The conversation begins, “Who picked those awful hymns?” Looking a bit wounded, the priest or musician confesses, “I did.” I have had that conversation more than once in my 28 years as a student, deacon, and priest. That conversation has been occurring here recently. Coming to that realization and revelation, I have considered that perhaps, just perhaps, we are in need of a little “liturgical dancing” so that we may teach, as well as learn, each other’s well-known and well-loved hymns. Without singing for a year, it has been difficult for me to learn Trinity’s preferences and traditions and I would imagine that it has been the same for you to learn mine and the reasons certain hymns are chosen for certain Sundays.
These recent discussions suggested to me that this community of faith may like to know my process of pairing the hymns within the setting of any of our liturgies. I hope these few paragraphs will demonstrate the art, the study, and spirituality of choosing hymns. The beautiful mystery found within our liturgies is that every sense is touched, integrated, and incorporated into bringing a fuller meaning of the readings, the psalm, the Gospel, and the sermon to those both in the pew and the pulpit. This portion of a priest’s responsibility and ministry brings me both joy and consternation as the canons of the Episcopal Church charge the senior cleric with designing the liturgies of the church which, for better or worse, includes the music.
My basic objective in hymnody selection is to ensure that the
lectionary and the music reflect one another so worshipers may
be invited to transcend the secular here and now and to be
transported to that “holy of holies” found within themselves as
well as to be transported to that sacred space found within
the community gathered, and with God.
In doing this, the work cannot be pinned to an exact formula; however, it always starts with studying the readings appointed for each week. More often than not, I reevaluate the hymns for days and days prior to making the final selections. I am not indecisive; rather, I prefer to have a thorough process and if you come into the office as I plan ahead, you will see books and papers scattered everywhere. The goal at the end of that process is to ensure that the liturgy engages and fosters a conversation between the clergy, choir, congregation, and instruments. Nevertheless, every process has a first step, and this is how I begin to prayerfully choose our hymns.
Hymnody resources abound for clergy and music directors. These resources can be found online, in print, and in digital form. For many Episcopalians, we rely on The Episcopal Musician’s Handbook which is printed for every liturgical cycle and includes all of the lectionary readings, including the Psalm(s) and a lengthy suggested list of hymns which may go together with the readings using our three Episcopal hymnals: the 1982 Hymnal, Lift Every Voice and Sing, and Wonder Love and Praise.
Oftentimes I will turn the page of this little spiral notebook and hit a goldmine. Sometimes the choices for hymns for the week may be very easy, wherein all the hymns listed for a particular Sunday or Season will be no-brainers such as, “Come Thou long Expected Jesus”, “Silent Night”, “We Three Kings”, “Lift High the Cross”, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”, etc. When this journal is laden with familiar favorites, I breathe a sigh of relief.
However, since we have begun singing, I have learned there are instances in which the suggested hymns are well outside the repertoire and corporate history of Trinity. Speaking of “hymn history,” did you know that Sir Isaac Watts wrote our Christmas hymn “Joy to the World” as an interpretation of psalms 96 and 98 and it was not originally sung at Christmastide? I have selected that particular hymn when these psalms are called for during our three-year lectionary.
In the future, I will have more discussions with our choir and ministers of music. After all, our hymnal has 720 hymns and 298 settings for Service Music. So, whenever my intuition guides me to the hymns where I am unsure of Trinity’s comfort and knowledge with a particular hymn, I read and re-read the lectionary readings until a phrase resonates within me and I go to my resources, and it will be possible that I may end up pulling something from another tradition or change the tune to one more familiar.
Going beyond the most basic canonical rules, I want those in the choir, the chancel, and the nave to have a mystical, memorable, and meaningful worship experience in which they participate and use their own gifts to glorify God. (As an aside, I hate the expression “attending church.” I prefer to look at it as participating in worship.) My prayer, my hope, and my dream is that we can all be positively engaged with the hymns; the ones we love and the ones that we couldn’t care less if we ever heard them again. We will also strive to broaden our knowledge of the Hymnal a little at a time.
Referring to the idea of teaching a new hymn to the congregation, I have been presented with a few ideas on how to do it and once we are in the building and have nailed down a permanent time for the later Sunday service, we will begin to learn some new hymns… and some of them may not be from our tradition (OMG!)
Perhaps we should, as a new fund-raiser each year, auction off each disliked hymn to the highest bidder with the right to disallow its use for a year. Another idea would be to sell the right to pick the hymns every now and then. As a lifelong Episcopalian and as one who has studied the hymnody of our Episcopal Church, a large portion of the 720 hymns are known to me, and I have my favorites; however, the worshipers at Trinity, like many Episcopal churches, are a mixed bag of cradle Episcopalians, newly minted Episcopalians (like Joy, Penny, and Kirk), former Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Roman Catholics, and everything in between who come with (or without) their own “top 40.”
In closing, over the next few months, I ask that you strive to identify the parallels between the scripture, hymns, and perhaps the prelude and postlude (chosen by the musicians). And speaking of the prelude and postlude, the prelude is the beginning of the service when we quiet down and center ourselves while the postlude (where you are encouraged to stay and meditate upon it) is to provide us with a parting gift for our senses; a gift that helps us to live into the day’s liturgy and give us peace or comfort or to stir another emotion or idea brought forth in the liturgy.
As always, I welcome your feedback or questions—and if you have favorite hymns, write down five of them, give them to me (but not on Sunday), and if I can place them in a liturgy this summer, I certainly will. Looking forward to seeing your faces and hearing your voices all the while wishing you a Blessed Trinity Sunday, which is our Feast Day, and will be celebrated outdoors (weather permitting) this weekend at 5 pm on Saturday and 10 am on Sunday morning.
Yours in Christ,
Trinity Worship Schedule for June:
- ALL OF JUNE 5 pm outdoors (no music)
- ALL OF JUNE 10 am indoors with music
Eric+ will make the final decision on worship and coffee hour going forward,
in time for the first Bay View edition in June (June 11).