This article looks at the fact that the songbook of the church should have hymns of the church all through the ages and all over the world.

Source: Christian Renewal, 2006. 2 pages.

"A Songbook of the Universal Church"

We believe a “Catholic,” that is, “Universal” Church of our Lord Jesus Christ Christ's Church has existed since the beginning of time and it extends throughout the world. The music of the Church must demonstrate this “universality.” Thus the sixth guideline used by our committee in producing a common songbook:

The songs of the Church must reflect and preserve the language of the Church of all ages rather than accommodating current secular trends.

Of course, as our committee is selecting potential songs for our new songbook, we try to keep all eleven guidelines in mind at the same time. Just because a hymn was traditionally used at some time in church history, does not make it an acceptable hymn for our new songbook. It must also meet the other criteria for good church music. Yet, if the universal Church through the ages has recognized a hymn's value, we weigh this factor in our consideration of that hymn.

We must avoid the tendency to choose songs which come only from one period in church history. The guideline emphasizes the songs of the Church “of all ages.” In this regard, the Book of Praise (BoP) does better than the Psalter Hymnal (PH).

Scanning through the hymn section of the BoP (excluding those hymns which render portions of Scripture), about 20% of the hymns in the BoP have words which date before 1000 A.D. Another 15% have text written in the years 1000-1600 A. D. Thus, fully one-third of the hymns in that song-book derive from the years before 1600. In contrast, scanning fifty hymns in the PH (#436 through #486) a full 70% are found to be written in the 19th century! This is not a good sampling of church music “of all ages.”

With hymns heavily weighted from the 19th century, another problem arises. Students of English literature know that era was impacted by “Romanticism.” The authors and poets of that day tend to write emotionally and subjectively; some even lean towards mysticism. This emphasis can be deadly for the Christian, whose hope in Christ is rooted in the objective works of God by which He has redeemed His people. By recommending the removal of many of these 19th-century hymns and replacing them with hymns with more biblical texts (written generally in other eras of church history) our church music will be improved.

In line with guideline six, we are seeking good hymns which reflect the best of church music throughout the long history of the Church. We find some of these in both church songbooks.

For example, in BoP #46 we are singing words taken from the Didache. That earliest Christian work dates from within a couple of decades of the death of the apostle John. In PH #414 we are singing with Clement of Alexandria, one of the early Greek fathers of the Church. And, yes, the light of the gospel was still burning, though greatly diminished, in the medieval Roman Catholic Church. That era of the Church is represented by a twelfth-century hymn authored by Bernard of Clairvaux. Though it we praise our Saviour, whose “sacred head” was “wounded, with grief and shame weighed down” (PH #355). Hymn selections from other eras of church history are scattered throughout the two songbooks, including those written by St. Andrew of Crete (seventh century), John of Damascus (eighth century), Theodulph of Orleans (ninth century), etc.

Both songbooks contain only a handful of hymns written in the 1900's. Not that we have to seek “equal representation” from among the centuries of church history. But surely good hymns have been written somewhat recently. On the URC Songbook Committee some effort is being made to keep track of each song based upon the century in which it was written, to help ensure a greater balance of hymns from the various centuries.

Where possible, as guideline six states, we must “reflect and preserve” the rich heritage of hymnody found within the Church throughout the ages and from around the world. Not that these classic hymns become “museum pieces.” Rather, these selections should enrich our singing and our worship today.

Our common songbook should not only be a songbook which derives from the universal church. Under the Lord's blessing, we hope it will be used by the universal church. It should be our prayer that the new songbook will be such a good songbook that other true churches around the world will want to use it!

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