Posts Tagged 'Psalter'



Eight Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Psalters

DSC02858

A blog post entitled “15 Reasons Why We Should Still Be Using Hymnals” has been gathering a lot of attention in the Christian blogosphere lately. Its author, Jonathan Aigner, presents a list of musical, practical, and symbolic/theological justifications for the continued use of hymnals in modern churches.

Most of his musical and practical points revolve around the fact that a hymnal places everything needed for worship in the hands of the congregation, setting an objective standard and showing who the true participants of worship should be.  Hymnals don’t require an up-to-date audio-visual system, they aren’t subject to technological glitches, and they don’t distract worshipers with bright colors and animations. These affirmations are a refreshing change from the increasingly stale world of contemporary Christian music.

I was most interested, however, in Aigner’s eight points of symbolic/theological relevance and their connection to a Reformed psalm-singing model of worship. If these are reasons to keep a hymnal, what should be our reasons to keep the psalter? I’ll offer a few thoughts in response to each of the author’s reasons below.

“1. Hymnals are a theological textbook.”

If the hymnal is good, this is true. But it’s just as easy to find a theologically bad hymnal as to find a theologically bad set of PowerPoint lyrics. Even the blue Psalter Hymnal contains some lyrics that don’t make it an entirely sound “theological textbook.” The experiential focus of #374 comes to mind, in which God “speaks to me everywhere”; or the lyrics of #478, which seem to confuse America with the new Israel; or especially #379 with its boldfaced Arminian plea, “Lord Jesus, Thou seest I patiently wait.” No, hymnals aren’t reputable repositories of flawless and systematic doctrine, and treating one as a “theological textbook” will likely lead to trouble.

A psalter, on the other hand, is a theological textbook. It proclaims the excellencies of God (Psalm 147), the beauty of creation (Psalm 8), the ramifications of the Fall (Psalm 14), the nature of God’s covenant (Psalm 78), the wonder of redemption (Psalm 130), the glory of God’s word (Psalm 119), the kingship of Christ (Psalm 110), and the life everlasting (Psalm 16)—just to mention a few themes of the psalms. And the text of a psalter is from the inspired Word of God itself, so (barring an unfaithful translation) all of its doctrine is true! What more “reliable sources of theological information” could there be?

“2. Hymnals involve tactile action.”

Aigner claims that holding a hymnal “engages you in the activity more than staring at a screen ever could.” To me, the virtue of a physical songbook is not so much in validating engagement but rather in validating authority. In contrast to PowerPoint lyrics that could have been thrown together from any number of sources, a printed songbook holds itself accountable for the source of its contents. In the case of a psalter, that source is the Word of God itself.

“3. Hymnals are not particularly distracting.”

Screens, as Aigner points out, can easily lose worshipers “in the colors, backgrounds, and movements.” This is a worthy point. Reformed worship has always been characterized by remarkable simplicity (more on that below), and a book containing only the words and notes to be sung powerfully emphasizes that simplicity.

“4. Hymnals preserve the aesthetics of the Sanctuary.”

Reformed churches have never focused much on visual beauty or ornate architecture. Our idea of “aesthetics” is governed chiefly by one principle: the centrality in worship of the Word and sacraments. In the sanctuary, these elements of worship are represented by the pulpit, the baptismal font, and the communion table.

By excluding distracting projection systems, printed songbooks help to preserve the proper focus in the aesthetics of the Reformed sanctuary. However, if our idea of sanctuary aesthetics is contingent on whether or not we see rows of attractive-looking hymnals in the pew backs, we’re starting in the wrong place.

“5. Hymnals confront us with ‘new’ songs.”

Aigner’s point here is that hymnals stretch congregations to learn unfamiliar songs. This is true, and how much more so for the Book of Psalms! Not only does the psalm-singer continually find new, unfamiliar passages as he explores this collection of inspired texts, but he will be confronted by new depth even in familiar passages as the Holy Spirit applies the Word to his heart.

“6. Hymnals give validity to new hymns.”

I must confess I’m not entirely sure what Aigner means by this statement. He comments, “The fact that these [new] songs are now sandwiched in between hymns like ‘Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty’ and ‘Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,’ adds to their validity.”

