Friday, August 26, 2016

10 "best" hymns

In “I'm fed up with bad church music” — a Facebook group that I belong to — someone posted this morning a link to a blog posting provocatively entitled “The 10 Greatest Hymns of All-Time.” The author is a Toronto non-denominational pastor, so the list was surprisingly traditional:

  1. And Can It Be? by Charles Wesley
  2. A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther
  3. All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name by Edward Perronet.
  4. Oh, For a Thousand Tongues by Charles Wesley.
  5. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts.
  6. How Firm a Foundation by an unknown author.
  7. Holy, Holy, Holy by Reginald Heber.
  8. It Is Well With My Soul by Horatio Spafford.
  9. Abide With Me by Henry Francis Lyte.
  10. Amazing Grace by John Newton.
It’s actually a pretty good list, with many non-controversial choices. But if we are judging the entirety of a hymn (as he states he is) and not just the lyrics, then IMHO Wesley’s “Love Divine” (to the stately tune Hyfrodol) would displace his first-choice of Wesley hymns (to the forgettable tune Sagina).

It was actually his list of runners-up that was a little more controversial:
There are so many more that could easily have been on this list: “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” “For All the Saints,” “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” “Rock of Ages,” “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”, “Take My Life and Let It Be,” “In Christ Alone,” and on and on.
It seems to me that any such list has to exclude Christmas and Easter, because it would be easy to make a list of 10 greatest Christmas or Easter hymns. “Crown Him with many crowns” seems like it belongs in this list.

But “In Christ Alone”? Is this a hymn that has survived (let alone will survive) the test of time? Even if I were going to pick a 21st century praise hymn, this doesn't belong on a list of hymns that are “universal and timeless”. Every performance I’ve heard (including one at a consecration) it came across as a sappy pop song rather than a hymn of praise. From the CCLI list — and excluding hybrid remakes (like “Amazing Grace (My Chains Are Gone)”) — I would similarly exclude “How Great is Our God” (which is the exemplar of a 7-11 song). Perhaps “10,000 Reasons” or “Blessed Be Your Name,” but I would leave the final choice to the CCM fan on the top 10 committee.

So in the end, any list like this is a subjective one. The only objective way to measure “best” would be to look at a large population of selection over time — such as those hymns that were published in the broadest range of hymnals, either over many decades or among recent compilations.

I have been building a database of Anglican hymns (in Anglican hymnals); certainly Oremus has this list for the lyrics, but confirming which tunes are published where takes a little more work.

Friday, July 22, 2016

11 Reasons to Keep Screens out of the Sanctuary

Blogger Jonathan Aigner at the Ponder Anew blog this week posted a list of 11 reasons why churches should not use projection screens in their sanctuaries.

Several of these points tie back to earlier points in this blog:

  • 5. Screens have hastened the decline in musicianship in the church. …  those of us who can read music are limited by not having access to it.” Even if people know the melody, as I noted almost seven years ago, the lack of a hymnal means the lack of musical harmony for all but the privileged members of the choir.
  • 7. Screens open the door to theological disunity.  Denominational hymnals contain songs that are considered, examined, and vetted for adherence to their theological tradition. ” Or as I said in 2010:
  • “This is also another reason why hymnals are important: a hymnal codifies a church’s doctrine and minimizes deviations from doctrine. It doesn’t matter whether the hymnal is photocopied, oversewn or a PDF: what matters is that it has been vetted the same as any other part of the liturgy. As Anglicans, we don’t allow just anything to be read as scripture or prayer, so of course the hymn selection should be put to the same test.”
  • 8. Screens have cost us an awareness of our common hymnody. Printing songs in a hymnal gives them legitimacy and permanence, especially when they’ve been included in volumes for decades or even centuries. Even when we don’t sing them, they remain there, and we encounter them in the pages. … Before long, we may lose the best of our musical heritage completely, simply because nobody’s ever seen them, let alone thought of recording them.” This is exactly the point I’ve been making since the beginning of this blog, emphasizing the importance of timeless hymns that provide “continuity across generations and the centuries.”
Aigner (and others) have predicted the imminent decline of praise music, but I doubt that the persistent rants of a few of us traditionalist bloggers will be enough to turn back decades of CCM. Still, the same principles that cause baby boomers to reject music largely from the 15th through 20th centuries would presumably mean that each generation would reject the previous — thus rendering obsolete the music that the boomers fought so hard to bring into the church.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Praise Songs with “Old Words”

There was a great post earlier this month on how praise bands update traditional hymns on Ponder Anew. The blog is by Jonathan Aigner, a Texas PCUSA choir director who regularly turns a skeptical eye towards the excesses of CCM.

