Friday, June 25, 2010

Spelunking in the Hymnal 1940

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.


zlr;dp said...

Not only did we destroy the greatest church service in western Christendom when we adopted the Rod McKuen style of poetry in the BCP 1979; we also made haste to butcher the Hymnal 1940 - the HOB couldn't wait to remove my favorite hymn: Once to Every Man and Nation. ***Proud to have left the Episcopal Church (along with my money) when we became a bunny-hopping hugging "I luv Jazzus" denomination in 1979***

Anonymous said...

Dear zir,
If they really did "luv Jazzus," I would let them hug me. I might even flex my knees in a sympathetic attempt at a bunny hop.

It is not orthodox to be merely antiquarian - a point essentially conceded at several points in this fine essay.
Moreover, "Once to every man and nation" is an odd choice of hymn to defend, since that particular hymn really did need to go. It has no discernable Christian message at all, unlike the fine hymns noted above.

Daniel Martins said...

Rod McKuen. Now there's a name I haven't heard in ... decades. My wife was once a fan of his. But I'm afraid I don't see much of his influence in the 1979 BCP. In fact, compared with what's coming down the pike, '79 is a paragon of poetic orthodoxy! As for "Once to every man and nation," I'm afraid I have to concur with Eric. It's stirring poetry, and the tune is wonderful. But the theology is, at best, sub-Christian. The line "time makes ancient good uncouth" is the underpinning of the sort of liberal Protestantism that has gotten the Episcopal Church into so much trouble. Axing it was a good call, though, sadly, we haven't been able to ax the theology it represents.

William Tighe said...

It is a 19th-Century Unitarian hymn.

Allison Elaine said...

We don't sing about Jesus's bosom too much any more, either. ("Jesus lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly while the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.")

As one who grew up with the 1940 Hymnal, I often find myself wishing for the older translations of some hymns. "I know a rose tree springing forth from an ancient root... That rose tree, blossom-laden, whereof Isaiah spake, is Mary, spotless maiden, who mothered for our sake" and so on. I think in the newer version Jesus is the rose tree. It may be a more accurate translation of the original text, but it isn't what I learned by heart, once upon a time.

Consider the changes in Jerusalem My Happy Home. Our Lady still sings Magnificat, but she no longer has virgins bearig their part gathered around her feet. Instead, martyrs are singing harmony in the streets. Again, still lovely, but I wonder what motivated the change.

Of course there are wonderful additions in the 1982 Hymnal, too. "This is the feast of victory for our God" and "I want to walk as a child of the light" and "this joyful eastertide" and "from deepest woe I cry to thee."

Maybe it's just my bias as a long-time choir member, but I think that singing the hymns in our hymnal (either 1940 or 1982) over and over through a lifetime has given me a great gift: when the scriptures are read on Sunday morning or on a great feast, I often find the words resonating to a tune I know by heart. There are worse ways to learn the Faith.

Undergroundpewster said...

Just last week, as I cleaned out my parent's old home, I rescued the old family 1940 Hymnal from a trip to be donated to a charity book sale. The first Hymns I read brought back memories, and they were refreshing in a way. Lots of good stuff in there.

Dale Matson said...

Fr. Dan,
"In fact, compared with what's coming down the pike, '79 is a paragon of poetic orthodoxy" Would you be referring to this?
Are you any closer to that tipping point?

David Handy+ said...

Of all the controversial topics that divide the Church, I know of none that whip up such a fury of passionate debate and strife as preferred music styles. I too like some of the grand old hymns in the 1940 hymnal that disappeared in the 1982 version, but I'm also glad for much that was added, such as "Lift High the Cross" or the many Gregorian/plainsong chants added.

Biblically, the only guidance we seem to get from the NT is that we should sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Col. 3:16//Eph. 5:19), which apparently refers to three different styles of music (chanted psalms, hymns, and improvised songs). IOW, variety may not only be pastorally wise, but actually biblically commanded.

And Dan, I'm glad to discover that you're a Westmont grad. Somehow, I'd missed that detail in your bio. As a Wheaton grad, I doff my hat to recognize you as a grad of the "Wheaton of the West."

Daniel Martins said...

Yes, I'm a "Westmonster." And I grew up in DuPage County, IL. Go figure.

Unknown said...

I learned to sing with the 1940 hymnal as a choirboy and I still miss it. Why did they have to remove "God That Madest Earth and Heaven" (Ar Hyd Y Nos)? That was a classic of many an Evensong of my youth. We used to sing a descant composed by Gerre Hancock of St. Thomas NYC to it. Sad that's gone.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to this discussion, but have found it helpful. Thanks.

My my mother died last week. It has fallen to me, a lapsed Episcopalian who also loved many of the hymns in the 1940 Hymnal, to choose the songs for her memorial.

I was dismayed to find that the 1982 version does not seem to have "I bind unto myself today" from St. Patrick's Breastplate. It was the one song I was sure she wanted sung at her service, and I am now trying to find a suitable replacement that is not too Rod McKuen-esque!


Daniel Martins said...

Laura, my condolences on your mother's passing. St Patrick's Breastplate most assuredly IS in the Hymnal 1982--#370.

Undergroundpewster said...

Spelunking a little further into the Lorica of St. Patrick turns up that there are some verses that usually get left out,

"Against the demon snares of sin,
the vice that gives temptation force,
the natural lusts that war within,
the hostile men that mar my course;
of few or many, far or nigh,
in every place, and in all hours
against their fierce hostility,
I bind to me these holy powers.

Against all Satan's spells and wiles,
against false words of heresy,
against the knowledge that defiles
against the heart's idolatry,
against the wizard's evil craft,
against the death-wound and the burning
the choking wave and poisoned shaft,
protect me, Christ, till thy returning."