Is a song’s position in a hymnal a good criterion by which to judge its validity? Finding “In the Garden” (to use the author’s whipping-boy) across the page from “How Firm a Foundation” doesn’t give me a higher opinion of it—nor should it.

A psalter, however, does validate psalms we might be tempted to skip over—for example, abject laments like Psalm 137 sandwiched between psalms of praise like Psalms 136 and 138. By its composition, a complete psalter reveals a broad spectrum of attitudes of prayer and praise which are appropriate for worship.

“7. Hymnals make songs less disposable.”

In contrast to “text on a screen” that “is there one second and gone the next,” “hymnals are symbols of consistency.” True, but hymnals get regular makeovers too. I remember a comment by the CRC and RCA’s new songbook committee to the effect that a typical hymnal has a lifespan of only about 25 years. In contrast, the psalms form a complete and unchanging songbook for the worship of God’s people. While psalters, too, need periodic revision to ensure clarity and faithfulness to Scripture, the permanence of their contents far surpasses that of a hymnal.

“8. Hymnals give congregational singing back to the people.”

“Holding hymnals symbolizes the fact that the voice of the congregation is the primary instrument in corporate worship,” says Aigner. Amen! Everything about corporate worship, as we’ve been considering in recent posts, revolves around the holy dialogue between God and his people. Congregationally sung, the psalms are an unsurpassable manifestation of that conversation as we sing God’s Word back to him.

All in all, Aigner says hymnals “are important symbols for worshiping congregations,” chiefly because they set an objective standard for congregational worship while reclaiming it from the control of the projection system or worship team. How much more are psalters essential symbols for worshiping congregations! They symbolize our desire to worship God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, in a manner he has commanded, and with the words he has given us.

Sing to the Lord, sing His praise, all ye peoples,
New be your song as new honors ye pay;
Sing of His majesty, bless Him forever,
Show His salvation from day to day.

–MRK

IMG_0158

Advertisements

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.

Meet Your New Psalter (Part 3)

Hymnal Line-Up

As we continue this brief journey through the proposed psalm section of the joint URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal, I’d like to spend some time today evaluating a few specific songs from its contents.  Please keep in mind that much of this material represents merely my own biases and opinions; nevertheless, I hope it can at least serve as a helpful stimulus for your own reactions and recommendations.

1A, “That Man Is Blest”

Let Psalm Proposal #1A serve as the poster-child for this collection’s many settings that exactly (or nearly) duplicate songs from our existing Psalter Hymnal.  A careful look through “That Man Is Blest” reveals only one tiny textual change, from the archaic “Yea, blest” in stz. 2 to the more contemporary “How blest.”  Everything about the tune, MEDITATION, including its Psalter Hymnal key and harmonization, has been preserved.  You’ll also notice that gender neutralization is not an issue here—references to “that man” and “his works” have remained, in keeping with many modern Bible translations including the English Standard Version.

Many other Psalter Hymnal settings have been preserved in the Psalm Proposal in their entirety and without significant alterations.  Here are a few other examples:

69ph, “Thy Loving-Kindness, Lord, Is Good and Free”

“Thy Loving-Kindness, Lord, Is Good and Free” (Psalter Hymnal #129) has long been a favorite selection from the Psalter.  Although its text is rooted in the reality of affliction, it looks upward to the Lord’s never-failing mercy.

This text is one of those “Psalter Hymnal essentials” which the Songbook Committee has wisely included in the Psalm Proposal.  However, the tune is another matter: the committee chose to replace EVENTIDE (“Abide with Me”), which appears in the PsH and has been used with this text since the 1912 Psalter, with ELLERS (“Savior, Again to Thy Dear Name We Raise,” PsH #326).

