Thursday, November 24, 2016

Favorite German Pilgrim hymn

“Now thank we all our God” is the opening hymn recommended for Thanksgiving Day by Hymnal 1940. The hymn dates from the mid-17th century Germany, or a few decades after the first† American Thanksgiving celebration by the Plymouth colonists in 1621.

The lyrics should be familiar to almost any American Protestant:
Now thank we all our God
with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done,
in whom his world rejoices;
who from our mothers' arms
has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love,
and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God
through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts
and blessed peace to cheer us,
to keep us in his grace,
and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills
of this world in the next.

All praise and thanks to God
the Father now be given,
the Son and Spirit blest,
who reign in highest heaven
the one eternal God,
whom heaven and earth adore;
for thus it was, is now,
and shall be evermore.
It has been sung by Anglicans for almost 160 years and by American Anglicans for 140. The Hymnal 1940 Companion writes
This famous hymn of Martin Rinckart was written sometimes during the experiences of the Thirty Years’ War, when his village was sacked on three separate occasions. It is based on the Apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus 50:22-24. … The hymn was probably published in his lost Jesu, Hertz-Buchlein, 1636, since it is found in the extant edition of 1663. It next appeared, with the present tune, in the 1647 edition of Crüger’s Praxis Pietatis Medica (1656 ed.)

The translation was made by Catherine Winkworth for her Lyra Germanica, (second series, 1858), and reprinted in her Chorale Book for England, 1863. It has been in the Hymnal since 1874.
Although some list it as being written in 1636, Hymnal 1940 assumes it was written sometime earlier and saved for the 1636 compilation.

Beyond its origins during Europe’s terrible religious civil war, the hymn was paired almost from the beginning with a tune — named Nun Danket after the first two words of the German text — by the great German composer Johann Crüger that was published in what is described as  “the most successful and widely-known Lutheran hymnal of the 17th century”. We today use a translation by the greatest English translator of German hymns, Catherine Winkworth. The harmonization is by Felix Mendelssohn, from his 1840 “Lobgesang” (posthumously published as Symphony No. 2).

Even beyond what we sing, the story of Martin Rinkart (1586-1649) is a compelling one. LCMS Pastor Will Weedon had a very interesting podcast on Issues Etc. last year on Rinkart, his travails, and his indomitable spirit. He spent the bulk of his career in Eilenburg, where he buried the two other town clergy and his wife during the town’s great plague of 1637. As early as the 18th century, it became a song of national thanksgiving for the German people on major occasions (probably today supplanted by the EU anthem).

The hymn has been in all Episcopalian hymnals since 1874 (1874, 1892, 1916, 1940, 1982) – as well as Baptist, Methodist, Catholic and of course the American Lutheran ones. So it seems an appropriate hymn for all Americans to sing today.

† Yes other states claim the first Thanksgiving, but clearly American culture credits the Massachusetts-dwelling Pilgrims with having the one that we today emulate.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Year-end hymn specials

Today is ”stir up Sunday” or Christ the King Sunday, depending on your lectionary. Either way it’s the last Sunday before Advent, and thus the last day of the liturgical year as well as the last day of the long season after (depending on your prayer book) Trinity or Pentecost. It is also the end of “ordinary time” (which for some includes only these Sundays and for others also includes the time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday).

In the US, it’s also the Sunday before Thanksgiving — and thus at my church this morning the hymn choices reflected that secular reality. (But that’s another season and another story).

Traditional Prayer Bookes: “Stir Up” Sunday

In the 1928 BCP, the appointed collect for the last Sunday before Advent gives this date the nickname “Stir Up” Sunday:
STIR up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This was derived from the same collect written for the 25th Sunday after Trinity In 1549 (and the 1662) BCP:
STIERE up we beseche thee, O Lord, the wylles of thy faythfull people, that they, plenteously bringing furth the fruite of good workes; may of thee, be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christe our Lorde.
The collect was abandoned in the 1979 prayer book, but in the ACNA trial use liturgy, a heavily modified version is scheduled for the penultimate Sunday of ordinary time (i.e. a week ago):
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people; that they may plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works, as they await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ to restore all things to their original perfection; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen
Whenever it is scheduled, there is an obvious hymn to go with it: “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” (H40: 562; H82: 561); in fact, this is the recessional hymn recommended by H40 for this Sunday with the “Stir up” colleect. The tune is by George Webb, combined with a text by George Duffield Jr. This is the last remaining text in common use by the 19th century U.S. Presbyterian pastor and abolitionist.

Of the original text, H40 keeps verses 1,3,4 and 6. H82 keeps the same verses, but (as expected) censors the M-word (“men”).

