Meet Your New Psalter (Part 1)

Hymnal Line-Up“So what’s happening with that Psalter Hymnal project, anyway?”

This week we pause URC Psalmody’s “regular programming” (if it can even be called that) to attempt to answer this question.  It’s been so long since the topic of the proposed URC/OPC Psalter-Hymnal has come up that even its dedicated page on this blog has grown out-of-date.  To minimize any misunderstandings regarding this multi-faceted topic, I’d like to start slowly—bear with me.

As always, a little background is helpful.  You may recall that the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) are currently engaged in a joint endeavor to produce a songbook containing complete metrical versions of all 150 psalms and a set of appropriate hymns.  Incorporating the separate mandates to produce a Psalter-Hymnal adopted by the URCNA in 1999 and by the OPC in 2006, this project represents what could become an historic manifestation of interdenominational unity.  Such unity in producing a songbook is probably unsurpassed since the creation of the CRC Psalter Hymnal’s predecessor, the 1912 Psalter, as a result of the joint work of several denominations: the Presbyterian Church in the USA, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Reformed Church in America, the United Presbyterian Church of North America, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Christian Reformed Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and the Associate Presbyterian Church.  Today’s joint Psalter-Hymnal project is what OPC minister Rev. Alan Strange called “the ecumenical opportunity of a generation.”

Although unity is a beautiful thing, it also presents challenges in learning to understand each other’s differences—and music, of all topics, is most likely to excite heated debate.  Think about it: only ecclesiastically-minded members (may I call us “church nerds”?) care about the differences between the URCNA and the OPC with regard to synodical authority, for example, or the roles of office-bearers.  Yet the songbook that each denomination uses sits in the rack behind every pew, affecting just about every member of the church on a weekly basis.  And while extensive experience in the area of church music is rare, everyone has an opinion on it.

The URCNA Hymn Proposal

The URCNA Hymn Proposal

Even before the merger with the OPC’s efforts in 2012, the URC’s Hymn Proposal, released in the summer of 2010, generated heated and extensive controversy.  It was not long before the blogosphere erupted with a myriad of articles questioning the integrity of the collection, or even challenging the motives of the Songbook Committee itself.  As a rather opinionated fifteen-year-old with what I considered sufficient knowledge of Reformed hymnody, I began to collect my own thoughts and concerns regarding the Hymn Proposal, ultimately submitting an 88-page report to my own consistory.  Although my approach was almost certainly over-zealous, many other URC members shared my worries.  By the time Synod 2012 convened, its agenda had amassed five overtures and one appeal regarding the proposed Psalter Hymnal from two classes and one consistory.

The chief result of the musical deliberations at Synod 2012 was that the URCNA approved the proposal to merge efforts with the OPC.  First the URC’s Songbook Committee would work together with the OPC’s committee to adapt the psalm section the OPC had already almost completed; then the Hymn Proposal would be revisited.  Cognizant of the significant concerns expressed via the overtures to Synod 2012, Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen assured members in an October 2012 report that “this final hymn collection submitted to synod will be quite different from the Hymn Proposal previously distributed.”  In November 2012, reporting on their progress in compiling a Psalm Proposal, the Committee noted that it was “especially sensitive to maintain important continuity with the blue Psalter Hymnal.”  This desire to remain faithful to our churches’ rich heritage of psalmody and hymnody has remained evident in all of the Songbook Committee’s most recent communications to the churches.

This brief historical rundown brings us to the current status of the project.  After the OPC’s General Assembly met in June of 2013, the two Songbook Committees released a digital version of the complete Psalm Proposal at a website specifically created for the purpose, PsalterHymnal.org.  Shortly thereafter, the URC Songbook Committee sent a letter to the consistories of all United Reformed congregations announcing the availability of this website for any interested church members.

This is an excellent step forward, but I have some concerns as well.

While PsalterHymnal.org provides an email address to which comments and concerns can be sent (comments@psalterhymnal.org), the URC committee has not established any formal feedback process like the one utilized in the time of the Hymn Proposal.  Although this prevents reams of musically technical recommendations from being awkwardly assigned to synod’s deliberation, I fear that it has also inhibited much of the conversation that is not only healthy but necessary for the quality of the finished product.

And the period for feedback expires December 31st, 2013.

Noting that the URC-related social circles I’ve been observing have remained surprisingly quiet with regard to the proposed Psalter-Hymnal over the past few months, I emailed Rev. Vander Meulen to inquire how the feedback process was going.  His reply echoed my own concerns: “We’ve received some responses, but not a lot.  With you, I’m a bit concerned that the word is not getting out.”

Although the Songbook Committee is competent to provide us with a solid and Biblically-sound book of praise, the very nature of their work tends to obscure the needs and desires of the average congregation.  Silence from the churches forces the committee’s members to act without vital feedback on the Psalm Proposal—feedback, I should add, which they themselves have requested.

