by Michael R. Kearney
The URC is currently working on producing its own Psalter Hymnal. “But,” you might exclaim, “the URC already has a Psalter Hymnal! Doesn’t it?” 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. Since 1999 this committee has been faithfully working on the task of compiling and producing a new Psalter Hymnal for the URC.
The First Hymn Proposal
At Synod 2010, the first tangible fruits of the committee’s labor were delivered to the churches in the form of the Hymn Proposal. Spiral-bound copies of the proposed hymn section of the new Psalter Hymnal were sent to all URC churches for the consistories to review and critique. Where there is work, there is usually heat, and so there was in this case. Naturally, many of those who had loved the CRC Psalter Hymnal since their childhood felt slighted that relatively few of its hymns had been included in the proposal, while others were disappointed not to find their own favorites in its contents. Issues like modernization of lyrics, gender neutralization, and extensive musical alterations were key discussion points. On top of all this arose the recurring question, “Why do we need a new Psalter Hymnal anyway?”
The Psalm Proposal
Despite these road-bumps, the committee received a great deal of helpful critiques from the various congregations and classes of the URC in the summer and fall of 2011. Meanwhile, the Psalter Hymnal Committee had also begun working on the psalm section of the new Psalter Hymnal. It was during this work that the joyful decision was made to merge the efforts of the United Reformed Churches and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) and prepare a joint Psalter Hymnal. Not only would this be an excellent form of promoting unity with a closely related sister denomination, but it would also make the work for both churches easier, since the OPC had already completed a significant amount of work on the psalm settings and the URC had completed its Hymn Proposal. An added benefit would be that the end result could have a broader impact, not just on the URC and OPC, but on Reformed churches worldwide. The decision to merge efforts was finalized at Synod Nyack of the URCNA on June 13, 2012.
Next came the intensive process of forming a joint Psalm Proposal that would combine the highlights of both denominations’ psalm-singing traditions with a new collection of beautiful and Biblically-sound selections. The website www.psalterhymnal.org was created to house digital versions of the songs slated for inclusion, and interested URC and OPC members were invited to send feedback to their denominations’ Songbook Committees through the end of 2013.
In June 2014 the URCNA’s synod unanimously (and the OPC’s General Assembly later overwhelmingly) approved the psalm section of the proposed Psalter Hymnal. The vote to move forward showed a recognition of the quantity and the quality of the work that has already been done on the new Psalter Hymnal, and perhaps too a realization that the time has come to finish this project.
The Second Hymn Proposal
The new collaboration with the OPC, combined with the extensive feedback received regarding the first Hymn Proposal, prompted the Psalter Hymnal Committees to prepare a second collection of hymns. In March 2015 the committees released the titles (and later the sheet music) of 428 songs to be included in this second Hymn Proposal. After receiving feedback from church members, the committees presented the revised collection to the URC’s synod and the OPC’s General Assembly in 2016. Both bodies voted to adopt the new songbook with thanks for the extensive work of the committee members on the project, which has been dubbed the Trinity Psalter Hymnal.
The denominations have agreed to publish a single edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal which will include psalms, hymns, the ecumenical creeds, the Three Forms of Unity, and the Westminster Standards. In addition, each denomination will produce a separate booklet containing its specific liturgical forms (unlike the CRC editions of the Psalter Hymnal that contained the liturgical forms and church order after the confessions).
Lord willing, the Trinity Psalter Hymnal of the URC and OPC could be in our hands by as early as 2017. Until then, we look forward to the day when these likeminded denominations successfully produce a unique songbook for faithful Reformed congregations everywhere.
To God be the glory!
- PsalterHymnal.org, the online home of the project, contains digital files for each of the settings in the Psalm Proposal. The collection is protected, but you can obtain the password by following the directions on the site.
- “Principles and Guidelines” is an excerpt from my report on the URC Hymn Proposal. It includes the synodically-approved guidelines for selecting church music, as well as some extra principles outlined by the musicians at West Sayville URC.
- The Psalter Hymnal area of the URCNA website includes several reports and other information about the work of the Psalter Hymnal Committee.
- A list of articles regarding the URC/OPC Psalter Hymnal project can be found here.
Last updated July 4, 2016