Thursday, September 13, 2018

Church musicians have thousands of reasons to shine

Jonathan Aigner asked which praise song readers would like to ban. I put it to a vote of experienced church musicians, and the clear “winner” was “Shine, Jesus, Shine.”

A week ago, Aigner (a Methodist church music director) offered a thought experiment: if there were a charitable auction to ban (at least temporarily) one contemporary worship song, what would you pick. Here's a brief summary of his impassioned argument:
I wish I could ban the whole money-grubbing, golden calf-creating, pop star-copying, Spirit-impersonating, consumer audience-targeting worship industry, but I can’t. Not by myself, at least. I can’t even ban one whole song. But it might make for a fun blog post and some decent discussion.

After an hour or so of thinking, I came up with a mile-long list of dumb “worship” songs. But then it hit me. While there are a ton of crappy contemporary worship songs, there is one that I hate on a deeply visceral level, more than any other crappy worship song that has been inflicted on the church during the recent commercial worship hijacking.

The year was 1993. It was a simpler time. A 21-year-old, soprano-singing Thris Comlin had yet to ruin his first hymn. And most of us were blissfully unaware of the derivative musical empire that was being erected in the land down under. Darlene “Too Many Consonants, Not Enough Vowels” Zschzschzschech penned a cute little ditty for her “worship team” to sing at Hillsong Church in Sydney.

It was called “Shout to the Lord.”
This sort of concern is a major thread on a closed Facebook group of traditional church musicians. I put it to a vote, nominating four songs. Three are perennially popular — Shout to the Lord, Ten Thousand Reasons, In Christ Alone — while King of My Heart is a more recent CCM hit. Providentially, I left the poll open for others to add options.

The Votes Are In

I got 238 votes — 228 for specific songs and 10 that said “all of the above”. One song clearly won going away: “Shine, Jesus, Shine.” Below are the 21 nominees and the number of hymnals that include each hymn (according to

Votes Song Author Date Hymnals
42.1% Shine, Jesus, Shine Graham Kendrick 1987 31
12.7% Gather Us In Marty Haugen 1982 32
8.3% Ten Thousand Reasons (Bless the Lord, O my Soul) Matt Redman 2011 3
6.1% All are Welcome Marty Haugen 1995 17
5.7% Lord of the Dance Sydney Carter 1963 41
4.4% Oceans (Where Feet May Fail) (Hillsong) 2013
3.9% Here I Am, Lord Dan Shutte 1981 47
3.1% Good, Good Father Chris Tomlin 2015
2.2% On Beagle's Wings (aka On Eagle’s Wings, aka the “You Who” song) Michael Joncas 1977 4
1.8% Amazing Grace John Newton 1779 1,230
1.8% I Am The Bread of Life Suzanne Toolan 1966 23
1.8% In Christ Alone Keith Getty, Stuart Townend
1.3% Come, Now Is the Time to Worship Brian Doerksen 1977
0.9% Shout to the Lord (Hillsong) 1993
0.9% One Bread, One Body John Foley 1978 26
0.9% All Praise and Worship
0.4% Strong and Constant Frank Andersen 1973
0.4% Companions On the Journey Carey Landry 1985
0.4% I Sing a Song of the Saints of God Lesbia Scott 1929 22
0.4% I'm Trading My Sorrows Darrell Evans 1998 1
0.4% King of My Heart Bethel Music 2016

Even with this strong showing, there was disagreement among the musicians. Clearly many if not most of the musicians knew only a handful of these nominees, and so voted for the worst of the ones they know. For example, with the California ACNA parishes and diocesan activities where I have sometimes worshipped, the musical lingua franca are “In Christ Alone” and “Ten Thousand Reasons”; the latter was a communion hymn for a 2015 consecration. I voted for this one not because it’s the worst, but because I’ve seen it (and the catchy ear worm chorus) turn a worship service into a chance for people to rock out.

