Is the age of the hymnal over?

Not the hymn, which I think will be with us in some form — recovered or new — for a very long time, but the compiled and printed hymnal that I both love and which often fails to impress me. And sometimes fails congregations.

Hymnals are frozen in time. Because they are expensive to produce and replace, a hymnal might live thirty years in the pews (or longer) if there isn’t a desirable replacement. As they age, hymnals need supplemental volumes — more expense and how are we going to wedge these in the pew racks? pile them under the seats? — or printed one-off tip-ins. These tip-ins are a particular problem because unless the church has a reproduction license (a subject for another day) it might well be violating the intellectual property rights of another. Also, congregations are less likely to know a tipped-in hymn and thus are less likely to sing it well or enjoy it. Plus, let me tell you, I’ve wasted more hours trying to make printed orders of service look good and tip-ins don’t help.

But on the plus side, you don’t need an extra book to deal with and it makes the experience a little easier to for those–especially the unfamiliar–trying to follow along.

There was a revolution in liturgy a few decades back; this is not my own idea. I have written about it before but cannot now find where I first read this. (I’ll post a citation if I ever do find it again.) No, not the Vatican II reforms that touch even Protestant churches. The spirit duplicator revolution where neighborhood parsons could (and did) become liturgical publishers. Before this, of course, there were local printed orders of service, but these came from job printers and tended to be (a) invariable or (b) for special occasions like ordinations or church dedications. With the purple ditto machine, every minister could whip up a new liturgical confection. It isn’t important here if the products were good or not: as with the Internet publication phenomenon, the new medium changed the rules.

Now, this was only about two hymnal generations ago. You can tell (among the Unitarians, Universalist and Unitarian Universalists) because somewhere between Hymns of the Spirit and Hymns for the Celebration of Life prepared orders of service vanished.

I think the hymnals held on because of the licensing and printing difficulties that remain. But remain for how long? Consider the Episcopalians. Here we have a church that–properly speaking–has no need for a printed order of service. The prayer book, hymnal, hymn boards and spoken announcements should (or might) cover everything.  But now it is not at all unusual to go to an Episcopal church service and be given a printed order of service so complete that you never touch a book. Visual Liturgy, for the Church of England and other churches, is software that help automate producing orders of service and I’m sure the Episcopalians have something like it. Visual Liturgy is, however, closed source, for Microsoft Windows and very expensive. Feh.  And between public domain resources, those liberally licensed, those for which licenses may be bought and the open source software development community I imagine something very good can be developed for other churches. Use your imagination here. My point is it seems the writing is on the wall. (Literally, if you add in those churches that project all the liturgical information on a screen, which I don’t like for a number of reasons.)

Where do you think the hymnal is going?

Categorized as Hymns, Worship

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. where going? into museums and museum churches. Excellent post. In part the future of hymnals will depend of course on the size of churches meeting in any one time in any one place for any one same thing called worship; I see that dwindling. I see more singing, a lot more singing (would be interesting to run some surveys on that) and fewer hymnals, unless, as you mention with ditto machines, new technology creates something that might still be called a hymnal just not in the usual printed mode.

  2. Last summer we visited a Lutheran church where they had a screen with Power Point slides to show words to hymn words / liturical respones etc. It was not bad, but did take a little getting used to.

    One advantage of this is that you have large print, which some of us appreciate.

    If you project an image of a copyrighted hymn on a large screen, does that violate IP?

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