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Hymnal Musings

January 23, 2008

When I completed my contextual education / field education / whatever they’re calling it this week, the pastor under whom I served gave me a gift.  It was a United Methodist Hymnal with leather binding, gold-leaf edges and my name imprinted on the cover.  Sweet!

It gave me my favorite joke around campus.  “You can tell I’m a Methodist because my hymnal is nicer than my Bible.”

And now it’s official – we United Methodists are thinking about a new hymnal.   It makes me ponder my own relationship to the UM Hymnal, how it is used in worship, and my own relationship with it.

I’m quite sure I know fewer than 50% of the songs in the hymnal.  John and Charles would not be happy.

I have a really hard time picking out hymns for worship.  I don’t always know which hymns are known by both the congregation and me.  Or which ones the musicians have trouble playing.

At Eden, a UCC seminary, we used the UCC’s new hymnal.  The inclusive language used in the hymnal is probably a good step forward theologically (and I will be transparent in saying that I think inclusive language for both God and humanity is a good thing), but it is awkward singing “God’s eye is on the sparrow and I know God watches me.”  Your mouth just doesn’t go for those words when the melody is so familiar.  One of my profs actually worked on the hymnal committee, and she referred to it as “the new hymnal that nobody likes.”

By the time The Faith We Sing hit the pews none of those songs were contemporary anymore.  Is it time to switch over to some sort of electronic medium that allows for addition of songs in real time?

Some hymn imagery (hymagery?) is disturbing.  “There is a Fountain Filled With Blood.”  You know, I wouldn’t let my kids watch a movie that showed a fountain filled with blood but we sing about it almost gleefully.

My friend Josh is very open about hymns he simply does not like.  Are you open about your favorites/least favorites?  Is it okay for a pastor to introduce a hymn by saying something along the lines of, “I always thought that Hymn of Promise was really cheezy and sappy, but it fits so well with today’s sermon that I thought we should sing it.” (Purely hypothetical, BTW)

One thing I think the Anglicans-Episcopalians definitely have right is the Book of Common Prayer.  (yeah yeah, I know, all the cool kids call it the BCP).  Using resources from the Discipline, the Hymnal and the Book of Worship the United Methodists really should have a book containing our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, some creeds, a lectionary, prayers, resources for worship at home, a bit of history, etc.   Could a new hymnal address that, given that we are the ones who are supposed to be methodical about our faith?

What is your relationship with the hymnal as it stands?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Pam Ekey permalink
    January 24, 2008 12:22 pm

    Picking hymns that people know or will sing has become a contentious topic in my congregation. I have discovered that most of the congregation is not familiar with the hymns in the current hymnal and they are not interested in learning ones that are new to them. They just want to sing the old, familiar hymns. Problem is, I don’t know what they know until I’ve picked the ones they don’t know.

    Then there’s the little problem of theology. I try to pick hymns that relate theologically to the day’s scriptures and sermon. When I tried to explain that to the congregation, I was informed that it is not necessary to relate the hymns to the rest of the service. They just music that makes them feel good. I’m not ready to give up on theology just yet. It’s frustrating for me and for the congregation when we have this much disagreement about the hymn selection. This must be one of the lessons they didn’t cover in seminary. 🙂

  2. January 24, 2008 8:26 pm

    Nice post!

    Unfortunately, my relationship with my hymnal is….by the time that I find the right page, the song is half over.

  3. January 24, 2008 10:59 pm

    Thank you for the inside-look on ministry and the hymns that are sung. I have just never thought about it. I guess preaching has an element on ‘staging’ and hymn choice does make a difference.
    My only…..what should I say, inner conflict?…with the Methodist Hymnal is the Apostle’s Creed. Being raised a Baptist (when they actually made sure I went to church) this was a new one on me. We are visiting a Methodist Church now. I believe so much of what it says about Christ. But the part about the Holy Catholic Church, it gives me pause. I just can’t ‘pledge allegiance’ to anyone or anything but Christ. So in church, I just don’t say it and I stand there and tell Jesus, in my heart, that I love Him. I will not quibble over that – it’s religion. I am there for a relationship and worship – that’s Jesus.- Jennifer

  4. January 25, 2008 12:27 am


    It’s important to note, first, that “holy catholic church” is not capitalized in the UM Hymnal. Secondly, its important to not confuse “holy catholic church” with “Roman Catholic Church.” Believe me when I say that UM doctrine is not one that pledges allegiance to any other denomination and particularly not to the Church in Rome.