Some of the CCM big names are there: Hillsong (as nominated by Aigner), Marty Haugen (two nominations), Graham Kendrick and Matt Redman (for some very good Reasons). Interestingly, almost 10% went to six post-Vatican II Catholic hymns from 1966-1985. One is a former Jesuit with a controversial lifestyle while the other is a current member of the S.J. A third is by a (then) nun, while I believe the other three authors are priests

As Sesame Street would say, one of these things is not like the other; one of these things just doesn’t belong. With 1000+ hymnals, the 240-year-old “Amazing Grace” is a legitimate Christian hymn, even if a highly emotive one that some find trite or cliché.

While I thought I’d never say this, I’d like to add a word of defense for Mr. Kendrick. Like others, I find it objectionable for a worship service, but a music scholar I respect (who may not want to be associated with this blog) said that it was never intended for this purpose. She said it was originally used for evangelization at Christian street festival in England (although that’s not what the semi-official history says). If that’s the case, then I can’t fault the author or composer for bringing it into worship, but instead (as with any other song taken off the radio) would point to the music director or even the pastor.

It's a Free Country

In reading over the visceral objections to Aigner’s posting, I want to argue my own point of view (if not necessarily his or the voters in the poll). All of us are voting for things we don’t like and (I believe in most cases) are inappropriate for a worship service. However, in the consumer-driven American church marketplace, in a big enough city just about everyone can find a church that suits their worship preferences. So all the people who love these songs — including some of my closer friends — are free to rock out to them this Sunday or any other Sunday, no matter what Aigner or 238 Facebook subscribers say.

It also appeared that some of the readers didn’t realize that blogs — particularly like other humorous commentaries — are often exaggerated for effect. I hope that no one actually reading what was written would conclude that Aigner (or the gang of 238) thinking that demon worship is preferable (or equivalent) to singing one of these songs. 

Sunday, September 2, 2018

21st century hymnals come to Waco

For the past three years, as part of the Forward in Faith church planting task force, I’ve been working with Fr. Lee Nelson, SSC, the founding vicar (now rector) of Christ Church Waco in the ACNA Diocese of Ft. Worth.

The church has been growing by leaps and bounds, from two dozen to more than 200 today. On March 25 (Palm Sunday), CCW transitioned from a series of rented spaces to its own building, a 100-year-old downtown church that it purchased from a dwindling ELCA parish.

Today’s services will mark another milestone — CCW’s first ever with printed hymnals. The parishioners will be singing with the Book of Common Praise 2017. Last week, it took delivery of the hymnals, purchased from the publisher’s second print run. The Reformed Episcopal Church had reserved the first two print runs for REC parishes, but with the decision to go to a third printing, it released the remainder of the second print run for purchase by other churches.

CCW evaluated both Hymnal 1940 and Hymnal 1982, but instead chose the newer 2017 hymnal. It offered hymns missing from the 1940 hymnal, a few hymns newer than the 1982, but without the inclusive language of the 1982 hymnal.

Update: for this first service, the hymns from the hymnal included "Live divine" (Hyfrydol), "Take my life and let it be", "Rock of ages", and "It is well with my soul."

Below is the rector’s explanation of the importance of hymns and hymnals to the worship of an Anglo-Catholic parish. It seem very relevant to both this blog and the issues that readers are facing today.

Why Sing Hymns?

NB: This Sunday, new hymnals will make their debut at Christ Church. Although we will still sing a good many songs not featured in this hymnal, we will use it every Sunday. Christ Church has been a parish which has upheld a wonderful culture of congregational hymn singing. Here, I explain why.

