Sunday, September 27, 2009

Communicating, preserving and celebrating the faith

Today’s RCL (Year B) epistle (and the subject of part of the sermon) was James 5:13-20. It touched me, because it bears directly on the purpose of Anglican music — and this blog.

The first verse of the passage by St. James is quite clear:
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.
This really crystalized my thinking about the essential question: why do hymns matter? It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer since I started this blog — I intuitively knew that hymns play a crucial role in worship, but I couldn’t articulate why.

Today, I think I have a clear answer. As with other elements of corporate (shared) liturgy, hymns serve three purposes:
  • To communicate the faith. Before Gutenberg, Christians didn’t have personal Bibles and learned the faith from liturgy. Even today, children (and perhaps casual Christians) learn their earliest and perhaps most lasting theological lessons from hymn lyrics (a crucial reason why the words matter.)
  • To preserve the faith. Regular readers know of my devotion to timeless hymns and the continuity they provide to the faith across the millennia. Our oldest hymnal dates from the 6th century, with written music perhaps 500 years later. Such continuity is part of conveying an eternal in our eternal Father.
  • To celebrate the faith. Ever since I can remember, the part I most enjoy about Sunday — what gets me out of bed and out of the house (usually) on time — is singing the hymns. I go not to listen to a performance, but to be part of the corporate worship.
Borrowing from the Hebrews, clearly hymnody dates back to the church’s beginning. St. Paul wrote to the church at Colossus:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
Or, as I sang in college from Mendelssohn’s 2nd Symphony (“Lobgesang” or Hymn of Praise):
All that hath life and breath, sing to the Lord.
Which brings this back to the purpose of this blog. The sermon was (in part) about the final sentence of the passage from St. James:
My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.
I now believe that this blog (and the research it represents) will be my own personal ministry as a Christian, perhaps for my remaining days. I didn’t start this blog to win points on Judgement Day (if that’s even possible), but to share what I learn as part of my own search for deeper understanding.

I’ve been terribly gratified by the the observations and feedback from readers over the past 30 months, and hope that this dialog will continue.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Finding Hope

Recently I was looking for books on hymns at, hoping to find some of books suggested by The Hymn Society of America available cheaper from a used bookseller. (Sorry, HSA — if I have to pay new prices I’ll buy it from you, but money is tight right now.)

Browsing for these books produced some interesting ads from Christian booksellers and other peddlers of hymn books. The most interesting find was an online database from Hope Publishing (est. 1892), entitled “Hope Hymnody Online”.

Hope is pretty clear about what they’re doing and why. To enter the site, it says
In order to use the Hope Publishing Company online hymnody website you must reside in the United States or Canada. Hope Publishing Company owns or administers the contents in these territories. You may download one copy of any selection for your own personal use. To make any further copies you must get permission from Hope Publishing Company or belong to and report the copying activity to CCLI, LicenSing or By selecting "I Agree" you are verifying that you reside in the U.S. or Canada and will only legally use the contents accessible on the site.
To download a PDF, it similarly says:
You have selected to download a copy of the hymn. You have permission to print one copy for your personal use. To make any further copies (for your church congregation, church bulletin, an overhead slide or computerized projection,etc...) you must get permission from Hope Publishing Company or belong to and report the copying activity to CCLI, LicenSing or
In other words, they want you to sample their content and then recommend it for your church to sing (which will generate revenues).

What’s in the database is not all that exciting: hymn texts, their authors and the names of possible tunes to use with them. No authoring dates (they are obscured by a 20th century copyright date), no history, no music. It’s also skewed towards their post-1960 collection, although it does list older Christmas hymns. (PDFs seem available only for the recent ones).

One contemporary composer that I recognized was Carl P. Daw, Jr., an Episcopal priest who served on the Hymnal 1982 committee and has a number of hymns there. (He’s also currently executive director of the Hymn Society.)

The choice of search options are pretty interesting, however: title, tune name, author, composer, meter. There is a list of themes such as Advent, Christmas, Easter, Lord’s Supper and a few dozen more.

What seemed unique was the option to search (even in this limited pool) by scriptural reference. For example, a search for John 14:6 matches 30 hymns, including this one by Christopher Idle
God the I AM who does not change
brings mercies ever new;
no time nor space exceeds the range
of One whose grace this world finds strange-
yet we have found it true.

So Jesus Christ, from yesterday
through all todays the same,
the same for evermore, the Way,
the Truth by whom alone we pray,
the Life, the sovereign Name:
While the content (the product) is little too contemporary for my taste, it certainly will be of use to others. It also offers a model of how traditional Christian hymnody could be presented by a university or non-profit research group.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Still love those Germans

In one of my earliest posts, I wrote about the contribution of German composer to Christian liturgy, in addition to that of Martin Luther and his “Mighty Fortress” hymn.

