Saturday, October 8, 2016

Lord God Almighty

Our small group is reading A Lifetime Road to God (1977) by Donald J. Parsons (1922-2016). The Anglo-Catholic credentials of Abp. Parson are impeccable: president and dean of Nashotah House (1963-1973), and then bishop of Quincy (1973-1987) when it was one of the four doctrinally orthodox Episcopal Synod of America dioceses in ECUSA.

In Chapter 5 (“Prayer and Christian Growth”), he lists five types of personal prayer. The final item provides the best explanation I’ve ever seen for prayers of adoration:
[A]doration is praising God for being what He is, worshipping Him not because of what He has done or may yet do, but just because He is God. Adoration is the highest and most unselfish type of prayer. Excellent examples are the Sanctus in the Communion Service, the first part of the Te Deum, and several of the prayers. To adore God is to become more truly and completely what we are intended to be, since the creature finds fulfillment in singing the praise of the Creator.
With that definition, I looked for matching hymns in my Hymnal 1940. From Abp. Parsons’ taxonomy, we would start with the Sanctus, in the original (or Sanctus+Benedictus) versions:
  • #704 (#796) the original 1550 Sanctus by John Merbecke from his Booke of Common Praier Noted, which provided service music for the Cranmer original but was forgotten until the 19th century Oxford Movement.
  • #711 (#797) from the Healey Willan Missa de Sancta Maria Magdalena
  • #721 (#798) the 14th century plainsong, adapted by Winfred Douglas in the 1915 Missa Marialis
These three are in the original, more accurate Cranmer text (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts”) as opposed to the 20th century bowdlerization (“Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might”).

Under the topical index, “The Praise of God” (#278-315) seems to come closest to this topic, although the “Majesty of God” seems even better. Some possible favorites:
  • #53 Songs of thankfulness and praise
  • #266 Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty — the ultimate Trinity Sunday hymn
  • #279 Praise to the Lord, the Almighty
  • #282 Praise my soul, the King of heaven
  • #285 The God of Abraham praise
  • #289 O God our help in ages past
  • #325 O for a thousand tongues to sing
  • #523 God the Omnipotent!
  • #551 A mighty fortress
Of course, if I were a CCM friendly liturgist, I’d add “How great is our God.” But I’m not, so I won’t.

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.