“From the spiritual hymns, however, proceeds much of value, much utility and sanctity, for the words purify the mind and the Holy Spirit descends swiftly upon the mind of the singer. For those who sing with understanding invoke the grace of the Spirit.”
John Chrysostom

Shortly after his conversion, C.S. Lewis refused to go to church on Sundays. Later, he realized that it was the “only way of flying your flag,” but still grumbled a bit, because to his literary mind, Christian hymnody was nothing more than “fifth-rate poems set to sixth-rate music.” As he continued on, he was broken of his conceit. It began to “peel away,” as he came to know ordinary people who would sing the hymns with devotion, people whose boots he wasn’t worthy to clean. It’s funny today to think that hymn-singing could ever be viewed as the activity of ordinary Christians, because the norm has become something of a performance - worship music performed by experts. Surely, something has been lost in this. Something which we should try to recover.

Hymnody as a Cure to Spiritual Pride

Lewis was quite right to say that Christian singing was a cure to his own conceit. In the initial phases of conversion, so much hinges on our objective experience of things. But, if we are to grow in Christian discipleship, we must take on a new vocabulary, one not our own. We must relocate that subjective experience within the living witness of the Church. To do so requires lending our voices to others, both in supporting their voices, but also in singing their words. When we sing the words of John Wesley, or Isaac Watts, or even the Getty’s, we say for a moment, we submit our own understanding to the wisdom of the whole communion of Saints.

We have to consciously work to blend our voices, keeping our own at bay. This requires a degree of humility and attention to the whole body of gathered believers.

Hymnody as Theological Exercise

Some people have mentioned to me through the years that singing hymns takes work - the engagement of the mind, the voice, and the body in worship. Modern worship choruses tend to be rather easy-going. They’re easy to sing. They don’t require much thought. And musically, they’re designed to be led by people with only a basic musical ability. Hymn singing done well, with four-part harmony and strong accompaniment, requires the ability to read music while simultaneously contemplating challenging theological themes. It takes practice!

If you can’t read music, perhaps follow the melody line - make note of the shapes of the notes and their intervals. Most hymn tunes are familiar, and singing hymns is a great way to learn to read music. If you have trouble staying on pitch, practice matching pitch with the radio or a keyboard (even a simple keyboard app will do). Maybe even take some monthly voice lessons! When I was in seminary, every student had to take church music and learn to sight read hymns. The professor of church music took great delight in finding the inner musician in people who thought they couldn’t carry a tune. And they, in turn, took great delight in finding that they could join in the Church’s worship in a way the didn’t think possible. It takes exercise and practice, but it shows us something even greater - that practice, habits, and exercise are the very things that are necessary to the spiritual life, in which we meet God, and in which we come to know His constant love.

Hymnody as a Sign of the Visible Church

It’s a sad fact, but it’s true, that Sunday mornings are just about the only time when ordinary people come together and sing. We know that Jesus sang with His disciples after breaking bread with them on the night before He was crucified. (Matt. 26:30) We know that Paul and Silas sang hymns while in prison and that Paul commended hymn singing to the churches (Ephesians 5:19). Hymns are a sign of a people who are at peace with each other, a people in whom the word of Christ dwells richly, overflowing with thanksgiving and praise. When people of various backgrounds, incomes, and educations sing together, it is an eschatological sign, not only of what will be, but of what God has done now, what has been realized among believers today.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Services for a first lady

The funeral for former first lady Barbara Bush was held today at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, followed by burial at George H.W. Bush’s presidential library at Texas A&M.

The church is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. According to Wikipedia, “It is the largest Episcopal Church in North America with nearly 9,000 members.” (Since there are no “Episcopal” churches in Canada, we assume they mean churches in the Anglican Communion).

As with similar services, it was broadcast live by C-SPAN, and available for online playback.

The blog Ponder Anew has summarized the program for the Rite I service, and the booklet is available online at an Austin TV station. Below are musical highlights, including hymns from Hymnal 1982:

Prelude music
  • “Nearer my God to thee”
  • “My country, ’tis of thee”
  • Hymn 390: “Praise to the Lord”; Tune: Lobe den Herren
During the service
  • After the 1st Lesson: “In the Garden”
  • Sequence Hymn 671: “Amazing Grace”; Tune: New Britain (V1-2 before, V3-4 afterwards)
  • After the Homily: “The Holy City"
  • Hymn 376: “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”; Tune: Ode to Joy
  • “Solemn Procession” (Richard Strauss)
A few comments. On Amazing Grace, only Newton’s original four verses are used, not the later epilog (“When we’ve been there 10,000 years”). Except for Amazing Grace, this is not standard American funeral music — the two other tunes are ones that could be sung during ordinary time or any festal season.

