(Update, 11/3/2014: A fuller analysis and more accurate statistics on the Psalm Proposal appear in my article “The Outlook on the Psalm Proposal,” in The Outlook, Sept./Oct. 2014, vol. LXIV, no. 5., published by Reformed Fellowship.)
Readers, thank you for your hearty response to yesterday’s post. Not even a few hours had gone by since publishing when comments, emails, and Facebook messages started to pour in with helpful and supportive reactions to the Psalm Proposal from across our federation.
I’d like to follow up on yesterday’s post by exploring some specifications and statistics of the URC/OPC Psalm Proposal. Due to my lack of time for detailed study, these figures are rough and possibly a little out-of-date (since the Psalm Proposal is undergoing continual revision). Nevertheless, for the purposes of a general overview, I hope they will suffice. As always, please comment or contact me to provide corrections.
For much of the following data I am indebted to the ever-helpful URC Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen, and to Rev. John Bouwers and the congregation of Immanuel Orthodox Reformed Church (URCNA) in Jordan, Ontario. Information on the Reformed Presbyterian psalters comes from a Geneva professor and the former director of my college choir, Dr. Robert Copeland. See his essay “The Experience of Singing the Psalms” in the front matter of The Book of Psalms for Worship (Pittsburgh: Crown and Covenant, 2009), xvi-xvii.
Size and scope
Currently the Psalm Proposal contains about 273 selections, a very respectable number compared to the existing Psalter Hymnal’s 310. The distribution of psalm settings is slightly more balanced in the proposal than in the PsH, with most psalms receiving one to three versifications as opposed to the blue book’s pattern of giving “favorite” psalms four or five settings at the expense of less frequently sung psalms. Besides the 22 songs assigned to Psalm 119, the greatest number of selections for a particular psalm is only four (for both Psalms 22 and 150). Also, the Psalm Proposal utilizes the Reformed Presbyterian method of numbering, which adds a letter suffix to the number of each psalm (103A, 103B, &c.) rather than a sequential system. Less literal arrangements are marked with the words “Partial” or “Paraphrase.”
Where the blue Psalter Hymnal fits in
URC members hoping to see a mere revision of the blue Psalter Hymnal may be unprepared for the extent of the Songbook Committee’s work. Only about 45% of the proposed selections utilize psalm tunes from the blue book, and only 35% or so preserve the original tune for the equivalent psalm section in the PsH. (Another 15% of the proposal’s tunes can be found in the blue Psalter Hymnal’s hymn section.) For the texts, conducting an accurate survey is much more time-consuming, but I think it’s safe to say that relatively few selections maintain the original wording of the Psalter Hymnal; for most songs the committee has either modernized the language of the 1912 Psalter or taken up entirely different (though faithful) versifications.
(Note that in order to access these links you will need the username and password for the digital Psalm Proposal, available by contacting the Songbook Committee chairman at email@example.com.)
Not burning the wooden shoes
The Psalm Proposal will offer United Reformed congregations a chance to preserve the rich psalm-singing heritage handed down to them from the Dutch Reformed tradition which utilized the 1551 Genevan Psalter. At a glance I see no less than 23 Genevan tunes listed in the index of the proposal, of which at least four do not appear in the blue Psalter Hymnal. By and large the texts for these settings are derived from the Canadian Reformed Churches’ ongoing work on their own Book of Praise.
Scottish psalmody: welcome (back?)
ABERYSTWYTH, LLANGLOFFAN, TARWATHIE, LLEF—whence are all these extraordinary tune names? One of the biggest sectors of the Psalm Proposal’s contents brings in selections of Scottish origin (along with their distinctly Anglo-Saxon tune names) from the Reformed Presbyterian Book of Psalms for Singing and more recent Book of Psalms for Worship. Both songbooks have their origins not in the continental Genevan Psalter, but in the Scottish Psalter of 1650.
A bit of historical background may be helpful here. Recall that the CRC’s red and blue Psalter Hymnals derived their psalm settings almost exclusively from the 1912 United Presbyterian Psalter, which the joint work of several Reformed and Presbyterian denominations (as I mentioned in yesterday’s post). Although the Reformed Presbyterian Church initially contributed to the effort, this denomination objected to the United Presbyterians’ prioritization of good poetry over Scriptural accuracy, eventually withdrawing from the project to produce its own revision of the 1650 Scottish Psalter. Further revisions of this psalter were made in 1929 and 1950, leading to the RPCNA’s production of the Book of Psalms for Singing in 1973 and the Book of Psalms for Worship in 2009. The dichotomy between the poetic approach of the 1912 Psalter and the literal stance of the Book of Psalms for Singing / Worship is still evident today if one compares Christian Reformed psalm settings with Reformed Presbyterian versifications.
All of this is to say that the Songbook Committee’s decision to prioritize RP settings over our more familiar ones could be interpreted in one of two ways: unfaithfulness to our own psalm-singing heritage, or a much-needed return to the Scriptural accuracy upheld in the descendants of the Scottish Psalter.
The fruits of our own labor
One of the most exciting marks of a new psalm or hymn collection is the presence of good songs that have arisen in recent years from within our federation itself. Songbook Committee members have contributed their own talents to the Psalm Proposal by composing new tunes, creating new versifications, and writing new verses to finish formerly incomplete psalm settings. Several selections from the proposal are mostly or entirely the work of URCNA members.
As this brief exploration demonstrates, the Psalm Proposal draws from an incredible diversity of sources. Of all the complaints that could be leveled against its contents, limited scope is not one of them. However, there are many other considerations involved in the lengthy process of transitioning to a new Psalter Hymnal.
Lord willing, we’ll continue tomorrow by examining the strengths and weaknesses of particular Psalm Proposal selections. Your comments, as always, are appreciated.