Someone posted this on Facebook this morning:
As hymnals fade, theology also suffers. The rich repository of religious wisdom contained in hymns will be lost. The old-fashioned language of hymns may strike some as unusual, but their text teaches the Christian faith far better than most of the praise choruses that dominate contemporary services. Old hymns were carefully crafted with theology at the forefront. Traditional hymns present doctrine clearly and beautifully convey the gospel story of saving grace.
My thoughts about this quote are mixed. Hymnals are a product of a new technology from another era - moveable type and the printing press. Just because the technology changes doesn't necessarily mean that the new technology will negatively impact our theology. Praise choruses are not that common in our tradition, but there are plenty of them that express sound theology. I wouldn't write them off. And, likewise, there are plenty of traditional hymns that express a theology that I would never embrace.
However, the writer, who is not cited, does offer a compelling testimony for the strength of our traditional hymnody, prompting me to reflect on the importance of hymns and singing in our worship.
Sometimes, when people ask us what The Episcopal Church believes, our answer is, “Come and worship with us.” That’s because both our liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer and the hymns in our hymnals beautifully express the heart of our theology and our faith.
For the past year or so, due to COVID protocols, we have not been able to sing aloud as a congregation. That’s been the case in many other places as well. However, in our parish, we have tried to compensate by placing the words and music in our bulletins, which are viewed online or downloaded for use during worship. We have gone to some lengths to ensure that we have all the permissions we need in dealing with copyrighted materials. In addition to that, our Organist/Choirmaster has sung the hymns for us.
As we are beginning to return to in-person worship, we are also continuing to live-stream our principal Sunday morning service. We have removed all prayer books and hymnals from the pews because we aren’t confident that we can adequately sanitize them. They will be returned to the pews as soon as we deem it safe to do so. However we access them, our prayers and the hymns teach us, remind us, inspire us, convict us, and assist us in our journeys as a worshiping community and as individuals. I'm reminded of a word of wisdom attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo: "Whoever sings, prays twice."
So, it’s important for us to include hymns in our worship when possible, even during a pandemic. Whether or not you can actually sing the hymns, you can read and listen attentively to the words and the music. When we reach the point when we can have congregational singing again, with or without masks, it will still be important to read the words and listen to the music. You can do that even when you don’t recognize a hymn. The hymn you don't recognize may be the favorite of the person sitting next to you in the pew.
Singing or silent, if you will be attentive to the words and listen to the music, maybe you will experience the joy that comes when we “Sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 98:1).
The Very Reverend Ron Pogue
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church