Hymnal: The New Century Hymnal

The Pilgrim Press, 1995. Editions for pew ($16.95), pulpit ($34.95), accompanist ($39.95), and large print ($24.95).

The New Century Hymnal of the United Church of Christ (UCC), one of the newest and most radical of recent denominational hymnals, has a greatly expanded repertoire over hymnals of the previous generation, including the Pilgrim Hymnal (1931), a previous hymnal of the UCC. It is also a worthy reference book, beginning with 62 pages of liturgical forms, followed by 617 hymns, 122 pages of psalms and canticles (all responsorial, with newly composed refrains), 74 items of service music, and 72 "worship resources" (prayers and confessions). Indexes are helpful and thorough, listing familiar titles for the extensively changed texts, along with the usual metric, tune, and source indexes. A lectionary cycle index links readings to appropriate hymns. This review will focus on the hymns.

The New Century Hymnal includes "The Old Rugged Cross," "God Will Take Care of You," and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"—options which were temporarily out of favor with editors, although always loved by congregations. Diverse composers and authors such as Andrae Crouch, Jane Parker Ruber, Charles Gabriel, Fanny Crosby, Gregory the Great, and Fred Pratt Green all make the author list.

The UCC committee, like many recent compilers, includes a sampling of folk hymns and tunes (from at least forty ethnic influences), and a large number of songs with African-American roots. For instance, "Many Are the Tongues We Speak," a Japanese text and tune, retains its Asian harmony and Christo-centric expression (there, a minority belief). "Come Celebrate with Thanksgiving!" revels in metric alternation of 6/8 and 3/4 underpinnings, a "cueca" rhythm of Argentina.

Unfortunately, hymns that retain their heritage are in the minority. The richness of variety is attenuated by treating too many texts and tunes to an editorial standard that ignores performance practice, imagery, and lineage. The score seems prepared for the same organist—seldom a folk band, a jazz pianist, or mariachi trumpets. Even more, the texts are homogenized in The New Century. Every "thee" and "thou" is stripped of its historic use. "Lord," which appears over 1,300 times in the Bible, is rarely used. Jesus is neutered. God is awkwardized. Goals of diversity are sacrificed for a twentieth-century understanding of correct expression.

One helpful and unusual feature are the careful, accurate, and brief historical notes that appear on the page with each hymn. Many hymns that are translations are provided with a stanza of their original language: "Es istein'Ros entsprungen," "Manglakat na kita sa Belen," "Thuma mina," "De tierra lejana venimos," and others. "Jesus Loves Me" is included in ten translations and given two extra stanzas; the translations testify to the power of this simple hymn (the extra stanzas are extraneous).

Yet this and other new hymnals seem to discourage the congregation by focusing an inordinate amount of restyling on the texts while doing little to assist participation. Texts have been revised by editors since songs were first written. The Wesley brothers changed words freely; Watts irritated his own father by adapting the psalms. The advertisement for the UCC hymnal (similar claims could be made for the dozen or more hymnals released in 1995) promises "to revise language that unintentionally reflects unjust biases and prejudices of our past." The writers seem sure the language of historic hymns was "unintentional" and assume that new equals improvement.

Gender changes are the most obvious editorial adjustments, and they present particular obstacles with familiar texts. "O my soul bless God the Father" becomes "O my soul bless God the maker," a significant change of the image. The UCC group has sometimes also eliminated mother—"Now thank we all our God . . . Who, from our parents' arms ..." (although Jesus still has a "mother" in "Silent Night")—and turned the Son into "Child" in "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Nearly every "Lord" is trivialized to some other word, calling to mind the New Testament's test of orthodoxy (1 Corinthians 12:3). The result is more singer confusion than gender inclusion. Even carols that most of us know by heart are changed: "The First Nowell's" familiar refrain becomes "Nowell, nowell, born in a manger"; no "born is the King" in this nowell, nor a "King" in "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," no matter how convoluted the rhyme. Fortunately, the editors left alone a few: in "Joy to the World" the "Lord" still comes; in "The Friendly Beasts" Jesus is our "brother"; and Mary stays "In the Garden" with "him."

Musical settings are tougher to update. Except for a few proven songs such as one each by Doris Akers, Ray Repp, and Kirk Franklin, the tunes show little of the influence of contemporary popular music. Older traditional tunes are still respected and allowed to speak with their own varied voices. The same editors that correct Milton's poetry don't raise the leading tone on modal tunes. Conversely, they probably would object to rock band accompaniment for a seventeenth-century chorale, yet feel comfortable replacing seventeenth-century words with ecclesiastical top-forty code-words. The congregation is better served because the melodies are not modernized.

Let us sing chant unaccompanied and in unison. For nineteenth- century gospel song, roll out the piano and the rollicking pianist. Write new hymns that speak of inclusion instead of balkanizing singers into mismatched metaphors. Let the people memorize proven hymns without confusion. Introduce new expression with its own integrity. Learn from the "praise songs" of the charismatics; sometimes sing without a hymnal (off the wall). Using a useable hymnal, learn to read music and sing in parts (rehearse). Sing old songs; sing new songs. Sing with understanding; sing with leadership. Sing Scripture (with all its images). Sing with instrumental accompaniment (those band instruments from high school could come forth); sing with synthesizer, guitar, and drums. Sing without accompaniment often to build participation. Sing profound hymns; sing whistle-on-Wednesday songs. Sing great poetry. Sing God a simple song. Sing often. Sing. That would be the best change of all.

Richard J. Stanislaw is president of King College, Bristol, Tennessee, and author of the Companion to the Worshiping Church.


Reformed Worship 41 © September 1996, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.