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Revising the Psalms in the Book of Praise

Revising the Psalms in the Book of Praise.doc

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Revising the Psalms in the Book of Praise

At its recent meeting, Council considered a letter from the Standing Committee for the Publication of the Book of Praise (SCPB), dd 24 June 2008, and addressed to all the consistories within the Canadian Reformed Churches.  In part, the letter reads as follows:

“With regard to the review of the 150 Psalms in the 1984 text of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter in the Book of Praise, we can report that this review is progressing well.  Many revisions have been posted on the web.  We are thankful for the insights, enthusiasm and persistence of Dr. W. Helder.  As committee we are reviewing these revisions and welcome submissions from the churches in this regard as well.  We hope to present these to Dr. Helder so that he can work with them.  If the work continues to progress well, we hope to present to General Synod 2010 a revised edition of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter.  This would make it possible to publish a fully revised edition of the Book of Praise following General Synod 2010.”

The SCPB adds that “March 1, 2009” is “the date by which material should be in our possession in order to be included in the report.”  Hmmm.  We are now at the beginning of September 2008….  One wonders: is that a doable time frame?   Is such a time frame even desirable?

Some history

The psalm section of the Book of Praise as we today know it was completed and published in 1984.  At the closing of the Synod that finalized this version of the Book of Praise (Cloverdale, 1983), Rev vanOene as chairman summed up the feelings with these words:

“This enormous undertaking, begun in 1954, of providing the Churches with a complete Psalter in the English language, with preservation of the Genevan tunes, at times seemed to be a hopeless undertaking.  At this Synod, twenty-nine years after its beginning, the work was brought to its conclusion: Both Psalms and Hymns were scrutinized; the former as far as their rhyming is concerned, the latter as to rhyming and contents.  From now on our children can learn the songs without having to be afraid that the words will be replaced by others” (Acts Synod 1983, pg 144).

I like that last sentence.  Continuity is valuable.

As it turned out, not many years passed before churches made requests to Synod to revise the wording of the psalm section of the Book of Praise.  Synod Fergus 1998 –a mere 15 years after Rev vanOene’s words in 1983– received requests from a number of churches “to update and change the language of the Psalms and Hymns to reflect the present usage as we have it in the New International Version of the Bible” (which the churches had recommended for use in Synod 1995).  Other churches, aware of this request, urged Synod not to make such changes.   Synod 1998 decided “not to proceed with changes to the Psalms and Hymns” on grounds that “the Psalms and Hymns are poetic and reflect the history and tradition of the reformation.  Synod acknowledges that such a major change may also alienate a large section of the church members who have committed these Psalms and Hymns to memory” (Acts Synod 1998, Art 140).

This decision settled the matter for six more years.  In their report to Synod 2004, the SCPB hinted that it might be desirable to revise “the metrical rhymings of the Psalms to reflect the language of the Bible translation presently in use in our churches” (Acts 2004, pg 174f).  Synod decided “not to proceed with the requested changes to the Psalm and Hymn sections at this time,” on grounds that it agreed with the decision and argumentation of Synod 1998 (Art 115).

But lo, to Synod Smithers 2007 the SCPB wrote: “The Committee hereby urgently repeats its request for a mandate to initiate an update of the metrical Psalms of the Book of Praise as there are new grounds to do so,” and comes with no less than a dozen grounds supporting their request.  They include:

  • There is within the URC a reluctance to embrace the psalm section of the Book of Praise.  This could change if “we present the best possible metrical versions of the Psalms for inclusion in a Common Songbook.”
  • The introduction of a new Bible translation has brought up significant change in the language used in public and private worship.  The psalms we sing ought to reflect that change lest they we seen as nothing more than relics of the past.
  • Some of the current renditions of the psalms do not reflect accurately with the Psalm says in Scripture.

Synod Smithers found the arguments advanced by the SCPB to be sufficiently weighty to justify the following decision:

  1. “To initiate a thorough review of all 150 Psalms in the 1984 text of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter in the Book of Praise.
  2. “To prepare and present an updated psalm section in the anticipation of being included in the common (=with URC, CB) songbook.
  3. “To engage Dr W Helder to work with the committee to update the psalm section and provide for a fair remuneration for the work involved.
  4. “To solicit input from the churches at all stages of the process.
  5. “To publish revised and updated psalm versions as they become available on a website linked to the official website of the Canadian Reformed Churches.
  6. “To report to General Synod 2010 on the progress of the work” (Art 148).


