In my previous posting (November 2009) I noted that hymn-singing is very much alive and well, not only at American Baptist Seminary of the West, but across the land. Nevertheless, at times I become concerned that hymns as a form of congregational music might be edging toward the endangered species list, if we are not careful to preserve them, as well as continue to create them.
The three hats I currently wear give me an interesting perspective for surveying the landscape of hymnody. First, I am an associate professor at our seminary and teach elective courses in congregational music. (Note: we welcome students to my 2010 summer course, June 14-18, “Planning Congregational Music.” It will meet from 6:00 to 9:30 pm, for five nights.) In addition to my elective courses, I am deeply involved in our ABSW Middler Colloquium, during which our MDiv students have a nine-month internship assignment in a church or other ministry setting. So, I do get some good insights about what the congregations served by our students are singing.
My second hat is as pastor of First Baptist Church of Berkeley, a 120-year-old congregation just four blocks from the ABSW campus. I was first called to FBCB in 1984, as minister of music, and have remained actively involved with the congregation for over twenty-six years, becoming pastor in June of 2009. More on my “pastor hat” in a moment!
The third hat I wear is as editor of THE HYMN, the quarterly journal of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada (www.thehymnsociety.org). Through reading and editing potential articles for the journal and, particularly, by attending The Hymn Society’s marvelous annual conference each July (we’re meeting in Birmingham, Alabama this summer) I am privileged to have a window into congregational music across the continent, as well as to meet and become friends with many of the excellent hymn writers and composers of our day.
Still, I am quite aware that as the major form of sacred song, hymns have fallen out of fashion in many, many churches over the last two or three decades. Truly, “congregational song” is the more accurate term for the music we share together in worship, and the hymn is but one style and form. There is a wide range of music being played, sung, and listened to in weekly worship services in North America. We are blessed to have so much sacred music in our midst, which is truly a gift from God.
Nevertheless, I am unapologetically a lover of and evangelist for hymns. And I do worry that too many churches are not teaching and sharing hymns with their congregations, nor putting any form of printed music in front of their worshipers (let us not forget that the church has been the center of music education for at least 1,500 years!). Words on a screen do not teach us how to read music. But I’ll save that rant for another time… <grin>
As not only the pastor of FBC Berkeley, but as our church musician, I am constantly engaged in planning worship and choosing the music we will sing at 10:00 am on Sunday mornings. This past Sunday we gathered for a beautiful service that had no sermon but shared the Word of God through songs and hymns. Our focus was twofold and complimentary: congregational song to honor God’s creation (a nod toward the recently observed Earth Day, across our land) and several versions, spoken and sung, of Psalm 23 (which was the lectionary psalm for Sunday, April 25). I’d like to share a few highlights from our time of worship.
Following the Call to Worship, Psalm 100, we sang William Kethe’s 1561 paraphrase of that psalm, “All people that on earth do dwell,” to the familiar tune OLD HUNDREDTH, followed by ”From all that dwell below the skies” (Isaac Watts, 1719; to the tune LASST UNS ERFREUEN). After the Invocation, Psalm 117, we sang the doxology to the latter tune. Then, Psalm 8 was spoken responsively and underlined by singing together “Creating God, Your Fingers Trace” (text: Jeffrey Rowthorn, 1974 ; tune: TALLIS’ CANON).
Next we turned to Psalm 148, read in three sections, with a hymn following each part: “Brother Sun, Sister Moon” (text: Rusty Edwards, 1993; tune: ST. COLUMBA), “God of the sparrow, God of the whale” (text: Jaroslav Vajda, 1983; tune: ROEDER, by Carl Schalk), and “For the fruit of all creation” (text: Fred Pratt Green, 1970; tune: AR HYD Y NOS, a Welsh melody).
In the middle section of the service, titled “God Is Our Shepherd,” we heard read three different translations or paraphrases of the beloved Psalm 23, and sang two hymns based on the text: “The Lord’s my shepherd; I’ll not want” and “My shepherd, you supply my need.” We also had a time of meditation during which we listened to Bobbie McFerrin’s stunning composition and four-part vocalization, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
Two very new hymns brought our mini-festival to a joyous conclusion: “O beautiful Gaia” (text and tune: Carolyn McDade, 2006), and “Earth is full of wit and wisdom,” with a 2007 text by my young friend and Hymn Society colleague, Adam Tice (sung to the tune HOLY MANNA). What a glorious assembly of God’s creation Adam includes in his four stanzas: “the tiny roly poly,” “the tree-top-tall giraffe,” “gecko, monkey, chicken,” “sea slug, oak, and algae.” One cannot sing this hymn without smiling and chuckling every few moments.
No matter what you are singing in worship on Sunday morning or Saturday night, I hope you are making a joyful sound to God: the Creator, Sustainer, and Lover of all things!
Rev. Dr. Nancy E. Hall
Director of Contextual Education and Associate Professor of Ministry
American Baptist Seminary of the West