Finally, this seems like an unusually brief amount of music for such a grand service in such a large church with a large choir. The opening hymn has a descant written in Hymnal 1982; however, the descant does not appear in the service booklets held by the congregation in the C-SPAN video, nor could I hear it. It is not an English descant, but I think any major English choir would have sung a descant: New English Hymnal has AB Smith’s while the Oxford Book of Descants has Oxley’s.

In fact, it’s almost an anti-Colonial service, opening with a 17th century German hymn. It is followed by the text from an English abolitionist that is far more popular at American funerals than English ones (where it is only #5). It concludes with Beethoven’s most famous tune with an American text, and a postlude by a German agnostic (if not atheist).

Update: On the Facebook group for church musicians, several noted that St. Martin’s has consistently been “low church.” While this term means different things to different people, it tends to mean more Protestant and less Catholic — i.e., consistent with not using English hymns or fancy descants.

This picture shows Barbara and George Bush with their kids at St. Martin’s.
Source: Barbara Bush’s funeral program.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Bicentennial of John Mason Neale

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Mason Neale, the greatest hymn translator of the 19th century and a pioneer of the Anglo-Catholic liturgical revival that followed the Oxford Movement.

Neale (January 24, 1818-August 6, 1866) was the son and grandson of evangelical Anglican priests. His ordained ministry included being the rector of Sackville College (an almshouse founded in 1609) and, 1855, founding the Society of St. Margaret, an Anglican women’s order that provided nurses to the industrial poor (and today has chapters in England and Boston). Both groups are this week holding events marking the occasion.

As an undergraduate at Trinity College Cambridge, he cofounded the Cambridge Camden Society (later the Ecclesiological Society) which he headed for many years. The society focused on the aesthetics of church worship — both architecture and liturgy — and was credited with spurring the English gothic revival of the 19th century. Much of this was disseminated through the society’s journal (The Ecclesiologist), published from 1841-1868, for which Neale was one of the primary authors and co-editor.

Neale spent considerable time researching ancient and medieval liturgies of both the Eastern and Western church, publishing a five volume set: A History of the Holy Eastern Church as well as various Western liturgies in Latin and English translation. However, he made his greatest impact as a hymn writer and translator.

Neale’s Hymn Compilations

Neale was a prodigious author, translator and editor of hymns. The books of original hymns included
  • Hymns for Children (1842) 
  • Hymns for the Sick (1843)
  • Hymns for Youth (1844)
  • Hymns for Children, Third Series (1845) 
His compilations of translations (mostly his own) include
  • Medieval Hymns and Sequences (1851)
  • Hymnal Noted (various editions, 1851-1856)
  • Carols for Christmas Tide (1853)
  • Carols for Easter Tide (1854).
  • Hymns of the Eastern Church (1862)
  • Hymns Chiefly Medieval on the Joys and Glories of Paradise (1865)
Most of these books are on Google Books or the Internet Archive.

Lasting Impact

Neale is the top source of hymn texts for most US or American Anglican hymnals published from 1861-2000. He is listed as the author or translator of 45 texts in Hymnal 1982, and his influence was greater in Hymnal 1940, The English Hymnal (1906) and particularly Hymns Ancient & Modern in its various editions from 1861-1904.