While tune choices necessarily reflect some aspects of personal taste and preference, I can point to several objective reasons why EVENTIDE remains a more faithful choice to accompany this text.  First, it is a highly familiar selection, having been used with this text for more than 100 years.  Second, it possesses musical integrity as a conventional and well-proven hymn tune (though it should be noted that ELLERS is musically sound as well).  Third, and perhaps most importantly, its associations with the text of Psalm 69 are deep and profound.  Even as distressed Christians sing, “Needy and sorrowful, to Thee I cry,” the tune calls to mind the words of “Abide with Me”—“I need Thy presence every passing hour; / What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?”  Such a connection is lost when the tune of a psalm setting is needlessly changed.

Although personal preference is certainly involved in this discussion, as a church musician I have reservations about several of the Psalm Proposal’s tune changes which neither connect properly with the text nor provide the familiarity essential to a smooth transition to a new songbook.  Here is a partial list:

To be fair, the Songbook Committee has also made several commendable tune modifications to settings in the Psalm Proposal.  For instance, 104B, “My Soul, Bless the Lord,” replaces the Psalter Hymnal’s HOUGHTON with the association-rich tune LYONS, which calls to mind the creation imagery present in the familiar hymn “O Worship the King” (PsH #315).  Interested observers may also notice the introduction of several appropriate new tunes such as NEW CITY FELLOWSHIP for 51pr, “God, Be Merciful to Me” (in addition to the familiar tune AJALON).

On the other end of the spectrum, some of what I consider to be the Psalter Hymnal’s weakest tune choices have been preserved in the Psalm Proposal.  Perhaps the most dramatic instance is 13, “How Long Will You Forget Me,” whose bouncy tune FAR OFF LANDS seems totally unsuited for all but the last stanza of this desolate lament.  Since pairing a psalm text with an appropriate tune is one of the most difficult challenges an editorial board can face, do not hesitate to share well-reasoned recommendations of this nature with the Songbook Committee.  They welcome such feedback!

19A, “The Heavens Above Declare”

Much more common than psalm settings which alter the tune of a familiar Psalter Hymnal number are selections which pair a new versification with an existing tune.  Psalm Proposal 19A, for instance, utilizes the tune of Psalter Hymnal #28 (ARTHUR’S SEAT) with new words from the Scottish collection Sing Psalms.  Here are a few other instances of this trend, which seems to help bridge the gap between the familiar PsH psalm settings and the new versions in this proposal:

128B, “Blest the Man Who Fears Jehovah”

Among the Psalm Proposal’s selections, 128B seems a bit of an enigma.  Although its lyrics have been thoroughly modernized, the Songbook Committee made the decision to keep all three uses of the obsolescent form of the Lord’s name, “Jehovah.”  In contrast, many of the Psalm Proposal’s other selections, even those in which the word “Jehovah” plays a much more significant role, have lost this familiar term.  Numbers 146 and 148pr, both formerly titled “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” now bear significantly altered lyrics and hardly recognizable titles.  In general, I am inclined to suggest that even though the name “Jehovah” is neither up-to-date nor linguistically correct, perhaps the Songbook Committee should approach its removal with a little more caution—especially for the first edition of this new Psalter Hymnal.  A few of many other instances in which “Jehovah” has been removed:

This selected survey of the Psalm Proposal’s contents is far from exhaustive, nor is it a particularly well-refined exposition.  However, if nothing else, I hope this blog post has served as a somewhat-helpful introduction to the many facets of the Psalm Proposal.  Do you have any comments or concerns to share?  What are your favorite or least favorite selections in this proposed songbook?  I’d love to know!

–MRK

 

Meet Your New Psalter (Part 2)

Songbook Committee Report Excerpt

(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

Psalm Proposal Pie

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.

Examples: 1A, 32A, 51ph, 103ph

(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 derrickvandermeulen@gmail.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.

Examples: 42A, 51A, 98B

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.

psalmodyflowchartA 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.

Examples: 2046A, 98A

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.

Examples: 36pr

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.

–MRK

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


Welcome to URC Psalmody

We hope you'll join us as we discuss music, worship, the psalms, the church, and much more here on URC Psalmody. You can learn about the purpose of this blog here. We look forward to to seeing you in the discussions!

With this feature, just enter your email address and you'll receive notifications of new posts on URC Psalmody by email!

Join 214 other followers

Categories

Advertisements