Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Beyond "Worship Wars" to Beholding the Movement

I have begun working on a project for the North Alabama Historical Society entitled "The Movement of Methodist Hymnody in the United States: The Past, Present, and Future." Reflecting on my observations on my hymnal collection and other sources as well as my own experience, I'm interested in how song has been shaped over time, and the way that upholding tradition and exploring creative newness has in our faith heritage always had a vibrant, dynamic relationship.

Here are a few thoughts to ponder and I welcome everyone's input ...

1) "Worship wars" are partly based on ignorance of the joy of passionately loving both in our own tradition. We've always been "both/and" singers with a thirst for new sounds and texts as well as one foot in the door of the ancient ways.

2) Hymns are as old as Christianity, the word "hymn" itself is from Greek. Luke records canticles (songs) around the Christmas story and Paul records early hymns in the epistles. In early centuries, the dynamics of both traditional and contemporary influence began to emerge as psalm singing developed on the one hand, with Gregorian chant becoming dominant as new modes and ordering of music emerged, and plainsong hymns came along on the other hand, due in part to Benedictine influence. These were two dynamic strands of song.

3) The German reformation came along, and the Germans became proliferous in their explorations of Protestant hymnody under Luther, followed by the great composers of German chorales. They loved this because the music was more common and easier to sing and remember and the texts were in the vernacular.

4) The Wesleys came along when the English landscape was not only spiritually dry but also void of contemporary song. After Tallis, for cultural reasons they had driven back toward the more elitist chantlike melody. Germans, however, had been more evangelical and John Wesley picked this spirituality up from the Moravians. He brought it into their movement because of the heart-felt, emotive character of the singing compared to the metrical psalmnody the British elite had grown to prefer. He began by translating German chorales into English. At the same time, Isaac Watts was just ahead of Charles Wesley and was beginning to write English hymns as well.

5) Charles picked up on the movement and was lit on fire, becoming the most proliferous hymn writer in all of history. At the time, it was radical, emotionally compelling, rousing singing that was frowned on by traditionalists. The singing fueled the evangelical movement because it was sung with tunes that were easy to sing, contemporary to the ear, and was common and simple language.

6) The hymnbook was a modern phenomenon that traditionalists struggled with and frowned upon, much as traditionalists struggle with video projection and praise bands today. We think of hymnals as "traditional", because tradition is dynamic and our concept of it changes. At the time, they were new, different, and "with the times."

7) As you trace subsequent hymnals of those the Wesleys compiled personally, you can see themes that emerge in continuing the dynamic and creative balance between holding onto the gems of tradition while exploring and capturing new song. In the generation after the Wesleys during the camp meeting movement, evangelical hymns emerged such as those of Lowell Mason, simultaneously with spirituals which emerged in the African American experience. In another wave and generation later, these evangelical hymns gave way to gospel tunes with writers such as Fanny Crosby, while mountain music influence brought "shape note" singing into the mix. Even later, when I was growing up, it was common to have Sunday night services using the Cokesbury hymnal, which was the contemporary music of about 75 years ago.

8) Layer upon layer of gospel and evangelical outpourings were the new and the contemporary music of each subsequent generation. And we have witnessed it with the introduction of "praise music" in our generation, which I would argue is a pendulum swing back to the spirituality of metrical psalm singing with its simplicity of text. Praise music is, in a sense, more "traditional" than Wesleyan hymns and is best seen as the latest expression of 2,000 year old creative dynamics between singing psalmody (even if texts are new but in a similar spirit of singing simple prayer to God) and writing poetry that has "meatier" theological content.

9) One way hymnals changed over time is the way hymns were organized and presented. They didn't exist at all before the printing press, of course, though music leaves from the renaissance period begin to approximate the look that would become hymn music. First they appeared with texts only because of both convenience and expense, then with one tune written with multiple texts nearby, and finally with text written under the tune. Now in both printed and video resources we are swinging back. It appears to me the presentation of hymns is a grand pendulum of sorts rooted in the creativity of our tradition.

10) I'm fond of saying John and Charles Wesley had the Book of Common Prayer in one pocket and a collection of contemporary hymns in the other. This "both/and" singing is part of the DNA of the church. It continues to play itself out as vibrant churches offer both traditional and contemporary worship options and all kinds of blends. But that's not new anymore. Emerging is another wave and another way to continue this journey. What will it be like?

11) All in all, in mainstream American Methodism there have been 27 hymnals and 9 suppliments published. What will be next? Some argue that we don't need paperbound hymnals anymore because of the computer age. I think there will be one, but it will be a "bridge hymnal", a hybrid into something else fo the future, a paperbound hymnal but with digital components and perhaps customizable content. What will a hymnal look like in this age, and the next to come?

I do not have a degree in hymnology or anything, so I apologize for holes in my thinking. This has just emerged from a lifelong love of congregational song and study, and these are just some of my initial thoughts after one weekend of thinking and reading.

I am continuing my research as well as my own observations of printed resources spanning time. My goal is to not only understand the past but to try to peek into the window that lies in the future. I would love to hear your ideas and thoughts!