(More) Good News from the Songbook Committee

Hymnological Math

One of URC Psalmody’s primary focal points has been the progress of the ongoing URC Psalter Hymnal project.  If you missed the background of this endeavor, here’s a quick synopsis (taken from our URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal Project page).

You might exclaim, “I thought the United Reformed Churches already have a Psalter Hymnal!”  Don’t they?  The answer is both yes and no.

A large number of the original congregations of the United Reformed Churches in North America had emerged from the much larger Christian Reformed Church (CRC).  As a tiny new federation, the URC had no resources to produce its own hymnbook right away, and additionally, most of their congregations were already using the CRC’s 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal.  This is the hymnbook the denomination has unofficially used until now.

But from the beginning, the URC realized that it could not use the CRC’s Psalter Hymnal forever.  First of all, it was out of print; and second, a songbook unique to the URC would be necessary to foster further unity among the congregations.  So very early on, the URC decided to at least start the process of creating its own songbook.  At the request of Synod 1997, a Psalter Hymnal committee was formed.  This committee, over the past 15 years, has been faithfully working on the task of compiling and producing a new Psalter Hymnal for the URC.  Most recently, Synod 2012 approved a recommendation to combine efforts with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) to produce a joint Psalter Hymnal for use in both denominations.

The URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee recently released a report on their November 2012 meeting at Lynwood URC in Lynwood, IL—a “productive and comprehensive” meeting in which the committee, along with representatives from the OPC Psalter Hymnal Committee, “worked primarily on the new Psalm proposal and related matters.”  In my opinion, at any rate, this press release is fairly bursting with good news.

Read the entire press release here.

“The committee has dedicated much of the last two years or more choosing Psalm songs.  Psalm renditions have now been tentatively chosen for the entire psalter (Psalms 1-150), though some finishing touches remain.”  Thus, this meeting was devoted mainly to hashing out some of the differences between the committees’ selections.

Throughout its work, one of the committee’s ongoing priorities has been to choose complete Psalm texts, which are faithful to the words of Scripture and set to singable, appropriate, and beautiful music. In keeping with Synod’s mandate, the full text of each Psalm is included at least once in the proposal, with many psalms also having additional familiar and excellent partial texts or paraphrased versions [such as those in the present blue Psalter Hymnal]. One exception is that Psalm 119 has been split into each section represented by a Hebrew letter as found in Scripture, instead of having one song selection with all 176 verses included.

Great news for those who have sung from the old CRC Psalter Hymnals all their lives—The committee acknowledges that they are “especially sensitive to maintain important continuity with the blue Psalter Hymnal.  That is, the committee’s Psalm proposal has sought to retain the best and most familiar of previous Psalm collections while also bolstering these familiar partial-Psalm renditions with faithful, singable, full Psalm texts.  By retaining many traditional and well-loved tunes as well as adding some excellent new ones, the churches will be able to robustly sing all of the Psalms in the collection and not only the very familiar ones.”

As a side note, I believe that one of the biggest missteps of the 1987 gray CRC Psalter Hymnal was its reckless replacement of familiar melodies with newer, more unfamiliar tunes.  This made the already insurmountable task of learning 150 heavily altered psalm settings even harder.  Thankfully, however, it seems that the URC Psalter Hymnal Committee will try to steer clear of this danger.

At the same time, the committee also realizes that each tune must match the psalm text to which it is set–a tremdously important (but often overlooked) component of any psalter.  “One of the challenges in building a Psalm collection is to match the affect, or mood, of a Psalm text with music that corresponds to and matches that affect.”  This is a point I tried to emphasize over the summer in URC Psalmody’s “Tunes” series.  As an example, the committee says:

Psalm 83 is a Psalm of lament, calling for God’s swift judgment on Israel’s enemies. The tune with which it is paired in the Psalter Hymnal is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ excellent FOREST GREEN, an uplifting arrangement of a joyful English folk melody. This, however, presents a disconnect with the Psalm text. The Psalm’s dark lamenting affect needs a more fitting minor tune like EIFIONYDD or SALVUM FAC, which are the tunes being considered by the URCNA and OPC committees for this Psalm in the proposal.

Yes, familiarity with existing psalm tunes is immensely important; but by the same token, the committee realizes that the match between the mood of the text and the mood of the tune is the foremost priority.  It will doubtless take time to learn a few new tunes, but our psalmody will be all the richer for it.

The URC Psalter Hymnal Committee also comments on their growing relationship with the OPC’s committee:

We are convinced that working with the OPC already is, and will continue to be, a welcome benefit to the committee and the URCNA.  This ecumenical relationship will help produce a great collection of psalms and hymns to be used for the worship of our Triune God, for the love and edification of the church, and for the glory of Christ.  As with all relationships, working in this partnership will necessitate some ‘give and take,’ but we have already been humbled by the OPC representatives’ respect of the deep-rooted tradition of Psalm singing in the URCNA.  Together, we look forward to presenting a collection that exhibits both continuity and excellence.

The URCNA Hymn Proposal

The URCNA Hymn Proposal

Finally comes one of the most exciting parts of this report: an ambitious timeline with a streamlined sequence of events!  “In the Spring of 2013, both committees are planning to jointly release the Psalm proposal digitally while also setting up an online system for consistories/sessions to submit feedback.”  (Surely this will be immensely better than the overwrought process of submitting feedback on the old Hymn Proposal!)  Lord willing, the completed Psalm section will go before Synod 2014 of the URCNA and the 2014 General Assembly of the OPC for “recommendation” (presumably, recommendation to the churches for approval).  After that will come a “new and improved joint hymn proposal,” for approval by the same assemblies in 2016.  “Final editing, publishing, and printing of the entire collection can then commence in the Fall of 2016.”

The URCNA Psalter Hymnal Committee requests your continuing earnest prayers for it, as well as its twin committee from the OPC.  Praise God for making this collaboration possible, and for its visible fruits already on display!  And get ready—the Psalm proposal is coming, and soon!

My song forever shall record
The tender mercies of the Lord;
Thy faithfulness will I proclaim,
And every age shall know Thy Name.

–MRK

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