Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Miracle and Majesty of The Hymnal 1982

Every Sunday we turn to the 1982 Hymnal for music to enhance our worship, both in the hymns we sing and the liturgical music. However, it’s a rare moment when we consider the stunning work of art we hold in our hands.  The magnitude of history and effort that went into creating the hymnal is such that we in the pews ought never to take it for granted!

The Hymnal 1982 and The Book of Common Prayer as found side-by-side in a typical Episcopalian pew
When we use the hymnal, we see a single book.  But in actuality, the 1982 Hymnal is just one small part of all the publications that make up the music of the Episcopal Church. The appendices offer a great deal of information concerning the authors, sources, liturgical references and purposes of each hymn.  But lists aren’t enough for the inquiring mind—so a three-volume The Hymnal 1982 Companion was published with detailed information about every single contribution of music. Further, if you want to select hymns based on certain Biblical passages or elements of worship, there are indexes for that as well. There are versions and addendums for music leaders and directors. And if that were not already enough of an astonishing feat, there are supplements and addendums like Wonder, Love and Praise!, Sing Praise, and A Hymn Tune Psalter.  That’s a lot of music and a lot of indexing!  Yet it wasn’t a matter of “reinventing the wheel” since much of the work was preceded by other hymnals.

The Episcopal Church, in fact, has had seven authorized hymnals. Shortly after the church was founded in 1785, the church fathers determined right away to accompany the prayer book with a hymnal.  The first hymnal was published in 1789. New updated hymnals were authorized by General Conventions and published in 1826, 1871 and 1892.  These first four hymnals included only hymn texts. (Remember a few issues ago when we looked briefly at American hymnody and singing schools? We learned then that hymns were learned by rote  and sung out of the oral tradition, so music wasn’t necessary in these early hymnals, especially since so few people could even read music.) It was the next authorized hymnal, published in 1916, that was the first to include music. Actually, two versions were published because the Bishop of Marquette’s resolution to publish an edition with music and the Bishop of Vermont’s resolution to publish an edition without music were both adopted by the 1916 General Convention.  The musical version was finally edited and published in 1918 and was forever known as the “new version,” not because it was more recently published, but because this was the first sanctioned hymnal with music included—a new concept.  At this point in our hymnal’s history, things begin to grow huge with details and industry. Adding music, after all, is a whole new element, and regulations must be set! (We ARE talking about the Episcopal Church, don’t y’know.)

So in 1919, General Convention approved a resolution tasking the Joint Commission for Church Music (an august body comprised of six bishops, six presbyters and six laypersons) to “make recommendations as to the character and form of music to be used in church services,” and to “recommend methods and instruction on the history and practice of church music.”  This was the first time that thoughtful consideration was adopted for rules constituting the inclusion of music into Episcopal Church worship.  The Joint Commission did report back their recommendations—primary among them being that the older members of the church be patient in trying out the new hymn tunes and the hymnals with music in them—but felt their initial commission to be incomplete. Soon enough, a rubric and protocol for choosing service music, psalm tunes and hymns was established. Up until the 1916 hymnal, music was mostly chosen based on familiarity to the congregation; the Commission felt it most important that the music be sing-able. So the content sources were predominantly of English and American authors.  But one of the recommendations from the new Joint Commission was that the hymnal includes more historical music (Greek, Latin in origin) and more European sources.  The hymnal was to become more worldly! The Hymnal of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1940) was published in the midst of strife from the Second World War in 1943.

After the war, things were changing rapidly in the Episcopal Church. The Church continued to expand into territories outside of the USA.  The word “protestant” was dropped from the formal name. The Book of Common Prayer was revised. The Joint Commission for Church Music was dissolved and regrouped as the Standing Commission for Church Music (this is of any kind of significance only because the commission is now a permanent one that does not have to be reestablished at each General Convention). When the BCP was revised and published in 1975, the Standing Commission asserted the importance that the music used in worship parallel the changes in the BCP, including areas such as the expanded lectionary, revised church calendar, and renewed emphasis on baptism. If you look at the preface on page 6 of the hymnal, the Standing Commission includes a list of objectives for the hymnal, ultimately creating “a book which is comprehensive and musically practical.” The rich repertoire found in the hymnal includes music from a wide spectrum of cultures, such as South African, Native American, Chinese, Russian and Mexican as well as from the familiar European cultures.  It includes both ancient and modern compositions. Above all, it enriches worship by presenting Christian faith “with clarity and integrity.”

The Hymnal 1982 is a result of more than 200 years of evolution in church music.  Its breadth of quality spans not only time, but cultures and attitudes. It is a reflection of our faith in both the collection of hymns and the intent of the texts.  The Hymnal 1982 and all its companion texts and addendums are a musical miracle unparalleled in any other denomination or Church.  When next you hold the hymnal in your hands, think on this and marvel at its excellence.

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