Among the hymns Neale translated are
  • All glory, laud and honor
  • Christ is made the sure foundation
  • Come ye faithful raise the strain
  • Creator of the stars of night
  • Good Christian Men, Rejoice
  • Good King Wenceslas
  • O come, O come Emmanuel
  • O sons and daughters, let us sing
  • Of the Father’s love begotten
  • That Easter Day with joy was bright
  • The Day of Resurrection
The accolades for Neale’s contributions are numerous, and I hope to summarize them another time.

Further Information

A good overview is provided by Julian’s A Dictionary of Hymnology; I have uploaded just the Neale entry here. Good capsule biographies are also found in and The CyberHymnal.

Two biographies by his daughters help considerably in understanding his history:
  • Eleanor A. Towle, John Mason Neale, DD: A Memoir, London: Longmans, Green, 1907. Available at Google Books.
  • Mary Sackville Lawson, ed., Letters of John Mason Neale, London: Longmans, Green, 1910. Available at Google Books and the Internet Archive.
They also supply the pictures that appear on Wikipedia and other websites (including the picture above from Towle’s memoir).

Because he died on August 6 (the Feast of the Transfiguration), the Anglican church remembers him on August 7. includes two prayers for Neale; the first appears taken from the Episcopal Church’s liturgies for lesser feasts and fasts:
Grant unto us, O God, that in all time of our testing we may know Thy presence and obey thy will; that, following the example of thy servant John Mason Neale, we may with integrity and courage accomplish what thou givest us to do, and endure what thou givest us to bear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Almighty God, beautiful in majesty, majestic in holiness, who Hast shown us the splendor of creation in the work of thy servant John Mason Neale: Teach us to drive from the world the ugliness of chaos and disorder, that our eyes may not be blind to thy glory, and that at length everyone may know the inexhaustible richness of thy new creation in Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Second Thoughts about Three Kings

This time seven years ago, I wrote a blog post skeptical of two seasonal hymns — the Christmas hymn “In the Bleak Midwinter” and the Epiphany hymn “We Three Kings“. After several years both to learn and mature, during today’s Epiphany I observance I feel compelled to modify that earlier position.

What do we know about the visitors from the East?
  • Matthew 2 refers clearly to “wise men”
  • We assume there were three of them because there are clearly three gifts. 
  • There is no mention of kings
Rather than summarize the old post (available via the magic of hyperlinks), let me summarize the arguments as I now see them. Arguments against “three kings” are
  1. There is no mention of kings and if there were really kings they would be mentioned
  2. It is illogical to expect they are kings, either because multiple kings aren’t going to travel months (or years) to Jerusalem, or because “wise men” (magoi, μάγοι) aren’t going to be kings.
Let me come back to #1. For #2, one of our clergy points out that in some nations of the East, there would be multiple kings because a king is more like a governor, duke or prince than an emperor or pharaoh. Meanwhile, there are examples of wise kings in the line of David, and the rulers before Saul (the Judges) tended to be chosen for their wisdom rather than their inheritance.

Arguments in favor of the “three kings”:
  1. Tradition, dating to the first millennium. This is enough for many Anglo-Catholics.
  2. Predictions from the Old Testament
I was struck by the latter today, from both the psalm and old testament readings of morning prayer:
The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall give presents; * the kings of Arabia and Saba shall bring gifts. (Psalm 72:10)
A multitude of camels shall cover you,
    the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
    all those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense,
    and shall bring good news, the praises of the Lord.  (Isaiah 60:6)
So the question is: is this prophecy fulfilled by the birth of Jesus? Such argument would require

  • Accepting the principle that OT prophesies are fulfilled by the NT
  • Concluding that these prophesies refers to a coming Messiah and not some other event
  • Deciding that this specific is fulfilled by the events of Matthew 2
The earlier posting was accurate in suggesting that many theologians and other Christians reject the idea of kings visiting Joseph, Mary and baby (or toddler) Jesus. It was inaccurate in suggesting that there was only one possible conclusion, because clearly more than one interpretation is possible. It also raised (but did not answer) the question of what doctrine should be presented in hymns if the theological issues are not conclusively resolved.