Entitled “Modernized Hymns: Hymns, or Contemporary Songs with Old Words?” the post starts with a late 20th century example of such modernization at his Baptist youth summer camp by a praise song leader named Chris Tomlin (yes that Chris Tomlin). Even as a teenager it was clear that Aigner smelled something fishy about claiming that the new song — with bridges modulation and additional lyrics — was just a different way of signing the old hymn.

Are Modernized Hymns Actually Hymns?

Here is the crux of his argument:
But were we actually singing hymns?

I didn’t think so then, and I don’t think so now.

Of course, Chris Tomlin and other commercial worship songwriters have led a trend in the industry in which hymns are turned into commercial recordings, and then find a place in churches that practice contemporary worship. We see this even more in December, when everyone wants to hear their favorite carols and Christmas songs. So, all the biggest recording artists cook up their own versions of these songs, and church cover worship bands offer up their best imitations.

I hear from a number of contemporary worship apologists who proudly tell me they sing lots of hymns in their services, but that they are “refreshed” or “reimagined” in a modern style.

I think there’s a problem here. Though singing good theology is important, the way we sing it is also vitally important. Of course, that’s in contrast to the prevailing message of contemporary worship that says it’s all about taste, and that musical style doesn’t matter.

But it does matter. It’s about meaning, not preference. And music always carries meaning.
He continues with additional details of how to tell a hymn from a contemporary song with old words.”

When Was a Hymn Written?

This posting resonated with two other observations on a similar topic.

One was my own posting from last year asking “When was a hymn ‘written’?” Again, in other contexts people have claimed old words with modern music and performance styles qualify as an ancient hymn. It’s one thing to say that acoustic guitar or piano accompaniment does not change the character of an ancient or medieval chant. It’s another thing to claim that it’s a traditional hymn when you have the full-on rhythm guitar, electric bass and drummer accompanying your lead singer.

I think Jonathan and I have similar reservations about the efforts of praise band leaders to modernize traditional hymns while claiming the mantle of the long-accepted form of Christian praise and worship.

The Need for Reverence

The other thing that resonated with this theme was listening the same week to a May 24 podcast of Issues Etc. The topic was “Reverence in Worship,” an interview with Lutheran Pastor David Petersen. (The same topic had been covered seven months earlier in an interview with regular guest Rev. Will Weedon, director of worship for the LCMS.)

The interview drew on his article on the same topic published in (“The Journal of Lutheran Liturgy”). Alas, the journal hasn’t made it to the 21st century with articles (or at least a table of contents) from recent issues.

The arguments made by Rev. Petersen appealed to the authority of Lutheran and seminal Lutheran doctrine, notably the Book of Concord and the Augsburg Confession. In particular, he noted the admonition to worship “with greatest reverence.” But the actual conclusions were ones that should be shared by any liturgical Protestant.

One is that reverence is not (as some might claim) merely in the mind of the worshipper. Instead, it has an objective reality. As Rev. Petersen cited C.S. Lewis:
CS Lewis in The Abolition of Man tells a story about an English textbook, of a story of the artist Coleridge who overhears two tourists looking at a waterfall, and one says it's “sublime.” Coleridge says that is correct, while the textbook says that's not correct, that different people could have different opinions.

There is something objectively real in the waterfall that requires a response from us.
Rev. Petersen’s definition of reverence is
  • virtue — a habit of the heart, developed through practice
  • an attitude and feeling love towards God, tempered by respect, honor, fear, awe and shame
According to his conception, different attributes of this reverence wax and wane depending on where we are in the service.

However, to this conception, Petersen added a final element — joy — or a feeling of exuberance. This ties to the emotive element of music throughout the generations (including the sublime sacred music of composers such as Tallis, Bach and Mozart) without the excesses of CCM.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Independence Day

From the propers for July 4 as prescribed by the 1928 Book of Common Prayer:
The Collect.

O ETERNAL God, through whose mighty power our fathers won their liberties of old; Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Excerpted from the second lesson for Morning Prayer (John 8:31-36) from the daily lectionary:
Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32, RSV)
From the Prayers and Thanksgivings:
For Our Country.

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Hymns for the Great Banquet

At our (28 BCP) parish today, the gospel lesson was Luke 14:16-24, the Parable of the Great Banquet. This passage is for Trinity 2 in the 28 BCP, and also called out for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost in the 1962 Catholic lectionary (“in the Octave of Corpus Christi”).

