As is my wont on occasion, I spent some time this afternoon at the console of the “Mighty Rodgers” in St Anne’s Church playing through selections from the Hymnal 1940. This volume was the Episcopal Church’s official hymnal from 1943 until 1985, when it was succeeded by the Hymnal 1982, still in the pew racks in Episcopal parishes across the land. (Yes, there’s a three year date discrepancy between the name by which a collection is eventually remembered and the time it is put into use, owing to the fact that one General Convention approves the proposed texts, to which are then assigned tunes by the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and the next convention approves the final edition. My suspicion is that most churches will never again issue an actual bound hymnal for wide distribution; there will simply be a series of supplementary new collections which are legally downloadable and reproducible for use in local congregations.)
I became an Episcopalian in the early 1970s, and a semi-mystical experience with the Hymnal 1940 in a piano practice room at Westmont College played a big role in setting me on that path. I was so moved that I thought to myself, “Where have these hymns been all my life? If there’s a church that actually sings them, I need to be in it.” And so I am.
As one who suffers from the curse of being a “classically trained musician” (a polyvalent moniker if there ever was one), there is some irony in the fact that I am pastor of a congregation where there is a good bit of energy for the 2000s version of the sort of musical fare I thought I was fleeing (and being liberated from) when I embraced Anglicanism. The Lord has a sense of humor. I have occasional flashes of pastoral wisdom, which lead me to be judicious in what I ask my people to sing, and, if you know me at all, it shouldn’t surprise you that I let the demands of the liturgy itself, in dialogue with what will actually “work” in this community, shape the selection of musical items that we use in our worship. Consequently, a lot of songs—hymns and service music—that I find personally very appealing have to be kept on the shelf.
This does not keep me, however, from spending an hour on a Friday afternoon rooting around territory that I know I can’t cut and paste into Sunday morning. When I do so, it’s nearly always a bittersweet experience. It’s very like watching Mad Men, which, as a child of the 1960s, I find almost painfully nostalgic, in that it shows me a reality, aspects of which I yearn for, but certainly could not (and should not even if I could) “cut and paste” into the real world of the 2010s.
Today I began at Hymn 451 of the Hymnal 1940. The text is a 19th century paraphrase of Psalm 131, which just happens to be one of my favorite passages of scripture. But the poet, James Montgomery, certainly brings some of his own baggage into the endeavor.
Lord, forever at thy side Let my place and portion be; Strip me of the robe of pride, Clothe me with humility.
Meekly may my soul receive All thy Spirit hath revealed; Thou hast spoken, I believe, Though the oracle be sealed.
Humble as a little child, Weaned from the mother’s breast, By no subtleties beguiled, On thy faithful word I rest.
Israel now and evermore In the Lord Jehovah trust; Him, in all thy ways adore Wise, and wonderful, and just.
The second verse in particular arrested my attention in light of a recent thread on a message board in which I participate (made up mostly of deputies to General Convention). The subject has been the nature of scriptural authority, and whether the canon of scripture is indeed actually “closed",” or could the Church (yes, I know, which manifestation of the Church?) determine that the Holy Spirit is leading it to include some other document—someone suggested National Geographic. I have an opinion or two on this question, but I’m not going to go there now except to observe that, apparently, it was not considered a live option in 1940 when the texts of the new hymnal were forwarded to convention. I don’t think the Episcopal Church is going to evict any of of the Pauline epistles or adopt the Gospel of Thomas as canonical scripture any time soon. But the fact that it would even be brought up is telling enough, and evokes a certain wistfulness for the days of yore.
Moving on now to Hymn 454, here’s a trivia factoid certainly worth a raised eyebrow:
Lord, with glowing heart I praise thee For the bliss thy love bestows, For the pardoning grace that saves me and the peace that from it flow; Help, O God, my weak endeavor; This dull soul to rapture raise: Thou must light the flame, or never Can my love be warmed to praise.
Two more stanzas of similarly wholesome self-abnegating piety follow. Who’s the author? None other than he who watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor in 1812 and penned the lines that are now known as our National Anthem—Francis Scott Key.
I’ve been known to rehabilitate an item from the Hymnal 1940 for Sunday use from time to time, even while I concede that it certainly needed to be replaced when it was, if for no other reason than that we needed hymns compatible with the revision of the Prayer Book six years earlier. But, like the celebrated eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, it is a classic in its own right, and can’t ever really be replaced. And it’s a wonderful artifact of an era in the church’s history when it seemed at the same time more sure of itself and more humble than it does now. If I could travel in time, I don’t think I would enjoy the Episcopal Church of the 1940s for what it was—much of it would annoy me. But I suspect that I would to some extent enjoy it for what it was not.