    As for the creed, it’s a statement of faith, or belief, that there is a holy catholic church. There is one church or body of believers. Christ’s church is catholic, which is just a fancy schmancy way of saying universal in Latin. And the church is holy, or set apart from the rest of the world.

    The church–universal, catholic, or otherwise–doesn’t do a very good job of teaching that kind of stuff regularly. We assume everyone already knows. I’m sorry that the Creed made you feel conflicted. That shouldn’t happen. I hope this helps.

  5. billpage3 permalink
    January 27, 2008 3:55 pm

    Will, et al,

    When I was choir director of a UMC church in upstate New York, it irked me that the pastor had such poor taste in picking service music. It wasn’t that she couldn’t pick appropriate hymns, it was that she never picked music that people couid sing.
    One of the reasons Charles Wesley’s hymns have been so successful through the years is that they are words that can be easily sung when put to good tunes…and through the years, people have paired his words with great tunes.
    Don’t give up on the old hymns. Fountains filled with blood, while not an enviable image, do express the theological truth that it takes the blood of Christ to wash us clean…although it’s been a long time since I heard a UMC pastor preach of blood and redemption these days…my Methodist joke is that, at least up here in Yankee land, “UMC” means “Unitarian Methodist”.
    But the old hymns are where the doctrine is. Few of the contemporary praise songs (even those that are no longer contemporary) express any doctrine at all.
    So get over your aversion, and actually learn the hymns.
    For Pam — get to know one or two of your old-time choir members, and run your selections past them. They will surely know if the congregation is familiar with tne hymns. Don’t let them stop you from choosing good hymns, but try not to put too many unfamiliar songs out there at a time. You’ll alienate your folks over an issue that isn’t as important as it might seem to be.
    A good way to introduce an unfamiliar hymn or chorus is to have the congregation hear it before they know they’re going to have to sing it. Use it as an introit, or as an offertory, or have the choir sing it the week before your going to use it.


  6. Taylor Burton-Edwards permalink
    January 27, 2008 8:20 pm


    Thanks for this post and this conversation.

    One minor quibble though. Technically, probably most United Methodists are not thinking about a new UM hymnal for the US. But General Conference will be asked to think about that– and specifically to consider approving the entire creation of a new hymnal in four years designed only for the US for final approval in 2012.

    What United Methodists in general are asked to think about are the results of the music and worship study that GBOD (where I am Director of Worship Resources) and UMPH were commissioned by the last General Conference to produce.

    It’s an incredible amount of data that says a lot about our church’s current and projected future use of worship resources. It’s worth a long look and lots of conversation around the connection.

    That study was not a hymnal study. A hymnal study would have been designed to establish business models, format, delivery systems and contents for a new hymnal. That work has not been done at this point. The committee did not agree on any recommendations for General Conference action as a result of the study– but the executive leaders of each agency (GBOD and UMPH) did. The legislation for a new hymnal plus a new hymnal study (for a different hymnal) has now been proposed by the board of GBOD, and UMPH has concurred with the proposal for a new US-only hymnal (not the other hymnal study, which would include Pan-Methodist participation in determining the kind of official hymnal– including ritual resources– that would best reflect and support United Methodists and other Methodists who identify culturally as being of African descent). Both of those items of legislation are being presented, and General Conference is being asked to deliberate on both.

    Meanwhile, all the data and conclusions of the Music and Worship Study are available online for all to see and deliberate at

  7. January 28, 2008 11:45 am

    Taylor, thank you for that much-needed clarification.

    Bill, I’m not sure you’re reading me correctly. I don’t have any “aversion” to learning the old hymns. I just don’t know ’em all.

    I have a strong desire for hymns that contain both sound doctrine and imagery that is immediately meaningful to contemporary Christians. Yes, the “fountain filled with blood” does express a theological truth, but it requires an understanding of martyrdom and sacrifice that most of our congregants just don’t get. (Can we really understand sacrifice on a deep, meaningful level while simultaneously considering an upgrade from DVD to Blu-Ray?)

  8. January 28, 2008 7:14 pm

    One problem I found selecting hymns for Advent for the first time was that most hymns were only appropriate for the day of Christmas, or the night before. But very few for the weeks leading up to it.

    Otherwise, the hymnal is pretty good. I have no serious complaints, although the American-flag-worshipping stuff should be removed.

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