Religion News Service

An African-American hymnal published a year ago after collaboration by liberal and conservative Lutheran bodies continues to be a source of contention even as it is welcomed by congregations across the country.

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

But the president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has harshly criticized aspects of the songbook, which is serving as a supplement to hymnals traditionally used by churches in both his denomination and the more 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 hymns in "This Far by Faith" appropriately uphold biblical teaching and whether certain liturgies -- including a baptismal rite with the option of using African kente cloth -- are suitable for church use.

While noting that it contains features that will be a "blessing" to Lutheran 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 Black Ministry Services, representatives of the hymnal's joint steering committee decided to send an official response to Barry.

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

Two of the hymns included in the burgundy, hardcover volume to which Barry objects are the much-beloved 19th century "Blessed Assurance" and the newer "Fill My Cup, Lord," which are located in the section of songs for Holy Communion. Barry criticizes their inclusion because they do not focus on his church's belief that the real presence of Jesus is in the elements of the sacrament.

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

Clancy said dozens of hymns that did not pass Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod review were deleted before the volume was published. For example, he said, "I Have Decided to Follow Jesus" didn't make the cut.

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

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

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

As for the hymns that remained, Clancy said there is a list of Scripture references for each one at the back of the hymnal. There also is 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 understood as "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 opposition to some of the liturgies included in the volume. He objected to the option of using "images of baptism" within the baptismal rite, such as multicolored kente cloth instead of a white garment.

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

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

The directions, in red lettering, read: "If desired, one of the following acts may be added, with care taken that they are supportive and do not overshadow the central sign of baptism: water with the word of 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 any congregation can either use or not use based on their own preference," she said. "We're not legislating what pastors do. We expect them to be the local theologian-in-residence."

The hymnal, aimed at highlighting African-American culture in the worship of the two predominantly white denominations, includes spirituals, hymns from Africa and the Caribbean, and even prayers for the beginning and end of the hurricane season -- the last at the request of Caribbean Lutherans. There also are worship suggestions for times commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Black History Month and Kwanzaa.

Clancy estimates that there are about 600 mostly black congregations and about 100,000 African-American Lutherans within the two denominations. The ELCA has 5.2 million members and the Missouri Synod has 2.5 million members.

The hymnal was a rare joint project for the two theologically divergent denominations.

Each denomination contributed $60,000 and the Lutheran Brotherhood Foundation, a national insurance company, provided a grant of $100,000 for the project. In the end, the volume was not approved as an official hymnal of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the book was published solely by the ELCA's publishing house.

"I think the people on the committee were very happy with the book on both sides, irregardless of how either church body decided to receive or not receive the book," said Ward, a member, along with Clancy, of the joint steering committee for the hymnal project.

Despite the difference of opinions, the hymnal is selling better than predicted, said Martin Seltz, senior editor for worship resources at Augsburg Fortress Publishers, the Minneapolis-based publishing house of the ELCA.

With the book now in its second printing, more than 24,000 copies have been sold since it was first published last April.

Although it has been especially popular among predominantly African-American congregations, it's also being used in mostly white congregations and at assembly meetings of regional and national denominational bodies.

"Many more folks besides the originally intended audience are finding it useful," said Seltz.

Three other denominations have produced similar supplements highlighting music with particular meaning for African-American congregations -- "Lead Me, Guide Me," a Roman Catholic hymnal; "Lift Every Voice and Sing II," an Episcopal volume; and "Songs of Zion," a United Methodist supplement.

"The African-American supplements call attention to the diversity of cultural assumptions within the church and, in many ways, the African-American supplements are a reminder of the extent to which culture has an impact on how we worship," said Carl P. Daw Jr., executive director of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada.

Eds.: The pew edition of "This Far by Faith" costs $12.50 and can be ordered through the Web site www.augsburgfortress.org or by calling (800) 328-4648.

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