Meet Your New Psalter: Summary Thoughts

West Sayville CRC/URC, 1943

West Sayville CRC/URC, 1943

The United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) are a peculiar lot.  In age, our churches range from a hundred and fifty years to merely a few months.  In size, some have only a few dozen members, while others have close to one thousand.  In background, their ministers and members hail from Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Presbyterian, evangelical, and Roman Catholic backgrounds, just to name a few.

For all these differences, we still choose to identify ourselves with the term “United.”  The glory of the Church is that we, though many members, are one body through Christ’s blood (I Cor. 10:17).  It is he who “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and . . . made them a kingdom and priests to our God” (Rev. 5:9, 10 ESV).  Unity, we confess, does not require homogeneity; Christ’s Church comprises many members from different backgrounds who are called to serve different functions for the edification of the whole body.

Within the broad dome of the Church universal stands the URCNA, as a group of believers with common convictions about how God desires to be worshiped according to his Word.  Our congregations have entered into this covenant together: “The churches of the federation, although distinct, voluntarily display their unity by means of a common confession and church order.  This is expressed as they cooperate and exercise mutual concern for one another.”1 Seeking to honor the Apostle Paul’s command that all things in the churches be done decently and in good order (1 Cor. 14:40), we agree to uphold this specific kind of unity by upholding common principles of government.

However, believing the same things does not always mean that we practice the same things.  For a variety of reasons, the particulars of worship in the URCNA differ from congregation to congregation: the format of the liturgy, the proportion of psalms to hymns, the length of the sermon, and so on.  Germane to the focus of URC Psalmody, the songbooks each church utilizes vary as well.

While the majority of our congregations have used the blue 1959/1976 CRC Psalter Hymnal for years, a growing number of churches use alternate songbooks such as the Trinity Hymnal, the Trinity Psalter, or the Book of Psalms for Worship.  Some churches have transitioned into a more hymn-based pattern of worship, while many churches maintain the primacy of the psalter.  Reflecting on such a broad spectrum, it is impossible to imagine that a new songbook for the URCNA can ever meet the needs and desires of every one of our congregations.

Distribution of CRC Churches in the 1930s

Distribution of Christian Reformed Churches, 1939

Added to some of the other stresses the URCNA faces at this point in its seventeen-year existence, the subject of a new Psalter Hymnal raises further complications.  Our federation’s painful departure from the liberalizing Christian Reformed Church has made us suspicious of denominational hierarchy and alert against hints of liberalism in our own federation.2  As we try to solidify our own unity, our attempts to unite with like-minded denominations have thus far been extremely cautious.  Ideologically, we must combat mindless traditionalism in worship while quelling fears about the ethnocentricity often caricatured in Dutch Reformed churches.

The process of adopting our first federational songbook (in collaboration with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church) confronts us at just this challenging and formative stage of the URCNA’s existence.  Right now, perhaps the unhealthiest possible path would be to compel each church to discard its distinctives in favor of an across-the-board standard for psalm- and hymn-singing.  I sometimes wonder if—for now—it would be as foolhardy to require our oldest churches to discard their blue Psalter Hymnals as it would be to coerce new congregations into purchasing them.

Uniformity and unity are not the same thing.  And true unity takes time.

So, as a federation of churches from such diverse backgrounds and situations, how do we move forward?  In particular, how do we produce a songbook that will unify us rather than dividing us?

What follows are the humble thoughts of a first-generation URC member with little experience or wisdom to offer regarding the best course of action for our churches.  Because of my comparative ignorance of the traditions and requirements of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the focus of this post may seem too narrow, for which I sincerely apologize.  If you gain nothing else, I simply ask you to follow my chain of reasoning—at least as it applies to the URCNA—and see whether you arrive at the same conclusions.  Let this be not an arrogant opinion piece, but a catalyst for deeper discussion.

Psalter Hymnals in use during a mission tripAlthough I cannot fully say that I “grew up” with the blue Psalter Hymnal, even my thirteen years in the URCNA have inculcated in me a deep admiration for the history and heritage of our churches.  I am awed to think that when my home congregation sings Psalm 122 from the blue Psalter Hymnal, “My Heart Was Glad to Hear the Welcome Sound,” they sing it in union with their forefathers, who utilized this very song in the church’s fiftieth anniversary celebration in 1926.  It blows me away to realize that the tunes for selections like “As the Hart, About to Falter” were composed at the request of John Calvin himself in the mid-1500’s—and, of course, that their psalm-texts were sung in Old Testament Israel.