United Presbyterian PsaltersWith less than ten weeks left in which to submit comments regarding the Psalm Proposal, our congregations’ review process should have started months ago.  Needless to say, all of us have busy lives and plentiful commitments.  As a busy college student with civil engineering as a stated major, my schedule isn’t exactly free either.  But if you struggle to find motivation to carefully consider this collection of songs, remember that the decisions made now will affect the musical heritage of our churches ten, twenty, maybe fifty years from now—profoundly, if not irrevocably.

If the hymns under consideration for our churches’ use were an important matter, how much more critical are the psalms!  We have entrusted this committee of fallible men and women to provide us with accurate and beautiful versifications of God’s Word itself, the singing of which is a divinely-required ordinance in worship.  If we fail to interact with the Songbook Committee’s work now, not only do we insult the hard labor they have been faithfully been carrying out for nearly fifteen years, we also gravely disservice future generations.

Over the next week I’ll be attempting to evaluate various aspects of the Psalm Proposal, as I have time.  If you’d like to join in this review, I’d encourage you to contact Songbook Committee chairman Rev. Vander Meulen at derrickvandermeulen@gmail.com for the username and password required to access the digital version of the Psalm Proposal at PsalterHymnal.org.  The collection is password-protected merely to prevent abuse of the sheet music, for which copyright permissions have not yet been secured.  Feel free to leave your own comments here, as always; I’d love to see URC Psalmody fulfill its intended role as a discussion forum rather than a lecture podium.

Readers, we have the opportunity to make our federation’s new songbook the finest it can possibly be, for God’s glory.  With grace, humility, and plenty of prayer, let’s give it our best effort.

–MRK

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9 Responses to “Meet Your New Psalter (Part 1)”


  1. 1 Al Brouwer October 29, 2013 at 12:13 pm

    Our church Immanuel URC Jordan Ontario has a committee of 7 reviewing the proposed psalms and hope to respond to the committee by the end of November. In addition, we are singing two of the Psalms, not presently in our Blue, as part of our pre service songs each Sunday morning. We had introduced the proposed hymns the same way but have now switched to the psalms.

  2. 3 Norm V. October 29, 2013 at 12:30 pm

    MK: “the URC committee has not established any formal feedback process like the one utilized in the time of the Hymn Proposal.”

    The formal feedback process is to email the committee with reviews, concerns, and suggestions for improvement. This seems to be far superior to the previous method used (overtures winding their way through our assemblies and overwhelming the systems we use to generate consensus on ecclesiastical matters).

    The psalter hymnal committee has wisely given a preview of their synodical report. Now they can filter the feedback they receive and improve the synodical report (with the psalter proposal as its primary appendix) before it is dropped on delegates. I think/hope? this will be an improvement on the experience we had with the hymnal.

    • 4 Michael Kearney October 29, 2013 at 7:48 pm

      Rev. VEP, perhaps I was hasty to draw a correlation between the new method of feedback and the lack of “conversation that is not only healthy but necessary for the quality of the finished product.” As far as the process goes, I tend to concur that the current method is superior to the old one, but it’s not necessarily supreme. However, I do feel confident that if the project moves forward on the current track, it has the potential to result in a truly beneficial songbook–just as long as we start the conversation now. Dropping another song proposal on unaware delegates, I think, is the last thing the Songbook Committee wants or the URCNA needs.

      Blessings,

      –MRK

  3. 5 Derrick Vander Meulen October 29, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Thank you, Michael, for taking up the matter again.

    I agree with Norm V. that the present method being used to communicate concerns, changes, advice, etc. is superior than the other used for the hymn proposal. And given the fact that the URC is now working with the OPC, this method allows both committees to work with the responses and then make an identical recommendation to the 2014 Synod and GA.

    One point of correction: while the URC Psalter Hymnal committee was first appointed in 1997, the mandate to produce a Psalter Hymnal was made by Synod 1999. Prior to that the committee’s mandate was to research possibilities and report to Synod 1999.

  4. 7 Sean McDonald October 29, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Just to clarify: The 1912 Psalter had nine denominations working on it, not eight. You mentioned “the Reformed Presbyterian Church.” The original preface to the 1912 Psalter (upon which you appear to be relying for the rest of your information), mentions “the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Synod” (the “Old Lights,” i.e. the modern day RPCNA), along with “the Reformed Presbyterian Church, General Synod” (the “New Lights,” i.e. those who divided from the RPCNA in 1833, and later, through different mergers, ended up in the PCA in the 1980s).

    The RPCNA and (I believe) the Associate Presbyterian Church (which later merged with the RPCNA in 1969) ultimately rejected the 1912 Psalter because of its unfaithfulness to the text of Scripture.

    • 8 Michael Kearney October 29, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      Mr. McDonald,

      I could potentially defend myself with some complicated explanation regarding how I had already taken into account the RPCNA’s eventual rejection of the 1912 Psalter and had removed them from the list. Or I could just admit that I miscounted (which is the truth).

      The blog post will be fixed soon.

      Blessings,

      Michael Kearney


  1. 1 Meet Your New Psalter (Part 2) | URC Psalmody Trackback on October 30, 2013 at 6:32 pm

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