Contemporary Lectionaries: Christ the King Sunday

This weekend I saw questions on a church music group from a Catholic organist about an appropriate hymn for today, which is Christ the King Sunday. As the Episcopal Dictionary of the Church on the ECUSA website helpfully explains:
Christ the King Sunday

Feast celebrated in the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church on the last Sunday of the liturgical year. It celebrates Christ's messianic kingship and sovereign rule over all creation. The feast is unofficially celebrated in some Episcopal parishes, but it is not mentioned in the Episcopal calendar of the church year. Marion Hatchett notes that the Prayer Book collect for Proper 29, the last Sunday of the church year, is a "somewhat free" translation of the collect of the Feast of Christ the King in the Roman Missal. This collect prays that God, "whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords," will "Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule" (BCP, p. 236). The feast was originally instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 and celebrated on the last Sunday in Oct. It has been observed on the last Sunday before Advent since 1970.
However, today many Episcopalian (and formerly Episcopalian) parishes are using the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Vanderbilt site lists this Sunday as the “Reign of Christ”. This seems to be the term used by progressive mainline Protestants, although some use both terms.

For Christ the King Sunday, there are several obvious hymn choices, including
  • Alleluia Sing to Jesus (H40: 347.2; H82: 460)
  • At the Name of Jesus (H40: 356; H82: 435)
  • Crown Him with Many Crowns (H40: 352; H82: 494)
  • Hail to the Lord’s Anointed (H40: 545; H82: 616)
  • Praise my Soul the King of Heaven (H40: 282; H82: 410)
While all touch on the CTK theme, I think the support (and thus congregational reinforcement) of this theme is greatest for 347 (“Alleluia Sing to Jesus”), 352 (“Crown Him with Many Crowns”) and 545 (“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”). In fact, it’s impossible to beat #352, which makes the point in every verse in this hybrid of 19th century Catholic and Anglican hymnwriters:
Crown Him with many crowns, the Lamb upon His throne.
Hark! How the heavenly anthem drowns all music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing of Him who died for thee,
And hail Him as thy matchless King through all eternity.

Crown Him the Son of God, before the worlds began,
And ye who tread where He hath trod, crown Him the Son of Man;
Who every grief hath known that wrings the human breast,
And takes and bears them for His own, that all in Him may rest.

Crown Him the Lord of life, who triumphed over the grave,
And rose victorious in the strife for those He came to save.
His glories now we sing, who died, and rose on high,
Who died eternal life to bring, and lives that death may die.

Crown Him the Lord of lords, who over all doth reign,
Who once on earth, the incarnate Word, for ransomed sinners slain,
Now lives in realms of light, where saints with angels sing
Their songs before Him day and night, their God, Redeemer, King.

Crown Him the Lord of Heaven, enthroned in worlds above,
Crown Him the King to Whom is given the wondrous name of Love.
Crown Him with many crowns, as thrones before Him fall;
Crown Him, ye kings, with many crowns, for He is King of all.
For the CoE, The English Hymnal (#381) uses different verses and a different tune, while the New English Hymnal (#352) keeps the same 1906 choice of text but adopts the stirring tune of the American hymnals, Diademata by Sir George Job Elvey (1816-1893).

I am hard-pressed to think of a more majestic recessional for any portion of ordinary time. The descant (in H82) and the retard on the final verse really drive home the reality of His kingship and our obedience and worship of our heavenly King.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The idolatry of the Holy Screen

Last month I attended a blended service that uses the ACNA liturgy, Hymnal 1982 hymns and praise songs. As blended services go, it was probably the most tastefully done that I’ve seen — either because of the sensibilities of the music director, or because he (and the rector) don’t think hymns should be second class citizens.

So with blended worship done well, what was jarring was the projection screen. I’ve seen plenty of them (alas even in churches), but I’ve never been a member of a church that uses them every week.

One of the limitations is the one that I remarked previously: hymnal-free is harmony free. I knew one of the hymns well enough from memory to (more or less) sing the harmony without music, but otherwise I felt cheated of a chance to sing praise to God utilizing the gifts He has given me (and also staying within my vocal range).

The other limitation is one that I’d only briefly noticed before. As the Gospel reading was processed to the center of the church, it is customary for the congregation to turn and face the Gospel and the deacon (or in this case, the priest). However, as at home, everyone’s attention was firmly fixed on the screen for the duration of the gradual. (As it turns out, they were also fixed on the screen for the text of the Gospel reading — I didn’t notice because I tend to focus on the reader and not on reading the text).