When it comes to longstanding traditions, we can just as easily overlook their beauty in our zeal for improvement as ignore their pitfalls in an aversion to change.  Despite its flaws, I firmly believe that the blue Psalter Hymnal offers our denomination a rich and meaningful collection of psalms and hymns.  Like any good songbook, it honors our heritage while uniting the church across continents and centuries.  (How does this compare to the creed of contemporary Christian worship, in which a fifteen-year-old chorus has already exceeded its shelf life?)

Am I of the opinion that the URCNA should scrap the entire Psalter Hymnal project and stick to the “Old Blue”?  Absolutely not.  For many reasons I heartily concur with multiple URC synods that, sooner or later, our federation must move past the CRC 1959/1976 Psalter Hymnal.  Given the blue book’s many decades of service and the vast diversity of our churches’ perspectives, however, I am apprehensive of the consequences of a drastic musical transition at this point in the URC’s history.  To compel our senior saints now to learn new words and tunes to psalms they have sung since their childhood presents a loss I am not sure the immediate benefits of a modernized psalter can outweigh.

1934, 1946, and 1976 editions of the Psalter Hymnal

Please don’t misunderstand me: an accurate, literal, modern psalter is a noble goal.  But if our churches are to remain united, the transition from old to new must be as gentle and gradual as possible.

For this reason I am deeply grateful to the Songbook Committee for striving to preserve many of the favorites of the blue Psalter Hymnal, especially the selections whose lyrics have remained unaltered.  In general, I’d rather see the “Old Blue” over-represented than under-represented in this first edition.  Even if some of its imperfections must be carried over for now, there will be sufficient opportunities for improvement in future editions.

The Book of Psalms for WorshipLet it not be said that the Psalm Proposal offers no positive contributions to our psalm-singing repertoire—far from it!  For instance, I was thrilled to notice the inclusion of several Reformed Presbyterian favorites such as 91B (“Who with God Most High Finds Shelter”) and 98A (“O Sing a New Song to the Lord”).3  As I continue my studies here at Geneva College (a Reformed Presbyterian institution), I am personally developing a love for their unique approach to psalm-singing.  Such selections are indispensable: they contribute to the overall quality and Scriptural accuracy of our own psalmody while building unity with the RPCNA, our (Phase 2) sister denomination.

However, for every new song in the Psalm Proposal, I would personally love to see a more substantial handful of Psalter Hymnal material as well.  Including more well-known “standard repertoire” like PsH numbers 7, 22, 70, 95, 135, 137, 185, 201, 205, 230, 267, and 307—with few alterations, may I add?—could significantly lessen the doxological bump our churches will face.

Admittedly, this is a tall order.  Above the preferences of the churches, our Songbook Committee must be cognizant of the needs of their collaborators in the OPC, while maintaining a product that faithfully sets God’s Word to appropriate and beautiful music.  Nevertheless, if the new Psalter Hymnal tears our federation apart rather than building it up, one of its critical purposes has failed.

Whether our music comes from the blue Psalter Hymnal or any other songbook, singing God’s praises in a sin-cursed world can never be executed perfectly.  Yet we are one in Christ, and Christ himself can give the United Reformed Churches in North America the humility and brotherly love we need to see this wonderful expression of unity come to fruition.

If that true unity develops, the blessings that result from this project will make even its gravest challenges worthwhile.

–MRK

1 Church Order of the United Reformed Churches in North America, 6th ed., p. 1.

2 See “A History of the United Reformed Churches in North America.”  

3 Note that to access these links, you will need the password provided upon request to all URCNA and OPC members by our Songbook Committee Chairman, Rev. Derrick Vander Meulen.  Email him at derrickvandermeulen@gmail.com.