We heard the KJV, but here is the ESV (the RSV is almost the same):
But he said to him, “A man once gave a great banquet and invited many. And at the time for the banquet he sent his servant to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’ But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ So the servant came and reported these things to his master. Then the master of the house became angry and said to his servant, ‘Go oJesus, Breut quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.’ And the servant said, ‘Sir, what you commanded has been done, and still there is room.’ And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled. For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my banquet.’”
This seems such a powerful passage regarding the nature of faith: all are invited but few (today ever fewer) will come. It also anticipates Revelation 19:9: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.”

In his commentary Luke for Everyone, NT Wright notes that beyond the two obvious levels of the parable is a third less obvious implication for the faith:
The party to which the original guests were invited was Jesus’ kingdom-movement, his remarkable welcome to all and sundry. If people wanted to be included in Jesus’ movement, this is the sort of thing they were joining.
Strangely, it is nowhere to be found in the Revised Common Lectionary (according to the Vanderbilt RCL site). Looking through tables of the 1979 prayer book, the passage is also skipped in the Sunday readings for Year C and only found in the daily lectionary. The ACNA trial use lectionary also omits this passage, as does the 1998/2002 Roman Catholic lectionary for the US. (I thought the point of the 3-year lectionary was to cover more Scripture, not less.)

Hymnal 1940, 1982

I was expecting to have a hymn today touch on this theme. Our communion hymn came the closest: “Deck thyself, my soul with gladness” (H40: 210; H82: 339), a 1649 German Lutheran hymn with a tune (Schmuecke Dich) by Johann Cruger and a text by Johann Franck.  Verse 3 of the translation by the great Catherine Winkworth says
Jesus, Bread of Life, I pray thee,
Let me gladly here obey thee;
Never to my hurt invited,
Be thy love with love requited;
From this banquet let me measure,
Lord, how vast and deep its treasure;
Through the gifts thou here dost give me,
As thy guest in heav’n receive me.
In fact, when I pulled out A Scriptural Index to the Hymnal 1982, this was the only entry in the book for this gospel passage (which confirms that the 1979 prayer book schedules the text only for the Daily Office).

But I also heard echoes of verse 1 from  familiar hymn that turned out to be an Easter season favorite (H40: 89, H82: 174), with the Jakob Hintze melody harmonized by J.S. Bach:
At the Lamb’s high feast we sing,
Praise to our victorious King,
Who hath washed us in the tide
Flowing from his pierc├Ęd side;
Praise we Him, whose love divine
Gives His sacred blood for wine,
Gives His body for the feast,
Christ the Victim, Christ the Priest.
Hymns Ancient & Modern

In my folder of PDFs of old hymnals, I used a PDF search to look for mention of “banquet” (which appears only 5 times in the NT — 4 times here and once for Herod’s banquet that brought the execution of John the Baptist). This offered a third hymn from Hymns Ancient & Modern, described in the 1914 companion to Hymns A&M as follows:
128. P.
The Lamb's high banquet (Neale), 1851.
Orig. ascribed (?) to S. Ambrose. It was used as the proper Vesper hy. from Low Sunday to Ascension, but without a doxology, which was taken from hy. 141 for all hys. in that metre. It was the custom of the early Ch. that Baptism should be solemnly administered to many catechumens on Easter Eve. These persons were now for the first time about to receive the H. Com munion, and therefore waiting to share that high banquet In garments white and fair, in reference to the chrisom-robes given at Baptism, and worn till Low Sunday, called  "Dominica in Albis." The tr. is slightly altered. Dr. Neale wrote "We await" for "called to share," and in st. 2,1. 3, he gave "roseate," afterwards altered to "crimson," and then to "precious." In a preface he specially drew attention to these alterations as spoiling the idea of the orig. "Though one drop of Christ s Blood was sufficient to redeem the world, yet out of the greatness of His love to us He would shed all. As every one knows, the last drainings of lifeblood are not crimson, but of a paler hue : strictly speaking, roseate. Change the word and you eliminate the whole idea. Besides which, Christ is the True Rose, is a second reason for this word."
As in the companion, my copy lists this as #128 but Oremus lists it (perhaps from an earlier edition) as #111. (Hymns Ancient & Modern had notable inconsistencies across the various editions). The first verse is:
The Lamb's high banquet called to share,
arrayed in garments white and fair,
the Red Sea past, we now would sing
to Jesus our triumphant King.
The rest of the hymn has more of a Revelation 19 than Luke 14 feel to it.

In conclusion, I’m surprised that this major passage of Luke has so little scriptural support. However, right now — beyond US Continuing Anglicans and the global Anglicans who use the 1662 BCP — this passage is not often being heard.