A Personal Response to the Hymn Proposal

Just over one year ago I completed an exhaustive report on the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee’s Hymn Proposal.  My document was 88 pages long and contained more than 28,000 words (the equivalent of 28 lengthy blog posts!).  It was my belief that a long report deserved a proportionately long introduction, so I addressed several paragraphs of introductory comments to my church’s Worship Committee and consistory.

I share this material on URC Psalmody not because I want to toot my own horn (or, as some wits would have it, my organ), but because it attempts to quell several sources of musical controversy that have erupted in the URCNA over the past few years.  I realize some of my comments may be a bit polarizing, so I ask you to receive them as my own opinions—educated opinions, but not flawless news sources.

Nevertheless, I would like your thoughts and reactions to this introduction to the Hymn Proposal.  I tried to addresses a variety of issues, including the synodical regulations for church music, the importance of using time-tested hymns, the alterations of lyrics (including gender neutralization), the lowering of keys, and the reactions of the youth to modernizing old hymns.  Today, my desire is that this material might serve to stimulate our minds in preparation for the musical topics on this year’s synodical agenda.  You can find my unabridged introduction in an uploaded document entitled “Introductory Comments,” and the criteria referenced below in another document, “Principles and Guidelines.”

From this point forward is an edited version (with emphasis added) of my statements to the Worship Committee and Consistory of West Sayville Reformed Bible Church, dated June 2nd, 2011.

Introductory Comments

This report is the fruit of nine months’ labor and collaboration on the Hymn Proposal that was distributed by the URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee at the last Synod meeting in summer 2010.  My review contains recommendations concerning both the lyrics and the music of the hymns in this Proposal.

For easy reference, I have included copies of the Synod-approved Principles and Guidelines for Selecting Church Music from the preface to the Hymn Proposal, as well as a copy of the Additional Principles and Guidelines…submitted to Worship Committee last October.  I am aware that the Songbook Committee has asked that all evaluations of the Hymn Proposal to be based solely on the Synod-approved Principles and Guidelines; thus, my extensive use of the Additional Criteria as justifications for my recommendations may be called into question.  However, I should make clear that I do not view our additional criteria as further guidelines for selecting hymns, but rather as implications of the Principles and Guidelines already included.…We came up with these additional guidelines simply to clarify and address the implications of the Synod-approved Principles and Guidelines, which we wholeheartedly agree with.

I should also note that I have not referred to Additional Criterion x anywhere in my report. I leave the decision of “time-testing” hymns up to others, but especially the Worship Committee and the Songbook Committee.  While I am not confident enough in my own experience to decide which new hymns should be left out until a future edition of the URC Psalter Hymnal, I still believe this guideline is an important consideration to take into account, and I encourage the Worship Committee and the Songbook Committee to refer to it in their own changes to the Hymn Proposal.

Two of the major issues concerning the Hymn Proposal that are being discussed are alterations of lyrics and key changes.  Regarding these issues, I communicated with two of my friends who are actively involved with the music of WSRBC.  [At the time of this report, these musicians were ages 17 and 16.]  They definitely support the use of modern pronouns in modern hymns, but not in the church’s traditional songs such as “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Be Thou My Vision.” As trained singers, they were adamant against lowering the keys of the hymns, arguing that when the keys are changed, the mood of the song is changed.  Finally, they added, “While the church continues to grow, we can’t forget our past, because we wouldn’t be the true Church without it.  Newer songs are being written, and the best will be added to our hymnbooks until they eventually become the ‘traditional hymns.’ But the songs we have now shouldn’t be changed, just as we can’t change our Christian heritage.”  Overall, it seems that they are supportive of the Hymn Proposal and satisfied with the selections it contains.  Hopefully, this feedback offers just a small window into the hymn-related ideals of other young members of the URC with regard to the Hymn Proposal.

Another very controversial issue is the topic of gender-neutral language in the modernized hymns.  The disparaging discussions in some URC circles regarding this topic are unfortunate.  We have no substantial grounds to suspect that the Songbook Committee has gender-neutral leanings.  The more likely reason for occasional language that hints at this tendency is that the Hymn Proposal contains many versions of hymns taken from the 1987 CRC (gray) Psalter Hymnal, for various reasons—and a handful of these versions happen to include gender-neutral language.  While I am recommending that much of this language be removed to prevent offense to those who are sensitive to it, I believe that questioning the Songbook Committee’s motives as some have done is uncalled for and un-Christian.

I have written these recommendations with the understanding that not all of them may be feasible.  There are copyright issues which might prohibit some of these changes, but more significantly, the Songbook Committee is going to be flooded with requests, suggestions, and recommendations from churches across the country.  I am fully aware that they cannot possibly incorporate everyone’s comments.  However, I do hope and pray that my recommendations will be of some use as they work towards an eventual Psalter Hymnal.

I can almost guarantee that any work of this magnitude contains errors.  If corrections or clarifications are needed, please contact me, and I will be happy to help resolve these issues.

In many cases, I am recommending returns to the original versions of the hymns.  While I have various specific reasons for these comments, my main concern is that the excessive modifications to many of the hymns hinder us from our main purpose of glorifying God (as described in Principle II).  Changes of lyrics can confuse congregations.  Poorly chosen tunes, keys, and harmonizations can turn beautiful music into a dissonant progression of chords.  On the other hand, well-chosen modifications can enable us to play and sing to God all the more beautifully!  May we never lose sight of the supreme consideration: our ability to glorify God through the music in this proposal.  “For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever.  Amen” (Romans 11:36).

In Christ’s Service,

Michael Kearney

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