URCNA Synod 2012: Songbook

What subject most fiercely fuels worship wars? Music!

Traditional or contemporary? Book or screen? Accompaniment or a capella? Organ or guitar? Choir at the front or choir at the back? The list of possible debates is as extensive as styles of music.

For years the URCNA has been working on a new songbook, which is one of the things likely to generate debate at this year’s Synod in Nyack, NY.

As if it isn’t difficult enough to agree on notes and words, there’s a lack of consensus in what to call the committee working on songs. It’s often called the Psalter Hymnal Committee, but that may not be the best way to refer to it since the Psalter Hymnal is actually a specific songbook published by CRC Publications under Faith Alive Christian Resources. To avoid confusion, I’ll refer to the URCNA committee as the Songbook Committee although you should know that the project includes both psalms and hymns.

Since Synod 1997 the Songbook Committee has been working on a songbook, with subsequent Synods modifying the mandate and changing the composition of the committee. A brief historical survey provides helpful background for this year’s agenda.

Because the Psalter Hymnal used in many URC congregations was out of print in 1997, Synod St. Catharines, ON, appointed a committee to explore options for producing, reproducing, or obtaining a Psalter Hymnal. Synod recognized that a common songbook would promote unity, and that it would be wise to begin such a lengthy process as soon as possible.

The Committee reported its findings to Synod 1999 in Hudsonville, MI, which approved the republication of the 1976 edition of the CRC Psalter Hymnal and increased the Committee’s size. Synod mandated the Committee to begin the work of producing a new URCNA Psalter Hymnal and recommended consulting with churches in corresponding relations with the URCNA.

The Committee began its work and reported its progress to Synod 2001 in Escondido, CA. This Synod’s decision to enter into Phase Two ecumenical relations with the Canadian Reformed Churches resulted in expanding the Committee’s mandate to work with the CanRC’s “Book of Praise Committee” and to consider for inclusion the 150 Psalms in metrical settings. Synod 2001 also approved a fund to finance the cost of the new Psalter Hymnal and asked churched to collect offerings for it. Synod additionally reaffirmed the mandate of 1999 and asked the Committee to present guiding principles for study by the churches and adoption by the next synod.

By the time Synod 2004 met in Calgary, AB, it had become evident that a single committee could not handle both the musical and liturgical aspects of the project and another committee was formed to provide recommendations regarding forms, prayers, and confessions. Synod appointed additional members to the Songbook Committee, recommended that URCNA congregations familiarize themselves with the Book of Praise and adopted musical principles and guidelines.

Synod 2007, Schererville, IN, clarified the Committee’s mandate, stating that working with the CanRC’s Book of Praise Committee should not “hinder, delay, or divert” the Committee from its original purpose: producing a URCNA Psalter Hymnal “that will serve the churches of our federation alone” regardless of fellowship with other denominations. It also noted that considering for inclusion does not necessitate inclusion of any or all metrical psalmody, and asked the Committee to contact URCNA congregations for their input on this matter. Synod 2007 reiterated the mandates of previous synods, while clarifying that a common songbook is not a condition for federative unity with the Canadian Reformed Churches.

Additional members from Classes not already represented were added to the Committee by Synod 2010, which met in London, ON. It affirmed the production of an “official” songbook “which will be purchased and used by all URCNA churches.” To ensure that all things were done decently and in good order, Synod 2010 approved a specific process for suggested changes: churches could draft overtures, which when adopted by their Classis would be communicated to the Committee. Synod also concluded the mandate to produce a common songbook with the Canadian Reformed Churches for use in a united federation, but reminded the Songbook Committee to continue dialogue with the CanRC, allowing for the eventual possibility of a common songbook.

For more specifics regarding synodical actions, see the Committee’s report in the provisional agenda, particularly the “History and Mandates” section on pp. 215-220.

In a masterpiece of understatement, the Songbook Committee’s report begins:

When Synod 1997 appointed our committee, the delegates understood that the process for producing a new songbook would be lengthy. It is no small task to evaluate, plan and produce a book that will contain songs for the worship of God’s people.

The task indeed is daunting, but members have worked diligently to produce the hymn section of the proposed songbook, distributed to churches at Synod 2010 as the Hymnal Proposal, often abbreviated as HP (not to be confused with Hewlett Packard!).

Synod 2010 asked each church to review the HP and submit overtures regarding suggested changes to its classis. Overtures (or parts thereof) approved at the classical level were to be sent directly to the Songbook Committee to avoid derailing delegates with extraneous detail work on the floor of Synod 2012.

The Songbook Committee’s report in the provisional agenda is only nine pages long, but five overtures and an appeal related to the songbook encompass 41 pages. Overtures #4 (3 pages), #5 (5 pages) and #6 (27 pages), all from Classis Southwest US, suggest changes to the Hymnal Proposal. It’s unlikely that these overtures will make it to the floor of Synod. I anticipate the advisory committee will take note of the excellent work and forward the information to the Songbook Commitee.

Overtures #8 and #9 from Classis Western Canada, however, suggest changes in the way the new songbook would be implemented and published.

Overture #8 calls for significant modifcation and restriction in implementation in order to cause “the least amount of unrest and concern.” Citing examples from the HP for each point, the overture lists these six areas of concern:

1. Modification to gender-neutral language as deployed in many of the songs presently proposed by the committee is beyond the mandate given by any Synod since the committee was first appointed in 1997. Gender-neutral language in songs derived from scripture violates the Word of God by changing the original intent and meaning. Gender neutral modification to songs not derived from scripture alters the intent and meaning of the originating author. Adopting a policy of using gender neutral language is a capitulation to worldly standards and policies.

