Sunday, August 2, 2009

Who needs a hymnal?

In this blog, I have been ruminating on the next American Anglican hymnal, what will be in it, and which Continuing Anglican groups will contribute to it — or if there will even be enough Anglicans to make a hymnal. This blog is my homework to get ready for that revision, although I’ll probably need to go to Kaplan (or whatever the Anglican music equivalent is) once the revision plans are announced.

However, one thing I haven’t asked is: do we need a new hymnal? No, I’m not asking if Hymnal 1940 needs updating — it certainly needs some improvements, and we want to stop bailing TEC out of its fiscal overstretch.

Perhaps more germane is the rising number of non-hymnal evangelical parishes out there, who probably wouldn’t buy a hymnal even if it were produced — let alone share a hymnal with us Anglo-Catholics. Even if they had a list of hymns they liked, the fashion is to rotate through new workship music so that little or nothing is older than the preschoolers. (The Catholic church seems to have caught this fad in printing a new Today’s Missal every few months.)

But that comes back to the basic points of why the Anglican (and Lutheran and Catholic and Methodist and Baptist and Adventist and …) denominations have long had their own hymnals. For now, I want to limit myself to pew hymnals, rather than service books (such as 12th century missals) intended only for choir or clergy.

I can think of three reasons why a hymnal exists:
  • To distribute the words and music in a cost-effective fashion. In worship, this is being displaced by PowerPoint projectors and at home by TheCyberHymnal and other Internet sites.
  • To make sure we’re all singing the same thing — to provide a common culture and shared worship across different parishes of a denomination. This has been my fundamental argument for timeless hymns against those pursuing the fad-of-the-day, whether musical fads embraced by CMM worship leaders or social-political fads pursued by the cultural revisionists.
  • As a way of validating a common doctrine shared by the church theologians and other leaders. If any parish priest or music director can pick any variant of any hymn off the web (or out of a book) and sing it, then how do the bishops and other church leaders know that the music is being used to reinforce the one true catholic and apostolic faith rather than promote heresies and other false doctrine?
This last point is the subject of a posting Saturday on Brothers of John the Steadfast, a blog representing those LCMS clergy and laity who will be forced (ala ACNA but without the lawyers) leave the LCMS in the next decade and form their own synod.

Guest blogger Holger Sonntag quoted Martin Luther hymself as he wrote the introduction to three Lutheran hymnals, explaining the theological role of the hymnal in Christian worship. What I found amusing (or troubling) is that a tendency towards faddish hymnal revision is nearly 500 years old:
Now there are some who have given a good account of themselves and augmented the hymns so that they by far surpass me and are my masters indeed. But others have added little of worth. And since I realize that there is going to be no end to this haphazard and arbitrary revision which goes on from day to day, and that even our first hymns are more and more mutilated with each reprinting, I fear that this booklet will ultimately fare no better than good books everywhere, namely, to be corrupted and adulterated by blunderheads until the good in it will be lost and only the bad remain.
So where is the Rt. Rev. N.T. Wright decrying the New Anguish Hymnal? I realize he is busy with other Anglican matters (and writing and selling books, ala C.S. Lewis) but isn’t this a matter of some import? In fact, most clergy seem to think music selection should be left to the musicians, although I have found a few that will devote the time due its central role in reinforcing the theology of any given worship service.

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