In his blog “Thinking out loud,” LCMS pastor Rick Stuckwisch lists his favorite 120 German hymns, most of which have been published in the most recent LCMS hymnal, the Lutheran Service Book. The most common names are Martin Luther and his successor Paul Gerhardt. I was surprised that Philipp Nicolai only appears twice, and by listing the author and not composer, Stuckwisch does not directly identify the contributions of the great Johann Crüger.

To me, 120 German hymns seems excessive — but then 120 COE hymns would not. Clearly some of them are ones that I forgot were of German origin, notably “Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light,” written by Johann Rist and composed by Johann Schop. What I do recall is the Bach harmonization of Schop’s tune, printed as a Christmas hymn in Hymnal 1940 (#25) and even Hymnal 1982 (#91).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Walter Dennis and his Canon lose a big one

The Rt. Rev. Walter Dennis and his ”Dennis Canon“ have been on a roll recently, winning major court cases in California and most states outside Virginia. There was an increasingly presumption that the Canon was valid, despite the obvious legal holes.

On Friday, the highest court in South Carolina issues a ruling resoundingly rejecting the Dennis Canon. As always for the Schism II property fight, Anglican Curmudgeon has the authoritative coverage.

There is no guarantee this will become an influential precedent. All Saints, Pawleys Island had an unusually strong title to their property. Also, the California Supreme Court is notorious for ignoring precedent and going its own way, as when it invented a right to gay marriage.

Still, conflicting state rulings are the textbook reason for the US Supreme Court to take up the Dennis Canon. This could be the best hope for the California parishes facing permanent loss of their properties.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Liturgy and architecture

Titus 19 referenced an article from Lawrence, Kansas about Trinity Episcopal Church, a TEC parish that is going back to the future to attract Kansas U students:
When the church decided to add a new service in fall 2006, instead of looking forward, it looked back.

Way back. As in the fourth century.

The result is a unique celebration of Christianity referred to as the Solemn High Mass. A mystical meeting of old traditions in a setting where blue jeans and T-shirts are appropriate, the Sunday night service features incense, music and what the church, 1011 Vt., refers to as all of the “major propers” including the Kyrie Eleison, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Credo, the Sanctus and Benedictus and the Agnus Dei, which are chanted.

Performed only during the Kansas University school year, the service, which began its 2009-2010 season last Sunday evening, has snagged a crowd young and old, Episcopalian and not, says the Rev. Paul McLain, the church’s curate.
The “4th century” argument seems hyperbolic. It’s hard to tell, but this sounds like no Opus Dei or Tridentine Mass. I’m pretty sure there was no 4th century Christian worship in North America, so the 21st century English will be a bit of an anachronism.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, as preserving the traditional liturgy for the new generation is an important goal. However, this would have been considered normal liturgy at a high church (“bells and smells”) PECUSA parish, so the oddity isn’t all that odd — other than my comparison to the liturgical drift of the past few decades.

No word on whether the parish also plans to preserve traditional theology; the Bishop of Western Kansas is considered a TEC moderate, e.g. on the Windsor Report. However, Trinity is in the Diocese of Kansas, whose bishop is listed as a Gene Robinson supporter. Stand Firm in Faith counts him as a KJS apologist.

Still, perhaps the most interesting paragraph was only indirectly related to liturgy:
Solemn High Mass was introduced to Trinity in 2006 by its former rector, the Rev. Jonathon Jensen. Before leaving in June for his current post at the Trinity Cathedral in Little Rock, Ark., Jensen described his thoughts behind the addition of the old-style service this way: “… Lots of churches in Lawrence do contemporary worship, and that’s wonderful, but this is a 150-year-old downtown church that looks like an old English church and we have a fantastic organ and a wonderful chorale tradition, and we know what we can do best. And it’s not contemporary. It’s that (old style). And, so, we wanted to have this distinct offering.”
I’ve always wondered about the link of liturgy and architecture, but this raises more questions than it answers.

For example, do you need an old sanctuary (or old-looking sanctuary) to do traditional worship? (Or to attract parishioners looking for traditional worship?) Similarly, is it inappropriate to have a rock band in the such a building? Trinity seems to have a standard Rite II service on Sunday mornings, but the website doesn’t say what kind of music it has.

Update: Rev. Elizabeth E. Evans of the TEC and GetReligion seems to be similarly skeptical of the claimed “ancient” nature of the Trinity Episcopal worship service.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Inclusive language

One of the objectionable problems of modern PECUSA (and later TEC) liturgy is the rush to gender inclusive language. For example, the RSV was retired in favor of the NRSV, mainly to change a lot of “men” to “people” (and of course to sell new books). Fortunately, the ESV has the translation corrections to the RSV without the political correctness of the NRSV.

