Religion News Service

An African-American hymnal published a year ago aftercollaboration by liberal and conservative Lutheran bodies continues tobe a source of contention even as it is welcomed by congregations acrossthe country.

Sales of "This Far by Faith," a volume featuring 301 hymns and avariety of liturgical worship settings, have exceeded the expectationsof the publishing house that's distributing it.

But the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has harshlycriticized aspects of the songbook, which is serving as a supplement tohymnals traditionally used by churches in both his denomination and themore liberal Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

In a report completed in January but only recently made public,Missouri Synod President A.L. Barry questioned whether some of the hymnsin "This Far by Faith" appropriately uphold biblical teaching andwhether certain liturgies -- including a baptismal rite with the optionof using African kente cloth -- are suitable for church use.

While noting that it contains features that will be a "blessing" toLutheran Christians, he said he had "doctrinal, and not simply cultural"concerns about the hymnal.

At an April 7-9 meeting of the Missouri Synod's Board for BlackMinistry Services, representatives of the hymnal's joint steeringcommittee decided to send an official response to Barry.

"The board did not try to go into the particulars of the issuesbecause the book is out," said the Rev. Bryant Clancy Jr., executivedirector of the board. "We think the argument for or against -- reallythe time for that has passed."

Two of the hymns included in the burgundy, hardcover volume to whichBarry objects are the much-beloved 19th century "Blessed Assurance" andthe newer "Fill My Cup, Lord," which are located in the section of songsfor Holy Communion. Barry criticizes their inclusion because they do notfocus on his church's belief that the real presence of Jesus is in theelements of the sacrament.

"Some of the hymns in this section were clearly not written with theLord's Supper in mind," wrote Barry in his eight-page report. "In thisday and age where churches are watering down this clear biblicalteaching, the Lutheran Church must be very forthright in boldlyproclaiming the truth that we have struggled so long to uphold."

Clancy said dozens of hymns that did not pass LutheranChurch-Missouri Synod review were deleted before the volume waspublished. For example, he said, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus" didn'tmake the cut.

"That has decision theology," explained Clancy. "It's not somethingthat we have decided to do but what God has caused us to do."

He said other hymns were deleted because they may not have fullyfocused on the work of Jesus.

"The burden of the Lutheran hymn is to tell the whole salvationstory, so hymns that did not do that had a very hard time with doctrinalreview," Clancy said.

As for the hymns that remained, Clancy said there is a list ofScripture references for each one at the back of the hymnal. There alsois an explanation at the front of the volume that the communal use of"I" -- in hymns such as "I Want Jesus to Walk With Me" -- is understoodas "we" among African-Americans even though those "outside the culture"might think it sounds individualistic.

In addition to his concerns about the music, Barry voiced oppositionto some of the liturgies included in the volume. He objected to theoption of using "images of baptism" within the baptismal rite, such asmulticolored kente cloth instead of a white garment.

"If Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which our Lord joins us tohimself and makes us members of his body, the church, the insertion ofcultural symbols like kente cloth replaces one meaning, being clothed inthe purity of Christ's righteousness, with another, identification withone's people," wrote Barry.

Clancy said he believes the directions accompanying the liturgyaddress Barry's concerns.

The directions, in red lettering, read: "If desired, one of thefollowing acts may be added, with care taken that they are supportiveand do not overshadow the central sign of baptism: water with the wordof God."

The Rev. Karen Ward, associate director for worship of the ELCA,said the additions to the baptismal ceremony are purely optional.

"All those are considered culture-specific additions which anycongregation can either use or not use based on their own preference,"she said. "We're not legislating what pastors do. We expect them to bethe local theologian-in-residence."

The hymnal, aimed at highlighting African-American culture in theworship of the two predominantly white denominations, includesspirituals, hymns from Africa and the Caribbean, and even prayers forthe beginning and end of the hurricane season -- the last at the requestof Caribbean Lutherans.

There also are worship suggestions for timescommemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Black History Month andKwanzaa.