalm versifications.  One such resource, which I don’t often recommend, is the gray Psalter Hymnal.

While retaining the overall form of “Praise God, Ye Servants of the LORD,” the Gray version (number 113) includes a much better versification of vv. 7-9 in the fourth stanza, as well as a decidedly better tune.  Even the modernization of the words in this case doesn’t significantly detract from the text.  If your church doesn’t own copies of the gray 1987 Psalter Hymnal, you might be able to use a digital version of this selection, available on

Meanwhile, readers, are any of you aware of other Psalm 113 settings that are solid, both Biblically and musically?  I’d love to hear your comments below, as it would be a great help to be able to compare multiple renditions of this text.  For in the case of Psalm 113, as in all of our worship, we ought to strive towards the best possible offering of praise to God.  “Blessed be the name of the LORD from this time forth and forevermore!”


Psalm 52

O mighty man, why wilt thou boast
Thyself in hateful cruelty,
When God Almighty is most kind,
And ever merciful is He?

To understand the conflict presented in Psalm 52, we need look no further than the first verse.  In this song, the psalmist David contrasts the goodness of God with the treachery of men.  A further explanation is given in the ascription to Psalm 52:

To the choirmaster.  A Maskil of David, when Doeg, the Edomite, came and told Saul, “David has come to the house of Ahimelech.”

The context of this event is found in I Samuel 22.  During David’s period of hiding from King Saul, an Edomite named Doeg came before the king and treacherously revealed his location.  When Saul ordered the priests who had aided David to be slain, even his own soldiers refused to carry out this wicked sin against God.  But Doeg had no such scruples.  Not only did he cruelly murder eighty-five priests, he also ransacked the entire Levite city of Nob.  It’s easy to see that the description of “hateful cruelty” in Psalm 52 fits this treacherous Edomite to a T.

What is David’s reaction to this atrocity?  Never does the psalmist lose sight of the bigger picture: that God is still in control.  After describing the sinful tongue and deeds of his enemy, he declares,

But God will break you down forever;
he will snatch and tear you from your tent;
he will uproot you from the land of the living. Selah
The righteous shall see and fear,
and shall laugh at him, saying,
“See the man who would not make
God his refuge,
but trusted in the abundance of his riches
and sought refuge in his own destruction!”

–Psalm 52:5-7 (ESV)

Finally, David gives a familiar affirmation that weaves its way through many of his psalms.  In contrast to the fleeting victories of evil men, he expresses his firm confidence in God:

But I am like a green olive tree
in the house of God.
I trust in the steadfast love of God
forever and ever.
I will thank you forever,
because you have done it.
I will wait for your name, for it is good,
in the presence of the godly.

–Psalm 52:8, 9

This poem is an acute yet accurate picture of the Christian life.  Countless times we see the name of Christ and his followers mocked, degraded, and downright blasphemed.  The tongues of the wicked are constantly wagging in rebellion against God and his Church.  But what is the Christian’s proper response to the depravity of the world we inhabit?  We must learn, even from the bad example of the wicked, that we can only enjoy safety with God as our refuge.  This is the lesson of Psalm 52.

97, “O Mighty Man, Why Wilt Thou Boast”

For Psalm 52, the creators of the 1912 Psalter have handed down to us yet another excellent paraphrase, full of beauty and integrity.  Although the Scriptural text had to be squeezed or stretched in a few places to fit the meter, this versification is quite sound.  Even the highly paraphrased fourth stanza remains faithful to David’s original meaning.

Whenever the tune of Psalm 52 in the Psalter Hymnal is played, most people think it’s a Christmas song.  That’s because this beautiful tune, WALTHAM, is commonly paired with the words of an old carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  Maybe the editors of the 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal were aware of this connection, because the themes of these two texts are surprisingly similar.  In this Christmas song, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow considers the battle between good and evil on a universal scale, while David’s words in Psalm 52 focus on a specific instance of the same conflict.   In the third stanza of his carol, Longfellow mourns that “hate is strong and mocks the song/Of peace on earth, good-will to men,” like the psalmist lamenting over the hateful treachery of his enemy.  And the song’s fourth stanza echoes David’s hope in brilliant color:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.’

This versification of Psalm 52, “O Mighty Man, Why Wilt Thou Boast,” ends with the same note of triumph: that all the evil in this world cannot so much as approach the goodness of God.

With endless thanks, O Lord, to Thee,
Thy wondrous works will I proclaim,
And in the presence of Thy saints
Will ever hope in Thy good Name.

Indeed, all praise to that Name!


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