So to our 21st century sanctuaries we have brought the key cultural artifact of  online culture. Instead of the Word or the Cross, we now turn our attention and adoration to the Holy Screen. This might seem harsh — but just watch how the H.S. changes the worship experience.

The screen was supplemented with a four page (two sides of one piece of paper) handout that included the text and music for the Gloria (H82: S280), the gradual hymn, and the four-part offertory. People could have used the handout to face the Gospel book, but only some of the congregation picked it up beforehand.

I talked to the music director afterwards, and have a little more empathy for his difficult choices — both on distributing the text and (someday) the music. The handout doesn’t include everything to save money, and those who don’t read music probably won’t pick up the handout (so he needs to provide lyrics some other way).

Long term, they use too many praise hymns to get by with just a hymnal. He would like to put together a booklet of hymns and praise songs, but the musical canon of this young church is still (at least somewhat) evolving.

I am used to the hymnal + prayer book fumbling and find it strangely comforting. However, it really only works if you’ve memorized the service music as fumbling for three (or four hymns) is different from going back and forth between the prayer and the sanctus etc.

As Anglican churches continue to attract both non-Christians and non-liturgical Christians, I understand the need to make the service more approachable to visitors. I would argue that having a regular member help the confused visitor next to them is a better solution than any paper or technology.

That said, I do think my church (and other similar churches) have come up with the most reasonable compromise:
  • Fixed service booklets (perhaps different ones for Ordinary Time, penitential and festal seasons) that include both the prayers and the service music (words and notes)
  • A weekly insert of 4-8 pp. that includes the collect, Scripture readings and the hymn numbers — and a copy of any hymns not in the hymnal
  • A hymnal for most (or all) of the hymns
If a church had a booklet instead of a hymnal, it could substitute for the latter. Personally, I hope to continue at a hymnal church for another 30-40 years, but we will see.

Longer term, some have suggested we should have e-books instead of paper books, booklets or inserts. It might work with a 6-10" screen, but the 4" screen of the typical cellphone is not very practical for this purpose. There is also the question of whether we want to further privilege the Holy Screen in our worship, or to say to newcomers without phones that they are not welcome.

So today’s use of screens for music and liturgy seems to be a short-term expedient, particularly for churches who can’t buy a set of books, don’t want to drag them each week to a temporary rented space, or are unwilling to commit to singing the same music two years in a row.

We will have a more elegant technical solution by the end of this century, but for now I think this compromise is a reasonable one.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Cathedral vs. family Anglican worship

At most U.S. Anglican churches, today was the observance of All Saints Day. Upon reflection, it seems as though the two obvious hymns — “For all the saints” and “I sing a song of the saints of God” — represent conflicting worship goals.

I didn’t realize it when I woke up this morning, but this was also the conclusion of a 1994 article on “Episcopalians Celebrate All Saints” by Ruth Myers:
Distinct in style and content, these hymns express different theological aspects of the feast of All Saints. “For all the saints” celebrates the great communion of saints by acknowledging their earthly struggles and rejoicing in their eschatological triumph. In contrast, “I sing a song of the saints of God” was written for children “to impress the fact that sainthood is a living possibility today.”
However, I was focusing on a slightly different dichotomy: between high-church (cathedral-style) worship and reaching out to children.

Cathedral Hymnody

Although part of the American Hymnal 1892, what we know today as “For all the saints” is the version from The English Hymnal (1906), with a new tune by (TEH music editor) Ralph Vaughan Williams and eight of the 11 verses by Bishop How.

It has a bit of an ecumenical flavor. The (Missouri Synod) Lutheran talk show Issues Etc. last week ran a 54-minute interview with a Lutheran seminary professor, talking about the history of the hymn. It’s featured in the Presbyterian and Baptist hymnals, and last week my daughter sang it during the official freshman chapel at her Baptist university. In my (recently acquired) 1975 U.S. Catholic Hymnal, Worship II, it’s listed as Hymn #80 (although alas without four-part harmony on the middle verses).

As the clergy processed in this morning, I could tell who the cradle Anglicans (or Episcopalians) and long-time parishioners were, as they belted it out with great enthusiasm. Apparently I’m not the only one who looks forward to this day every year — for the words, for the music, and for the memories it evokes of my days as a choirboy at San Diego’s proto-cathedral. This is a hymn that cries out for the majesty of dozens (if not hundreds) of voices, a strong choir and a blaring organ.

Still, it’s not for everyone. After church, I went up to one of our newer parishioners, who (as it turns out) has a Pentecostal background but has been seeking a deeper liturgical experience. I asked him how he liked the hymn, and he said it was unfamiliar.

