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How Do We Swim in this Much Wider River of Song?

This week’s pastor’s column comes to us from Dr. Emily Brink, one of the world’s leading experts on congregational song. She will be with the BMPC community this coming weekend, when she leads a class at 8:45 a.m. in Congregational Hall and assists in the leading of the 10:00 a.m. HymnFest. Brink served as editor for four hymnals: Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids, 1987), a liturgical resource for the Christian Reformed Church; Holding in Trust: Hymns of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (1992, co-edited with George Black and Nancy Faus); Songs for Life (1994), a children’s hymnal; Sing! A New Creation (2001), a contemporary and global hymnal supplement; and was co-editor with John D. Witvliet of The Worship Sourcebook (2004), a contemporary resource with a classical model. 

“My first visit to Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church was in June 1988, when your church hosted the annual meeting of the Hymn Society of America, a group that still enthusiastically gathers each year in different places to sing, listen, learn and converse with hymn poets, composers, organists, choir directors, preachers, publishers, editors, and many more who simply love to sing. I remember that meeting very well for the beauty of your Sanctuary and hearing speakers like Timothy Dudley-Smith and Brian Wren, to name two of the most famous (and still living) hymn writers from the UK. It was also the year I led a “showcase” of the new hymnal I had just completed editing: the 1987 Psalter Hymnal of the Christian Reformed Church. (I also remember that conference for such hot weather and the then un-air conditioned Sanctuary that I took home some of the wood stain from the pews on my clothes!)

That was 26 years ago, before the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal was published. And now the PC(USA) has released yet another hymnal, Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal—as has my denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, together with the Reformed Church in America publishing Lift Up Your Hearts: Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs. Both were published in 2013.

Why new hymnals again already? I’ll explore that question in our 8:45 a.m. session on Sunday morning before the 10:00 a.m. service—a beautifully planned service that invites us to sing songs both from the 1990 Presbyterian Hymnal, as well as songs found in both Glory to God and Lift Up Your Hearts. The editors of these new hymnals worked together at several points along the way, sharing resources and consulting with each other about the complexities of making decisions of what to keep and what to make room for from the thousands of songs for worship that have been composed since our earlier hymnals were published. Here are two points we’ll explore:  

First, compare the titles of these two generations of hymnals: very few hymnals today even use the word “hymn” or “hymnal” in titles anymore, though sometimes found in sub-titles.  

Second, the change in titles reflects much more diversity. “Hymns” don’t acknowledge the many different streams that have joined the main river of congregational song. Traditional hymns are about a page long, in metrical form, that is, usually with 3-5 stanzas, usually rhymed, that can be sung to the same tune. As you will note on Sunday morning, some of the newer worship songs are much shorter—in what used to be called “service music”—like the traditional “Doxology.” Those streams include Psalms (sung in many different forms), responses, spirituals, contemporary songs of all types, and recognition of the larger global church. How do we respond to all that diversity? How do we swim in this much wider river of song?”

Come Sunday morning at 8:45 a.m. and we’ll explore these questions together.