2016-06-30
Last year, a group of eight of us from Madison Avenue Baptist Church (MABC) sat down together as the Worship Committee, charged with selecting a new hymnal for our small, diverse New York City congregation. The hymns that filled our church every Sunday did not meet our needs anymore. We had to choose a hymnal that would "serve the next generation."

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.

For some on our committee, too, the removal of what seemed to be sexist language about God was imperative. To continue to teach a younger generation of Christians that God looked like a man only violated deeply held beliefs about gender equality. But others, like Faith, want to be able to relax and simply remember singing with Grandma.

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.

Many published hymnals are explicit in their introductions about the attention they pay to selecting African-American, Hispanic and Asian hymns, as well as hymns in Spanish. But rarely can one hymnal meet all the needs of a multicultural congregation. Riverside Church has one hymnal in the pews that's used on Sunday morning, but has licenses to copy from more than 10 hymnals. These inserts are used about once a month on Sundays but are the primary sources for services throughout the week. "Because our community is so diverse, we've got to use more," says Jackson. The most recent hymnal that Riverside is in the process of securing rights to copy is called Global Praise, which includes songs from Christian communities all over the world.

The hymnal search can further loosen some churches' denominational ties, since churches often end up with one from another denomination--or several. Seattle Baptist, I've pointed out, uses the UCC's hymnal. Riverside, a dually aligned UCC/American Baptist Church, has a Presbyterian hymnal, as does the First Baptist Church in Berkeley, Calif. Jan Hus Presbyterian Church in New York also uses the Presbyterian hymnal, but, says, the Rev. Ruth Garwood, "we use our hymnal less than half the time and often have inserts from a Baptist group that has traditional hymns with inclusive language."

The Chalice Hymnal, our choice, is the hymnal of the Disciples of Christ. Madison's pastor, Rev. Michael Easterling, says its greatest strength "is its spectrum. It has the old traditional hymns and really pulls in contemporary evangelical and more liturgical pieces." The hymnal contains excellent prayers as well as a unique use of Psalms that combines responsive readings with sung refrains. "It's put a lot more life in the service and really pulls the congregation in."

How churches get through these difficult issues is just as important as their eventual selection. Beneath the differing views, strong opinions, and theological differences that could have made our task impossible were deep ruminations of what church is and has meant for us. Hearing one another's stories about how we are formed and who we know ourselves to be gave us precious insight into the most vulnerable parts of one another's spiritual lives. The connection smoothed a path that we walked together.



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