We need a good hymnal

Do Universalist Christians need a new common liturgy? Despite my obvious interests and opinions, I think the answer is no. The 1790 Philadelphia Convention, called in part to adopt a common communion liturgy, didn’t. Universalist practice has included well-formed trinitarian liturgy, worship as window-dressing for platform speaking, the polite hymn sandwich, and praise in the “frontier” mode (save for the “anxious bench”.) No one form tried to dominate the others, and local variation ran through each “school”. There seems little reason to try and adopt a uniform style now.

I would like to see liturgical renewal, and I would like to be in a church which local custom was mature and jubilant liturgical worship, but what we need first and formost is a common hymnal, or a commonly-held hymnal, both for congregational worship, and as a basis for a spiritual renewal.

Earlier, I quoted hymnologist Erik Routley as to the uses of hymnals. In Protestant hands, they serve a second function as a lay devotional and a way of learning church teaching. (Little wonder that one of the earliest Universalist items in print was a denominational hymnal.) Unlike today, hymnals were once personal property, with perhaps a few copies kept for visitors. I used to see this as evidence of cheapness; now I see it as an endorsement of the affection people had (and some have today) for the word which is both read and sung. And more than that: the hymnal is really a book with the laity in mind. In this age of tradition-combing and lay-empowerrment, it strikes me as a bitter irony that the status of the American hymnal is so low, especially in the post-War generations. I don’t think the reasons for this unfortunate situation are all that mysterious.

First, hymnals today usually belong to churches, not individuals, and so literally “aren’t ours.” Unless you own one, there’s little opportunity to browse through it, much less learn from it. Second, in churches with a backwards orientation, the hymnody (with the rest of the worship) is so “protected” that it ends up ossified and completely out of the living concern of new Christians. Third, and on the flip side, language reformers have been so keen to change the language, settings, and selections of those hymns which do have a freehold on the worshipers’ hearts that they feel abandonded by the hymnal compliers. I’m glad to see that the “language wars” are about over, with a truce and compromize in evidence.

So, what do we do now? How do we get a hymnal back into the hands of the faithful, to be used at home as well as church. We need to select one. Let’s not pretend we have the strength, skill, or money to make our own. “Custom” hymnals, far too often cheap-looking and tacky, are prey to local quirks. And, though it might seem like a small point, most hymnals are physically too large. They look and feel more like encyclopedia volumes more than handy guides. An English Unitarian minister asked me asked how the elderly and arthritic were expected to hold Singing the Living Tradition, the 1993 Unitarian Universalist Association hymnal. He had a point; his church used the small words-only Hymns of Faith and Freedom, and it is small enough to keep in a handback, and cheap enough for everyone to own. (Get one if you’re in London; the indicies are worth the GBP 8.50 alone.) By contrast, the SLT was at its publication the most expensive hymnal on the American market, and is still nearly twice as expensive as parallel editions in other denominations.

Plus (and need I say it?) the SLT has so little for Christians that I never refer to it anymore; I also don’t think it has very much musical merit.

I want a hymnal that draws from good, ecumenical hymnody but also has a number of familiar favorites, has a working selection of psalms (and, ideally, other service texts), is easy to carry, and ideally comes in a large-type edition for those with poor eyesight.

I can’t say I’ve found a single suitable work in the United States under these criteria.

The Hymns of Faith and Freedom comes close as its single edition is better for the pooer-sighted than most American hymnals, but there are no psalms. The United Refomed Church’s Rejoice and Sing is very close to the mark, but it may not be sold in the United States. (I got mine when last in London.) Unfortunately, there’s no information about it online.

So far, the best contender is the 1973 Church Hymnary, Third Edition which is used all over the world in Reformed churches, but is most identifed with the Church of Scotland. It doesn’t have many prose psalms (but a good selection of metrical psalms) and enough service elements to hold a Sunday service, and particularly a communion service without a printed order of worship.

The good news is that a new edition is in the works, so I hope to get a copy when it appears.

If it follows in the track of the third edition and the revised (second) edition, this will be hard to beat, and will come in a number of formats. (I treasure my paperback revised edition copy; 728 hymns and liturgical elements, but no tunes, and small enough to slip into a jacket pocket.)

And I’m looking at Voices United, the hymnal of the United Church of Canada. Sooner rather than later I hope to get a copy, and will report back then. (A Canadian friends gives it the thumbs’ up.) Until then, note that three indices can be downloaded at the information site.

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