A Bit to Read
The Standing Committee for the Book of Praise (SCBP) has recently published and distributed an “Augment to Hymnary”. Each member of the congregation old enough to read has received a copy.
One wonders: why did the SCBP publish this Augment? For that matter, what is an ‘Augment’ (and what is a ‘Hymnary’)? More, what are we to do with this “Augment to Hymnary”?
A ‘hymnary’, understandably enough, is a collection of hymns. We have a collection of 65 hymns in our Book of Praise. An ‘augment’ is an addition. The point is that the hymns of the “Augment” –there are 28 of them– are to be added to the hymns already in the Book of Praise. 65 + 28 = 93.
The oldest edition of the Book of Praise I have on my shelf is the red one dating from 1961. (I believe there was an earlier (green?) edition; if anyone can help me to it, I’d appreciate it.) Besides most of the 150 psalms, it contained 15 hymns. Of these 15, 13 appear among the 65 of our current Book of Praise, though some with changes. The other two have been dropped altogether.
A Supplement (also red) to the Book of Praise was published in 1967. It consisted of 34 psalms and 19 hymns. Added to the 15 already in the 1961 edition, the churches now sung a total of 34 hymns. Of the 19 additional hymns, 3 do not appear in today’s Book of Praise, while some of the other 16 have received some changes.
In 1972 a new edition of the Book of Praise appeared, blue in color. Besides the complete 150 psalms, it also had a total of 62 hymns. Of the 62 in that edition, 16 received no place in our current Book of Praise, while several others underwent some changes.
The current (red or black) edition of the Book of Praise first appeared in 1984. Its 65 hymns include a few that have been sung in the churches for more than 40 years, as well as many that were new at the time. It’s obvious: to get a good selection of hymns has been quite a process.
And the process doesn’t appear complete. Synod Neerlandia 2001 received a submission from Regional Synod East (the churches of Ontario), asking Synod to let the churches come with suggestions for more hymns that could eventually be added to the Book of Praise. Synod Neerlandia granted the request, and so instructed the Standing Committee for the Book of Praise to evaluate the hymns churches would submit (see Article 97).
As the SCBP worked on its mandate, it found that there was not enough time before next Synod to come with a list of possible new hymns. Synod Chatham 2004, then, gave more time, and also instructed the SCBP (in consultation with counterparts in the United Reformed Churches) to come up with suitable hymns for the Book of Praise. Synod Chatham set a ceiling for the number of hymns that could be in the Book of Praise: no more than 100 “since Psalms have a predominant place in the liturgy of the Reformed churches” (see Article 115, Section 6).
The SCBP filtered through some 500 hymns, and eventually settled on 28 that could, they felt, be sung in the churches. The SCBP’s report to Synod Smithers was distributed to the churches last winter, including the 28 hymns. Some of the churches found time to go through these suggested 28, but most did not – with as result that Synod Smithers decided “to provisionally approve the 28 hymns for a three year period of testing in the churches” (Article 149). In the process of testing, the churches are requested to evaluate these hymns (presumably on both lyrics and music), and send their responses to the SCBP before March 1, 2009. That way Synod 2010 can make a definitive decision on these 28. To do this testing properly, Council in Yarrow has decided that these hymns would initially be sung before the service begins, and, once we’ve become somewhat familiar with them all, to consider singing them also in the service itself. It would be appreciated that congregation members forward their thoughts about these hymns to the Council. Perhaps an opportunity can also be given at a congregational meeting to air what we think about these hymns. As we consider the suitability of the 28 proposed hymns, we do well to take into account the Foreword on page 1 of the “Augment to Hymnary”, where the SCBP gives some justification as to why it included these particular 28. Of greater importance is the “Principles and Guidelines for the Selection of Music in the Church”, as printed on pages 2 & 3 of the Augment. Instead of reproducing this material here, I would encourage us all to read these pages carefully.
It should also be noted that Synod Smithers gave the SCBP the mandate to “review the suitability of individual hymns that we already have in our Book of Praise, for possible change, deletion, or improvement.” In light of the many hymns that disappeared from earlier editions of the Book of Praise, this is a reasonable instruction. Again, it would be good for congregation members to apply the Principles of pages 2 & 3 to the existing hymns, and express their thoughts about their suitability. Though I doubt that we’ll ever see a final edition of the hymnary, it’s certainly important that we make it as good as possible.
Here’s where a question arises in my mind. Over the years concern has been expressed from various quarters that increasing the number of hymns is actually a dangerous thing – for has Church History not shown that increasing the number of hymns has paralleled deformation in the church? It is indeed not hard to come up with examples of that parallel. Yet I do not believe that (the adoption of) more hymns is itself, by definition, the cause or evidence of deformation. So very much depends on the kind of hymns one adopts. Are they shallow, ‘feel good’ songs? Are they man-centered, Arminian? Or do they actually follow the pattern set by the Psalms – where the psalmist in concrete circumstances expresses his thoughts and hopes in relation to the specific promises and works of God? The Principles printed on page 2 & 3 of the Augment seek to ensure that the hymns we sing are precisely that.
Yet there remains a danger. The Lord Himself has given a songbook to the churches, the book of Psalms. Very correctly we have all 150 psalms available for singing in our Book of Praise – and (as Rev W Bredenhof has correctly argued in the most recent Clarion) we need to sing all those psalms (in its time), without exception, in the church service (and I would add: also in our family devotions). Yet it seems that we have an inbuilt preference for hymns. When one increases the number of hymns, then, the chances of singing less psalms increases. That’s a danger we need to be aware of, and resist. The psalms, simply because they are God’s songbook for the church, need to receive priority of place and preference, and the hymns a secondary place. The brother in my first congregation who insisted that the liturgy of a given church service include more psalms than hymns was onto something.
Yet we want hymns because the Psalms were written before the Lord Jesus Christ completed His atoning work – and therefore do not speak explicitly about Christ’s victory. Hence my question: would it be possible to add a stanza or two to each psalm in order to make explicit the work and victory of Christ that’s already implicitly mentioned in each psalm? I realize: this would be a lot of work. But if Jesus can say to the Jews that the Old Testament Scriptures (that includes the Psalms) testify of Him (John 5:39), and if Jesus could tell the disciples that “everything must be fulfilled that is written about Me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44), and if as a result all preaching must be Christ-centered, then surely it is fitting for the church to attempt to make very plain what the link is between a given Psalm and the redemptive work of Jesus Christ – so that our singing becomes as explicitly Christ-centered as the preaching needs to be. Such a project, I think, would greatly enrich the church, and endear the Psalms still more to the Christians of today’s world.
28 September 2007