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6 Responses to “Meet Your New Psalter: Summary Thoughts”


  1. 1 Gary November 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    Well stated, Michael. While some updating of our beloved old songs may be possible, there are many good reasons why it may be best to do so only where it’s necessary, and frankly I see little bad theology in the Psalms and Hymns of 59/76 Psalter Hymnal.

  2. 2 Ian November 19, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Great post. I expect that as you continue in RPCNA circles, your appreciation of many of their selections is certain to grow. To me the RPCNA psalters represent the modern standard for adherence to the original text. Based on my familiarity with their 1973 psalter, I think many of the RPCNA psalms are captured much better than in the CRC 1959 – for example, look at Psalm 95 (#184 in the blue, the one that, I think, maintained the most popularity) vs. any of the settings in the 1973 RPCNA psalter. I would respectfully submit the ‘Old Blue’ version seems pretty watered down in the last verse. So ‘new and revised’ certainly doesn’t have to mean a downgrade. I find it interesting that when the CRC produced their 1990 grey Psalter Hymnal they abandoned the 1959 version and used the RPCNA words (modified) for Psalm 9. Once again ‘Old Blue’ seems pretty weak and lacks specificity with adherence to the text for this psalm.

    I am certainly not meaning to pick on the 1959 Psalter Hymnal – just putting out a few examples of where I think something better could be possible. I am sure the songbook committee is giving thoughtful consideration to many such cases. I also do not mean to imply the RPCNA words are all perfected – there is always the potential to improve both poetry and accuracy. I have arranged lyrics to the respective meters of their psalms 80B and 95C (1973) that rhyme, and are still quite accurate. However, I do like the RPCNA versions of Psalm 91 and 98 very much as well!

    • 3 Michael Kearney November 19, 2013 at 7:52 pm

      Thanks for these thoughts, Ian. Indeed, I don’t think that anyone in the URCNA would claim that the Psalter Hymnal contains a more literal rendering of the psalms than the Book of Psalms for Singing / Worship. The problem is how to move forward as a federation without sacrificing our unity: a jolt upwards is just as jarring as a jolt downwards.

      Incidentally, Psalm 9 is a particularly poorly represented selection in the blue Psalter Hymnal. Check the 1912 Psalter, from which the PsH was largely derived, and you’ll find a much more complete versification which looks a lot more like the version in the BoPfS.

      Also, there are some very excellent psalm settings in the blue Psalter Hymnal which were notable enough to make their way into the Book of Psalms for Worship. One that comes to mind right away is #304, BoPfW #148B, “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah.” While such gems are sometimes hard to find in our “blue book,” they do exist!

      Thanks again for your comments,

      Michael

  3. 4 Norm V. November 27, 2013 at 3:20 pm

    MK writes: “To compel our senior saints now to learn new words and tunes to psalms they have sung since their childhood presents a loss I am not sure the immediate benefits of a modernized psalter can outweigh.”

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to say in this statement. Learning new words and tunes does not, in itself, represent a loss. Most of our congregations should consider a lengthy time of two-book-usage. This would continue the practice of singing familiar psalms and less-familiar psalms that is a part of our current pattern of worship.

    • 5 Gary November 27, 2013 at 9:29 pm

      “… consider a lengthy time of two-book-usage …”

      A three-part process. Part one was 1959 until now. 😉

    • 6 Michael Kearney November 30, 2013 at 3:37 pm

      Rev. VEP,

      Perhaps I tried to cram too many thoughts into a single sentence. No, learning new (more accurate) words and (better) tunes does not necessarily represent a loss to the church as an entity. However, does this process not represent at least a short-term loss to individual members within a congregation, as they find themselves thrown off their familiar pattern of worship while struggling to learn new lyrics and music? Perhaps you have found otherwise; I know I struggle to maintain the sincerity of my own worship when I’m distracted with alterations in a familiar psalm or hymn text. And this loss to our individual members hampers our unity, effectively becoming a loss to all of us.

      I’m not denying that great long-term benefits exist. But do they justify a sudden burst of drastic changes whose short-term impact may be so detrimental?

      I tend to think that a very good solution, as you have suggested, is a generous period of two-book-usage. If we gradually introduce our churches to better psalm-singing practices, perhaps the “old Blue” will fall by the wayside of its own accord.

      –MRK


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