Now that the new hymnal's list of contents is public, cries of joy and anguish are being heard across the country. Favorite hymns and songs are lost and found. Questions of why and why not are asked. Everyone will find titles they prefer not be included, and puzzle over others' exclusion.
Presbyterian polity traditionally discerns God's presence and call through the work of community. The Presbyterian Publishing Corporation thus accepted applications for the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS). From over 200 nominations, 15 people were called to this service. They worked diligently for over three years, discussing theology, mission, diversity, worship praxes, musicality, and other aspects of our denominational life together.
Every hymn and song was submitted to the committee anonymously; all author, composer, date, and identifying information was removed to promote honest and unbiased reflection. A 2/3 majority vote was required to move forward in the process. Submissions were voted on 2-5 times. To carry forward, each hymn was analyzed on its own merits. The text's clarity, theology, and language were significant factors. A tune's singability, playability, and instrumentation were considered. Ecumenical resources were also consulted; in some cases it was important to have consensus with other denominations' hymnals, though in other cases it was just as important to be the lone voice.
The PCOCS were not always of same mind. Differences of opinion were present just as in any other committee. Some songs had ardent supporters, but were not embraced by the whole. Some texts' theology were not representative of our Reformed theological heritage. Some tunes' music were too complicated to notate, or too difficult to sing -- reaching too high or low, rhythmically challenging, or simply unengaging. Some hymns had not been in common usage for decades (or longer).
The PC(U.S.A.) is remarkably diverse, with a membership of over 10,000 congregations and institutions. The task of selecting a denominational hymnal's contents is, thus, complex. Hymnals are not collections of any one person's (or congregation's) favorite hymns. Hymnals are collections of our ‘common denominator’ hymns; those hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs that a committee recognized as being sung by all, or needing to be sung by all.
Hymnals are limited collections, but do not have to limit our congregational singing. Worship leaders and congregations are encouraged to continue singing their local favorites, even when they aren’t included in the hymnal. Many congregations copy and paste their particular favorite into the back of their hymnal (with proper copyright permissions, of course!). May this project challenge your congregation to sing a new song to the Lord, and also encourage your congregation to continue singing God's glory through well-known, much-loved, 'old chestnuts' of the church.