The current Book of Praise has been with us now for some 25 years, so that a full generation has learned to know its psalms.  In the process of teaching their children those psalms, countless parents and grandparents have also learned to know many psalms by heart.  This fact explains an emotional attachment to the Book of Praise as we have it.  This reality also makes appeals to retain the 1984 edition very attractive.  Indeed, it’s a reality that prompted past synods to decline requests to change the psalms.

Yet we need to recognize that changes have occurred in our ecclesiastical world.  It is a fact that most churches use the NIV in their church services, and it is equally a fact that most ministers and fathers use the updated ‘you’ instead of the archaic ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ in their prayers (together with the corresponding changes to verb forms; we now say, ‘You know’ instead of ‘Thou knowest’ – and certainly don’t say ‘Thou know’).  It is also a fact that the 1984 edition of the Book of Praise is not free of faults; good as it is, there is place for improvement (which, by the way, will be try of any revision too).  Again, it is fact that the Canadian Reformed Churches are on record as pursuing merger with the United Reformed Churches – and one consequence of a merger would be a joint Song Book.  It is better to improve the psalms in the Book of Praise before we ask the URC brethren to sing it than to change it on them some years down the track.

A big part of me argues in favour of keeping the Book of Praise as it currently is; after all, I’m familiar with it.  But I have to grant that in the circumstances there may be wisdom in making improvements now.  That was also the mind of Yarrow’s Council as the brothers worked their way through the decisions of Synod Smithers.  We were not particularly happy with seeing changes made to our well-known psalms, but could see the wisdom of proceeding now.

Too fast?

How fast, though, ought the revision to go?  Previous Synods were cool to the idea – in part because of the risk of alienating particular members who have committed many psalms to memory.  Synod Smithers saw wisdom in changing direction, but did not insist that the change happen quickly.  The SCPB wants “to present to General Synod 2010 a revised edition of the Anglo-Genevan Psalter” so as to “make it possible to publish a fully revised edition of the Book of Praise following General Synod 2010.”  This is a time frame much faster than Synod Smithers requested or envisioned (see mandate above), and strikes me as both unwise and unnecessary.

Unwise: it is simply a fact that many have an emotional bond to the existing Book of Praise, and so have an ingrained hesitancy to replacing it.  To give an impression of haste in such circumstances is indeed to alienate some brothers and sisters.  Let us travel at the speed of the slower – as Israel had to do those 40 years in the desert.  Further, the request to come with comments reaches us in September 2008, and we’re asked to submit our thoughts by March 2009.  The SCPB was mandated to “initiate a thorough review of all 150 Psalms.”  Is it realistic that churches and/or members review the full 150 psalms in six months, and be assured within themselves that their review did not suffer from rush?

Unnecessary: perhaps the stronger reason presented by the SCPB to support their request for a revision mandate is the contact with the URC.  I am all in favour of getting a job done quickly, and a joint Song Book is indeed on the job list of the churches.  However, it’s also simply a fact that the merger talks with the URC have slowed down dramatically in the last few years.  I for one do not see a merger actually eventuating for another decade or two.  Why, then, the rush to finalize the psalm section of the Book of Praise?  Further, there are other committees working on other aspects of the proposed merger, including the synchronization of the Liturgical Forms in the Book of Praise.  That work has only just begun.

Singing Families

Will Synod 2010 come with a revised psalm section of the Book of Praise?  It is conceivable.  For that reason alone I think it is wise that the church membership take seriously the request of the SCPB to acquaint themselves with the revised psalms and pass on their comments.  The revised psalms cannot rightly be sung in the church service, since the churches have agreed in the Church Order that “In the worship services the Psalms will be sung in the rhyming adopted by general Synod” (Article 55), and Christian people keep their word.  A better way to proceed would be for the families to print out the revised psalms from the SCPB website, and sing them around the kitchen table – and in turn pass on their comments to consistory and/or the SCPB.  Singing a psalm each evening would get one through the revised psalms reasonably quickly, and certainly give us all a sense of the quality of the new work.  Such singing can even promote family Bible study as the new psalm is compared to the old and to the Scripture.

The revised psalms can be found at this web address: http://www.bookofpraise.ca

C Bouwman
September 8, 2008