2. The argumentation upon which to discontinue the use of Jehovah (JHVH) as suggested by the committee as cause sufficient to jettison songs is unconvincing. Words have been coined in the English language to describe Yahweh or Elohim over many centuries and include words such as “Lord”, “God”, or “Father.” None of these names used for God in the English language are to be found, in any form thereof, in the original biblical languages.

3. Many word changes in the proposed book appear to be unnecessary or trivial. No foundational support or Biblical grounds have been offered for these changes.

4. The multitude of changes presently proposed will make it very difficult for those who have memorized scores of songs over many years. Especially the older generations will experience difficulties if these changes are implemented, and congregational singing will suffer greatly from it. Acquiescing to the wholesale changes as proposed eliminates the ability of many mature members to sing “by heart” and alienates those who have no other alternative. This disrupts, for no pressing reason, the ability to sing from memory, and places no value on the many years invested in the learning of the songs of the Church. In some cases, the majority of the words have been changed, leaving only skeletal remains of the original text.

5. Some proposed songs remain unaltered in the proposed hymnal. This demonstrates an arbitrariness or inconsistency in the process of changing select songs, possibly on the basis of preference rather than on principle.

6. Some proposed songs have little or no track record, tradition, or established durability in Reformed Churches, or the wider Church community. History shows that many songs have a limited shelf life of only a few years before they fade into obscurity. Short-lived popularity does not warrant inclusion and violates the guideline approved by Synod: “The music of the church should be expressive of the Reformed tradition. Use is to be made of the music developed in the tradition of this rich heritage.”

The overture also includes these grounds:

1. The transition to a new songbook is too great and abrupt, and may cause great turmoil in the church. Since the inception of the PH Committee in 1997, it has been understood by many churches that a new production would build on the 1976 CRC Blue Psalter Hymnal as its starting point and would not be a from-the-ground-up new work. The PH Committee promoted this way of thinking early on in their work by asking the churches for input on songs in the 1976 Blue Hymnal. Additionally, the Committee identifies itself as “The Psalter Hymnal Revision Committee” on the front cover of “The Hymn Proposal” (2010).

2. Consideration ought to be given to a process, as undertaken in other denominations, of seeking a smooth and painless transition. One could look to the CRC when the Blue Hymnal (1957) took the place of the Red Psalter Hymnal. Uniformity between the books and education of the church community by means of official publications lessened considerably the impact of change within the congregations.

3. Many members of the URCNA have experienced the introduction of a new hymnal in their former congregation. For some it was part of their motivation to seek an alternative church federation. Because a great number of the new proposed songs seem to come directly from the hymnal they once rejected, the present proposal by the Synodical Committee opens up old wounds, as it threatens them with a similar experience. Publication of comments and the clarification of their purported mandate by the Committee subsequent to Synod 2010 have done little to alleviate the fears that the URCNA is headed down a similar road.

4. Learning new songs is a long-term process that can span a generation or more. The present proposal contains far too many changes, adjustments and new material for it to function well in the foreseeable future.

5. The report from Synod 2010 concerning a new songbook and the subsequent communications from the Committee have already caused significant unrest and concern in both the pew and the consistory room. While some concerns may be of a trivial nature, nevertheless the tide of significant objection gives cause for review and reflection.

6. There exists a misunderstanding as to the will of the originating classis whose overture was adopted by Synod 1997.

Overture #9 asks Synod to instruct the Songbook Committee to develop and publish a songbook based on the 1976 edition of the blue CRC Psalter Hymnal, minimizing changes as much as possible and utilizing a transition process similar to the CRC’s introduction of the blue Psalter Hymnal. Overture #9 lists these grounds:

1. This is in keeping with the expressed desires of previous synods that a URCNA songbook be created.

2. This alleviates unrest in the churches concerning various proposals, publications and comments concerning the present, partially proposed songbook which has created controversy in the churches.

3. This clarifies an underlying understanding that the Blue Psalter Hymnal is not being jettisoned.

4. This allows for possible further contact with the OPC should Synod so request and approve of such, without the URCNA having to wait for an updated songbook.

5. This allows the Psalter Hymnal Committee to continue to work with the OPC, should Synod so request and approve of such, taking all the time necessary to further refine and meet the needs of the churches.

It’s interesting that this overture metions the OPC in its grounds since the report from the Songbook Committee reveals that the Committee has been in contact with the OPC, which has already done a great deal of work on the psalm portion of its songbook project. The URCNA Songbook Committee recommends that Synod 2012 accept an invitation from the OPC to work together to produce a psalter hymnal for use in a wide range of confessional Presbyterian and Reformed Churches.

How such a songbook might be implemented within the URCNA is likely to be a matter of animated discussion connected with Appeal #1. That appeal asks Synod 2012 to “alter” Synod 2010’s decision regarding an official songbook from “…which will be purchased and used by all URCNA churches” to “…and encourage this songbook to be used in all URCNA churches.”

Closely related to the songbook matters listed above is the 73-page report from the Liturgical Forms and Confessions Committee. The report consists primarily of liturgical forms and prayers that this Committee is asking Synod 2012 to adopt for provisional use by the churches.

A lot of pages in the provisional agenda deal with music and liturgy. The URCNA is united in its worship style and emphasis on the preaching of the Word, but it remains to be seen if any of these songbook issues will fuel Synod fires.

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