At the same time, except for the syncopated entry, it seems like a pretty straightforward hymn to sing. Yes, I’m not the most objective judge, having sung it in church 25+ times in my life. But objectively, it’s certainly a lot easier than Vaughan Williams’ second most famous hymn, the Easter/Ascension/Pentecost favorite “Hall thee, festival day?”

Children’s Hymnody

The other All Saints’ hymn seems at the other extreme: “I sing a song of the saints of God”. The text was published as a children’s hymn in the 1920s, while the version we sing was introduced to the world by Hymnal 1940 (#243) with a new tune written expressly for this purpose. It appears in Hymnal 1982 and some Presbyterian and Methodist hymnals. However — despite the British text (“at tea”) — the combined hymn has not crossed the pond to any Church of England hymnal. According to, appears in only 22 hymnals (vs. 473 for the more famous Vaughan Williams cathedral hymn.)

Both my wife and I remember it vividly from our childhood in the proto-cathedral. Our sermon today called it out today as well, as the clergyman had similar memories. Afterwards, we told him it was one of three we scheduled for our daughter’s baptism. (In fact, she heard it today by the children’s choir at her parish, but at our church the children’s choir was on hiatus and so it wasn’t scheduled). Similar recollections were voiced at a Virginia Theological Seminary blog.

Children’s vs. Cathedral Music

While these two styles are very divergent, I see them as more orthogonal than contradictory. Many of us learned “For all the saints” as children, and have loved it ever since (as my teenager daughter does). At the same time, there are many of us in the second half of life who eagerly await hearing the Lesbia Scott every November.

So the former hymn provides an opportunity to model enthusiastic festal worship for parishioners young and old, while the latter reminds us the importance of teaching the faithful the meaning of these feast days.


Meyers, Ruth A. (1994). "Episcopalians Celebrate All Saints." In Journal of the Liturgical Conference, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 9-13.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Favorite recording of the all-time favorite All Saints hymn

Of course, it wouldn’t be All Saints’ Day without Ralph Vaughan Williams' greatest hit, “For All the Saints.”

Unlike my daughter, my work schedule did not allow me to attend services and hear this hymn live this week. So on the way to work I decided to look for what recordings I had on my laptop among the 426 hymns.

I found four distinct performances. All were from English choirs using (as far as I could tell) boys for the trebles. Here the the performances, ordered from most basic to most ornate:
  1. Worcester Cathedral Choir, from the “Vaughan Williams: Hymns and Choral Music” (3 verses, 2:12). Other than only three verses, a model of what I would want a small church choir or medium-sized congregation to do
  2. Trinity College Choir, Cambridge, from “A Vaughan Williams Hymnal” (8 verses, 5:32) has several variations, including men only and an a capella verse. This is the straight-up version that I would hold as the aspirational goal for all but the most experienced church choir.
  3. Wells Cathedral Choir, from “Christ Triumphant: The English Hymn 1” (6 verses, 4:23) is similar, but a more pronounced retard at the end.
  4. Wells Cathedral Choir, from “Favourite Hymns from Wells Cathedral” (6 verses, 5:03) is all out, with trumpet flourishes before the beginning, between the 5th and 6th verses, and with trumpets and organ blasting over the choir in the final verse.
The first three have an almost identical tempo of 0:40 per verse, while the last one is noticeably slower (10% by my copy of iTunes).

Overall, I think I like #2 the best, in between #1 and #3. While #4 would probably be the one I’d prefer to experience live in a cathedral — or perhaps blaring on my high-end stereo in the music room — it’s just not the same with headphones on my laptop or iPod, and the drama actually gets a little tedious after a while.

Update: If you listen closely to these English choirs, you’ll notice a difference from The English Hymnal (#641) original and American practice. The choirs match this text in verse 1 of TEH:
For all the Saints who from their labours rest,
Who thee by faith before the world the confest,
Thy name, O Jesu, be forever blest,
Allieluya, Alleiluya!
So while there are obvious spelling differences, when listening it is noticeable that the English sing “O Jesu” rather than the “O Jesus” used with this text and RVW’s Sine Nomine in Hymnal 1940 (#126.1) or Hymnal 1982 (#287).

It turns out Hymnal 1916 was first American hymnal to use “O Jesus,” but still used the older 1868 tune (Sarum) which was retained in H40 (#126.2). When I went back to Hymnal 1892, not surprisingly it has Sarum — it couldn’t know about the tune that Vaughan Williams composed in 1906 for TEH — but it used the British “Jesu” (while keeping the other American spellings).