We are grateful for the many good ideas shared as folks learn about and discuss Glory to God. Eric Wall, Director for Music at FPC Asheville and Montreat Conference Center, wrote the following article for his congregation's newsletter. He granted permission for others to copy and use as needed. Perhaps this will aid your congregation's discussion.
“A Hymnal Change Is Gonna Come”
A new hymnal? It can’t be time to give up the old red hymnal – oh wait….
A new hymnal? Wasn’t there something called The Worshipbook – oh, wait…
A new hymnal? We just got this new blue hymnal – oh wait....
Though statistics confirm the typical 20-25 year life span of denominational hymnals, a hymnal change can make us feel as though we’re suddenly on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise at warp speed. For myself, I came into the PCUSA about a year before the 1990 hymnal was published, and I still find myself in these latter days of 2012 calling it the “new hymnal”. Warp drive, indeed, Scotty.
Since 2008, the “peacocks” – make that PCOCS, or Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song – have met and worked with some of the most remarkably thorough and faithful diligence our denomination has witnessed. The fruits of their labors – and what I believe will be the apple of the church’s eye – began to emerge on
April 9 with the list of the new book’s contents. (It will also exist in digital formats, but I use “book” as a catch-all word here.) That list goes to General Assembly this summer– not for line-item parsing or even approval as such, but for commendation to the church. It is a magnificent and mouth-watering list of song; I can hardly wait till it rolls off the presses and into the pew racks. This list, of course, also ushers in more fully this transition period between hymnals – a period of real excitement that is also tinged with poignancy.
In very basic terms, of course, the idea of a one new hymnal for every member of a congregation means that once every twenty years, we spend fifteen or twenty bucks on a new book. (What’s your personal purchase rate of books in just one year?) That new book will be used again and again, week in and week out, for several decades. (How many of the books we buy sit around and are read once? or never?) That book is a treasure chest unsurpassed by any literary or musical anthology we can imagine: centuries of miraculous music and miraculous words – and “miraculous” is not a flippant adjective nor florid hyperbole, but something we believe to be spiritual truth:
the miracle of God in Jesus Christ. Not many books or downloads offer this to us.
Hymnals have a curious place in worshiping communities. They matter – because what’s in them matters. Songs we’ve always known, songs we’ve newly learned; the fundamentals of our faith; Biblical story; doctrine; comfort and disturbance; songs that draw us into worship and songs that kick us out into the world – and all of that might only describe words! As for music – well, where does one start? In our digital age, music is available to us from pretty much anywhere in the world, and our hymnals give us a remarkable cross-section of that breadth. Our i-tunes accounts invite us to compile our own playlists of exactly what we like and help us find more of the same; and we can easily go through a hymnal and pick out our own list of favorites (if we’ve looked at the new content list we may have done this already). But a hymnal presumes not just personal taste but also the community’s worship, and so it gives us six or seven hundred songs which say, “Here we are – notice us and sing us, like it or not”.
We are not allowed the luxury, in the community’s worship, of plucking rose petals with each hymn in the book, saying “I love it” or “I love it not”. Those questions are not irrelevant, just limited - as limited as if they were asked about people. So we sing all kinds of things, not because everything floats our own boat, but because all of it together floats the larger boat of the community. This is the excitement of a new collection like Glory to God – a staggering diversity that will engage us in amazing ways in our worship.
Because hymnals demand our engagement, a faithful response to them may at times be a joyful dance and at times a wrestling match, as is the whole life of faith. In the process, a community may come to claim a hymnal strongly. A new hymnal is a big change, and big changes may be felt in small ways. I think about The Presbyterian Hymnal: I am used to the blue cover; I am used to knowing that “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” is Hymn 376 and “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is Hymn 9; I am used to the thematic progress one gets in leafing through the “Life in Christ” section; I like the type-setting, the music engraving; I know my way around. You may have your own particulars about this or other hymnals. I think these show faithful use and genuine affection, and we aren’t always ready for the deep breath, the fresh start with a new book - and a new color – and different page numbers – and…
So for me, the transition does have poignancy. I have loved The Presbyterian Hymnal. I’ve loved playing it on the organ and the piano and hearing it sung by congregations large and small. Friends and mentors on the 1990 Hymnal Committee have fundamentally shaped my work as a church musician. For all those reasons, it’s a living book for me – it has mattered – and retiring it is significant. Equally significant
is my complete excitement about Glory to God – that is the paradox of transition. “Well done, good and faithful servant” would be appropriate words to say
to The Presbyterian Hymnal and to the people who helped shape it; the same words are just as true for Glory to God and the PCOCS.
Maybe what this time of past and future needs is our being present – noting and singing with gratitude hymns we’ve loved that won’t carry forward; noting and singing with assurance the many, many hymns we’ve loved that will move forward; noting and
singing with delight and curiosity those hymns that, in Glory to God, will be first-timers to a Presbyterian hymnal.
I hope that, as a church, we will give thanks to God for the contents and crafting of The Presbyterian Hymnal and equal thanks for the contents and crafting of Glory to God. Just as past hymnals have brought our worship to greater life, so will this wonderful new collection. Full impulse power!
More resources are available on the hymnal website.