On Sept. 2, the Issues Etc. gang hosted an interview with Vern Poythress of Westminster Seminary-Philadelphia on gender inclusivity in the next translation of the NIV. The MP3 file and more information are available at the Issues Etc. archives. Dr. Poythress is co-author of a book on the gender controversy in the previous update of the NIV.

Dr. Poythress does a great job of spelling out the four possibilities for mapping Greek (or other) original text onto the English
  1. The original is unambiguously masculine.
  2. The text is unambiguously masculine, but the point made could apply equally to both sexes
  3. The text is masculine, but ambiguously so (for example, if “brothers” normally means males but could also be used for a mixture of males and females)
  4. The original does not have a gender indication, and thus would most accurately be translated as gender neutral
Despite the obvious sympathies of Dr. Poythress (and host Pastor Todd Wilken) against gender inclusivity, this seems to be a fair discussion of the issues involved — except for those that want all or none of the four cases translated with inclusive language.

Of course, the issues for hymns are even more daunting, because the meter means that the writer lacks the option of using “brothers and sisters.” Hymnal 1982 certainly mangled most of the high-profile Christmas carols, and showed even less restraint in cramming gender inclusivity into less-known hymns.

This is going to be a huge issue for when (or if) North American Anglicans produce a new hymnal, since the evangelical wing of ACNA (let alone their female clergy) are much more sympathetic to gender inclusivity than the three FiFNA diocese or any of Schism I.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Works without faith

A famous but controversial passage of the Epistle of James concludes:
"Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God.

You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?

For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. (John 2:23a-26)
From what I heard this weekend, a childhood friend of mine found the opposite case — works and words without faith — while attending a large Episcopal congregation a few years ago.

It was an odd coincidence: she was never an Episcopalian before (or since), but for few years ago attended the large, upscale parish that I had attended as a kid. She and her husband were drawn to the intellectualism of these high church Episcopalians —the people, the seminars, and of course the high church liturgy with great music. This is a parish that is very high church; for decades, it had the most formal and consistent classical music ministry of any ECUSA church within 50 miles, including a children’s choir patterned after the CoE model.

However, my friend — a onetime Billy Graham volunteer who was always more Christian than any denomination — discovered a jarring reality. The senior priest (no “pastor” at St. Apostasy) didn’t believe most of the key tenets of the New Testament or the creeds: no virgin birth, no miracles, and agnostic on the bodily resurrection. (“Something big” happened to embolden the Apostles, but that’s all he’d admit).

When asked why he recited the words every Sunday if he didn’t believe them, the priest said it was part of the tradition of the church and he wanted to uphold that. (Sounds his stool was missing one leg).

Of course, this puzzles me. Where did this Christless Christianity come from? What kind of “Christian” seminary turns out priests who don’t believe in what has been accepted Christian faith since 325 A.D.? Even if James is right — “faith without works is dead” — certainly he (not to mention centuries of subsequent theologians) would admit that works without faith were never even alive.

Instead of faith, the focus of St. Apostasy is on good works, as part of the Episcopal 2.0 vision of church as an über-social services agency — an emphasis on social justice over evangelism. The website proclaims its outreach and mission, with 11 highlighted community ministries (including LGBT and “Peace and Justice”).

None of the ministries include making converts or spreading the good news. Indeed, this is very European: like the great state cathedrals of Germany and Sweden, more like museums with music than a church. Some say the CoE is only a few years behind. (By comparison, the Catholic cathedral in Köln seemed more authentic in its worship.)

I’m no theologian, but it seems like what distinguishes the Christian faith from Judaism and other Abrahamic religions is two things: belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the exclusive faith claims that Jesus made (e.g. John 14:6, Luke 20:41-44).

Much as we want to preserve traditional worship, we Anglo-Catholics should not make the mistake of seeking common cause with the High Church Progressives like those of St. Apostasy. We have more in common with other Bible-believing liturgical Christians, whether Lutherans (LCMC, LCMS, WELS), (Confessing) Methodists, Catholics and even the rock band Schism II Anglicans.

While the form of worship makes it difficult to make a hymnal with the CCM crowd, the substance — transmission of the one true catholic apostolic faith — will make it impossible to find common ground with those High Church non-Christians that seem to control many TEC parishes.

Perhaps we will need to have a hymnal that spans the various liturgical denominations. Overseas Americans often find themselves worshiping in any English-language Christian church (or at least any English-language Protestant church), so those who travel (or live) abroad are already familiar with some degree of ecumenical liturgy.