Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Patriotic hymnals

From even the eight posts to date, it’s clear that I react to a small number of bloggers who write about hymns in liturgy. Actually, there are two: Catherine Osborne, an associate professor (“reader”) in philosophy and member of the Church of England, and Josh Osbun, a seminarian in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Yes, I find what they say interesting, but it’s also that not many people (outside of The Hymn Society) think about these issues much. All this a long-winded introduction as to why these two blogs are listed on the right and why they will keep coming up in this blog.

On Memorial Day, seminarian Osbun wrote to complain about the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” in his otherwise favorite Lutheran Service Book. In addition to specific objections to this hymn, he added a general attack on the idea of patriotic hymns:
First of all, days such as Memorial Day, Labor Day, Veterans’ Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving have no place in the church. They are national holidays, not church holidays. And so hymns like this one also have no place in the church. They are national hymns that talk about a generic god, not the Triune God we confess …
On MemorialDay, the 4th and (often) Veteran’s Day, for the past decade my church garb has been an improvised flag-like combination shown here (which is subtle enough that most people don’t notice). I’m not a theologian, but let me see if I can argue for the inclusion of some subset of patriotic hymns in a Christian hymnal.

First off, I went to the pastor of our local LCMS church last Sunday, who has about 15 years of experience on the seminarian. I didn’t ask for permission to quote him by name, so I’ll just call him Pastor Bob. When I raised the Osbun objections, he responded in three parts:
  1. Yes, the sermon and the focus of the service should be Christocentric and tied to the readings, in this case Luke 9:62.
  2. Since Christians should thank God for their blessings, “We live in America and America is a blessing to us,” therefore it is appropriate to be grateful to God for our country.
  3. When a floating holiday (like the 4th) lands on a Sunday, he normally includes some sort of patriotic hymn (not applicable this year).
At Episcopal parishes that I’ve attended with a large contingent of active duty and retired military, the priests are far less shy about offering prayers for God and country; in some cases, the clergy themselves are retired, reserve or even active duty military. So there is a body of opinion among many clergy that certain national celebrations are appropriate in a church.

Let me first take the Church of England (as an exemplar of other state churches). In the COE, the queen is “the Supreme Governor of the Church of England” so it seems like celebration of the regent is appropriate. The English Hymnal (1906) features 10 “national” hymns (#557-566), including #560:
God save our gracious King,
Long live our noble King,
God save the King!
Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us;
God save the King!
I couldn’t find this hymn in either my 1869 or 1916 copy of Hymns Ancient & Modern, but in the COE Songs of Praised, Enlarged Edition (1931) I did find 10 “national” hymns (#316-325), including #318, National Anthem. (I don’t own a copy of the 1986 The New English Hymnal.)

Switching to this side of the pond, the 1940 PECUSA hymnal has the colonists’ version of this hymn (“God bless our native land”) as one (#146) of eight “National Days” hymns (#141-148). The 1982 hymnal seems to be siding more with Mr. Osbun (not necessarily a positive sign), cutting “National Songs” down to five, and relegating them to the very end of the book (#716-720) — beginning with “God bless our native land” and ending with “O, say can you see.”

As for the LCMS, I don’t have the 2006 LSB, but do have The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) and Lutheran Worship (1982), exact analogs to their PECUSA equivalents (except for the LSB, a neotraditionalist hymnal that will never have an analog in PECUSA/TEC). The ’41 has 10 hymns for “The Nation” (#575-584) which (same trend) are cut to six (#497-502) in the ’82: both have the Americanized English anthem but neither has the Francis Scott Key composition, so clearly less national-istic than the PECUSA equivalents.

Setting tradition aside, I want to come back to two other reasons I think a subset of important national hymns belong in hymnals. One is the same reason that Christmas carols with the J**** word and the G** word belong in hymnals — because today, if they’re not in the hymnal, kids won’t learn them anywhere else. I mean, public school teachers gladly teach the first verse of “My country, ’tis of thee” because it’s less bombastic than F.S. Key’s lyrics, but (unlike the 1950s) how many public school kids get to sing the fourth verse of the familiar anthem by seminarian Samuel Francis Smith:
Our fathers’ God, to thee,
author of liberty,
to thee we sing;
long may our land be bright
with freedom's holy light;
protect us by thy might,
great God, our King.
The Episcopalians had this hymn and kept it, while the German-American Lutherans never did.

On a somewhat related note, the 1861 Hymns Ancient and Modern first brought us “Eternal father, strong to save” to the tune of Melita which the Episcopalians have in both the 1940 (in the original and multi-service variant) and the 1982 hymnal (multi-service only). Although written by an English choirmaster for a civilian emigrant, it has become associated with military service, especially the US Navy and Royal Navy.

The hymn is often played at the funerals of military veterans, particularly Episcopalians. In January of this year, President Gerald Ford got the Armed Forces Chorus to sing the hymn; at my father’s funeral, it was just the congregation. Hearing this hymn in the context of a funeral sets exactly the right tone — awe at the omnipotence of our mighty God whose hands we entrust with our entire lives, combined with praise and supplication:
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who biddest the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!

O Trinity of love and power!
Our family brethren shield in danger’s hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoever we them wheresoe’er they go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.
It doesn’t have to be in the hymnal to be used in a funeral, but it certainly has earned a place in Christian worship.

Update July 8: I had not noticed that I’d copied the politically correct stanzas from President Ford’s service and the 1982 Hymnal, rather than the earlier version of the 1940 Hymnal.


Jeff said...

I was writing a blog entry in response and quite literally changed my opinion in mid-stream.

I think common prayer and the longer tradition of the Church argues against the practice, as much as I enjoy the music.

Jeff said...

I meant to mention this earlier, but I'm not sure of the roots of the hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save." While I know it has clearly become a military hymn, I find it interesting that the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has long had a specific prayer in the litany praying for those who travel by land or sea (updated in the last century to include those who travel by air).

I wonder if the roots of the hymn are in that ancient practice?