Sunday, July 25, 2010

St. James deserves better

Today is the feast of St. James the Greater, perhaps the most important of the apostles after Peter, the rock of the church. As it so happened, I attended two Anglican services today — one that observed the feast day and one that ignored it.

Both the 1928 BCP and the 1979 prayer book honor James on this date with his own readings, following the 1789 American BCP which in turn uses the readings from the English 1662 BCP. The Gospel is the familiar reading (Matthew 20:20-28) about James' mom trying to install her two sons in a privileged position at Jesus' left and right hand.

Meanwhile, the Epistle is Acts 11:27-12:3, about his martyrdom at the hands of Herod in 44 A.D. My history isn't very good, but it appears James the Greater was the 2nd documented Christian martyr, after Stephen — consistent with church chronologies I found at FreeRepublic and CTLibrary. James is also interesting because of how he is called by Jesus (along with Peter, Andrew and John) from his work fishing along the Sea of Galilee.

However, James seems to be sorely underrepresented in the 1940 Hymnal. He is used as a symbol of the martyrs and apostles, and for this feast the choirmaster is encouraged to schedule one or more of these hymns. The best of these is perhaps Hymn #136: “Let us now our voices raise.” It uses a 9th century text by the greatest Greek hymnographer, as translated by John Mason Neale. The melody is a 13th century tune, first published in the 16th century. But the Hymnal 1940 Companion says the hymn is (for the Orthodox tradition) a hymn for the martyrdom of St. Timothy (May 3). Hymnal 1982 (#237) uses the same words but a 16th century German tune.

Hymnal 1982 offers another option, with a general purpose roll-your-own hymn for the saints (#231 and #232 differ only in the tune). Peter, Paul, James, Matthew, Luke and both Marys are represented by relevant verses.

The Hymn Makers Cecil Frances Alexander and Fraces Ridley HavergalHowever, further down in H82, hymn #276 ("For thy blest saints") by Cecil Frances Alexander starts with a general tribute to all martyrs, and then lays out what little we know of John: leaving his father Zebedee, witnessing the Annunciation, and being slain by Herod. The blog Conjubilant with Song lists the hymn as “For all thy saints, a noble throng,” with a different tune.

This is not one of Mrs. Alexander's best known hymns, which include "He is risen, he is risen," "Once in royal David's city," and "All things bright and beautiful." Still, for a hymn written in 1875 by an English bishop’s wife, it’s surprising not to find it as one of the 13 Alexander lyrics in The English Hymnal (1906), nor in Songs of Praise (1933) or New English Hymnal (1986).

Is the hymn obscure because we don’t make a big deal about James (or most of the saints)? Is it because the major hymnals list two other hymns with a similar opening line: "For all the saints" (with the magnificent Ralph Vaughan Williams tune) and "For thy dear saints" by Richard Mant?

I don’t know the reason, but it seems like an apostle — and a major one at that — might have expected better treatment by posterity.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The importance of hymn doctrine

The SandyAnglicans Twitter feed reposted a tweet praising Anglican hymns — which brought me to the blog of Toby Brown, a theologically traditionalist member of the Presbyterian Church USA.

Sure enough, Brown lists The English Hymnal of 1906 as one of the two greatest (English language) hymnals of all time. The other was the 1835 Southern Harmony, a compilation of 18th and 19th century hymns that was the most used hymnal of the US South for the remainder of the century.

Baptist Hymnal (Slate Blue)However, what really interesting (and instructive) was Brown’s quoting of an AP article about how the Southern Baptists appointed a committee of theologians to review the doctrinal content of the 650 hymns being included in the 2008 Baptist Hymnal.

To quote Brown quoting the AP story
Each song's suitability is based on these questions:
  • Does the hymn speak biblically of God?
  • Is it God-honoring?
  • Does the hymn present a biblical view of man?
  • Does the song help us to cover the depth and breadth of our theology?
  • Does the hymn call us to true discipleship, service, repentance, witness, missions and devotion?
  • Does the hymn speak biblically of salvation?
  • Does it engage the whole person - allowing a person to express his deepest feelings?
  • Does the hymn emphasize that Christ is the Christian's Lord, Master and King? (the idea of total submission)
  • Does the hymn present an Americanized/Westernized gospel? (civil religion)
  • Is there a balance with corporate and individual response in worship? (immanence and transcendence)
  • Does the hymn speak biblically about the church, the body of Christ?
I am not sure that would be my exact list, but most ask the key questions that need to be asked for any Christian hymnal. Let’s hope the next North American Anglican hymnal goes through a similar process.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

God and Country

One year out of seven, Independence Day falls on a Sunday. At this morning’s service, the rector at the church we visited chose three patriotic hymns from Hymnal 1982:
  • 718: God of our fathers, whose almighty hand (H40: 143)
  • 716: Gold bless our native land (H40: 146)
  • 579: Almighty father, strong to save, a politically correct, Navy/Army/Air Force version of Eternal Father” (H40: #513 and #512 respectively)
I know the idea of mixing God and Country is controversial in church (not just in civil society), but the two were handled well across the entire service.

The readings were also for 4th of July (rather than Proper 9). The sermon tied to the Epistle (Hebrews 11:8-16), particularly the final four verses:
13. These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.
He used this to make a point similar to the Lutheran (or at least LCMS) idea of “two kingdoms” — the need to exist both in the man-made civil society and God’s heavenly kingdom. In fact, using the analogy of a foreign embassy, he argued that churches are like embassies of God’s kingdom: when you step into a church, you are on God’s territory, not an earthly one.

Of the hymns, the second verse of the opening hymn (“God of our fathers”) perhaps tied best to the sermon theme:
Thy love divine hath led us in the past,
in this free land by thee our lot is cast;
be thou our ruler, guardian, guide, and stay,
thy word our law, thy paths our chosen way.
The service and sermon were both uplifting and a little depressing. Fifty years from now, it’s hard to see how hymns combining God and Country will ever be sung, due to an unholy conspiracy of rock band contemporary liturgy and militant secularists.

Perhaps the linkage of God and Country in song peaked — with the Protestant Revival — in the 19th Century. But it seems as though it was a constant theme throughout the first 350 years of American settlement, a celebration of our God-given liberties that is fading from the collective memory. The hymns (as with all hymns) provided a way to celebrate, reaffirm and reinforce such a message — hymns that will be gradually pared from the TEC hymnals and ignored by the hymnal-free contemporary worship.