Our situation was like many other churches entering the new millennium. The hurdles we encountered are part of a conversation going on in the church, writ large. The seemingly small matter of choosing a new hymnal reflects the direction a church is taking. We were wrestling with core pieces of our identity.
At MABC, storytelling helped. Tears came to Faith's eyes as she told the committee about her beloved grandmother who took her to church in the summertime. Everytime the congregation stood to sing Grandma's favorite, "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," Faith could almost see her grandmother standing beside her and hear her grandmother belting out the words. Faith liked to close her eyes whenever we sang that old hymn so the memories could flood over her.
That same night, Kristen, 20 years younger than Faith, also spoke. She had a powerful story of overcoming the hopelessness and despair of alcoholism. She came through, she said, because she heard Jesus calling her to walk with him. But some hymns, like "The Old Rugged Cross," which sing vividly of blood and death, so frightened and repulsed her that her spiritual experience was marred.
Things used to be simpler, it seems. The 1970 preface to the The Hymnbook for Christian Worship (Disciples of Christ and American Baptist) simply states that hymns were selected "to meet the spiritual needs of modern man as the church has moved to deeper theological understandings of the biblical faith." By 1995, however, the Disciples of Christ Chalice Hymnal read, "With great care and pastoral sensitivity, some hymn texts have been amended to eliminate or reduce archaic language, generic masculine reference for humanity.... Language in the hymnal expands the imaging of God in a rich and empowering way."
This new language can raise as many problems as it solves. The First Baptist Church in Seattle conducted a congregational survey recently that showed most people wanted to sing hymns with inclusive language. First Baptist selected the United Church of Christ's The New Century Hymnal, crafted over five years in response to a UCC mandate to produce a hymnal that was fully inclusive. Older hymns were rewritten to make all the language for God non-male or interwoven with female references.
However, a year later the Seattle pastor writes, "Not everyone is totally satisfied with the way texts of familiar hymns have been altered in our new hymnal. They miss the familiar phrases they know by heart." The more familiar the hymns, the more acute the problem seemed to be; altered Christmas carols appeared to cause the most discomfort. Now the Sunday bulletin often includes inserts to augment the UCC hymnal.
For mainline denominations, the most prominent concern in choosing a hymnal has been raised by feminists, who charge the hymns we've inherited reinforce sexism in the church, and increasingly question how portraying God as male affects women's faith.
How, then, is a church to proceed? Write completely new hymns and throw out old favorites? Keep the old, but change some of the language, so a hymn that used to sing, "Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father," might now say, "Great is they faithfulness, God my creator"?
Complicating this picture, says Cari Jackson, the assistant coordinator of worship at Riverside Church in New York City, is that "there's a division of opinion on what inclusive language means. For some it means de-gendering God in every instance. But sometimes an amorphous sense of God is not helpful, and we need something gendered to ground God in our human understanding. For me inclusive language means having a mix, some with 'he' and some with 'she'."
Some hymnals, like the UCC's New Century, have moved forward, making inclusive language the standard. Others, like Riverside's Hymns, Psalms, and Spiritual Songs (a Presbyterian hymnal), strike a balance, changing language in some hymns, but letting "male" terms remain in the most familiar ones.
But God's gender is by no means the only concern. Justice concerns and racial and ethnic diversity are also in the forefront, especially where there is diversity not just across denominations, but within congregations.
MABC is a multiracial congregation, and we knew we had to find a hymnal that reflected this diversity. As hymnals came to the committee for consideration, we sang from them to get a sense of what they contained. The same night that Kristen and Faith shared their stories, Sarah told us about the black Baptist church she grew up in. When we sang from her hymnal (the one we ended up selecting for our church), she shared her delight, leading us in "Every Time I Feel the Spirit," and "I Shall Not Be Moved," both from the African-American tradition.