Monday, March 8, 2010

A Look at the Past to Discover the Future

What will our next hymnal be like? This is Part 1 of a paper presented to the NAC Historical Society on the movement of Methodist hymnody in the United States. I've learned some amazing things about the creative tensions of the past that could guide us into the future.

Pictured is a window in Wesley's Chapel in London depicting John and Charles Wesley singing.

John and Charles Wesley must have carried a Wesley hymn collection in one pocket and the Book of Common Prayer in the other. They were best known for “cutting edge” field preaching and circuit riding, but they instructed class leaders to attend Eucharist in the Anglican Church three times a week. This twofold, “both/and” spirituality remains the genius of Methodist worship.

If there has been a constant in the history of Methodist song, it’s been change. Yet if we observe change over time, the same vibrant passion for the creative and popular on the one hand, and the scriptural and historical on the other, plays itself out again and again.

I have no degree in hymnology, and we do not have time to comprehensively cover the 27 hymnals and 9 supplements that the United Methodist Church and its predecessors have officially produced, not to mention other Methodist denominations and a wide variety of unofficial resources that tell the rest of the story. What I can offer are insights of a pastor with a deep love for music, liturgy, and spiritual formation.

I hope to summarize the history of Methodist song, making reference to various hymnals including my personal collection. I have identified five (5) waves of the Spirit that will help us see the larger picture. Each wave includes an effort to find our formative center through official hymnals, but the movement of congregational song is larger than official hymnals. So each wave also includes a corresponding outburst of creativity through unofficial song collections. Finally, I hope this exercise will help us imagine what our next hymnal might be like. The best way to prepare for the future is to understand our past.

I’ve never seen this done before, so please forgive my imperfections as I attempt such a sweeping exercise. In embarking on this task, I have sought a better way to name and understand the ongoing, twofold dynamic of the movement of song than the words “contemporary” and “traditional.” These labels have been overused. All vibrant worship is both. It is rooted in history and “with the times”. Besides that, there are so many traditions and forms of contemporary experience that these words have no clear meaning.

I find it more helpful to identify this dynamic as the creative tension between the “vernacular and evangelical” on the one hand and the “mysterious and liturgical” on the other. If we pay attention, we will find that this tension is a strength that has always defined our worship. If we compare Methodist worship practice with the two denominations in our nation larger than ours, we find that one is clearly more vernacular and evangelical, and the other is highly mysterious and liturgical. We are vibrantly both.

Copyright 2010 Stephen P. West. All rights reserved.

Click HERE to continue to Part 2.