Changing the lyrics of hymns

In his sermon yesterday, Bishop Miller discussed the hymn “Come Down, O Love divine.” In the course of his comments he mentioned a rather significant change in the text from the 1940 to the 1982 Hymnal. The third stanza of the hymn in our hymnal reads:

And so they yearning strong, with which the soul will long,

Shall far outpass the power of human telling;

for none can guess its grace, till Love create a place

wherein the Holy Spirit makes a dwelling

In the 1940 hymnal, the third line reads:

“For none can guess its grace, Till he become the place”

At the time, not knowing the earlier version, I assumed the change had to do with the gendered pronoun “He.” A quick look at the text suggests another reason–it’s not clear what the antecedent of “He” is. The soul? But when I looked back at the 1940 Hymnal, it struck me that there is a significant theological change to go with the change in wording. For it is not just switching from “He” to “Love.;” the verb is also changed, from “become” to “create.” And thus Love, perhaps God, becomes the main actor, creating space in the soul for the Holy Spirit to dwell; whereas in the earlier version, the sense is more passive; there’s no stated subject and no sense of activity on the part of the soul or of God.

It’s an odd coincidence that I’ve read several items in the past couple of days about the wording of another particular hymn (song?) Bosco Peters drew my attention  to a contemporary Christian song “In Christ Alone” that has become quite popular. It was sung at a recent Synod meeting and he reacted negatively to this line in it:

“Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied”

Peters argues that “these words as interpreted by many (if not most) in that room is heresy.” A follow-up post includes a poll in which you can vote on what you think is the meaning of those words.

A manufactured debate among Kiwis that has no significance for North America? Ah, but a Christian Century article from Mary Louise Bringle, who is involved in the Presbyterian Church (USA) hymnal revision discusses the very same words from the very same song. In the end, it wasn’t included in the hymnal because the replacement lyrics proposed diverged too widely from the authors’ theological perspective. (Peters’ post and readers comments suggest that a good bit of editing is taking place in those congregations where the song is used regularly, but such diversions aren’t possible when copyright permissions are necessary).

Messing with the language of hymns is always fraught with peril as those who were involved in gender-neutral revisions of hymnals over the last three decades can attest. Bringle points out some of the hymns that didn’t make the cut because of gendered language or problematic imagery, but she also writes sensitively about the larger issues at stake.

The song in question deals with Atonement theology and there are few matters that arouse as strong and divisive response as the atonement. From comments on articles, facebook and blog posts, it’s pretty clear that people disagree deeply and many of those who are critical of stances like that of Peters cannot fathom what’s at stake. But it’s also quite clear that one of the reasons passion run so high on matters of hymnody is because our faith, theology, and Christian experience can be profoundly shaped by the hymns and songs we sing and that messing with the words can mean messing with our deepest held beliefs and our deep feelings.

I’m glad I don’t serve on hymnal committees…

The importance of worship–or Wendell Berry and the Anglican Marks of Mission

The Rev. Bosco Peters from the Anglican Church of New Zealand, has begun a campaign to include worship as one of the “Anglican Marks of Mission.” Here’s his rationale:

I propose that worship, liturgy, is not a means to further the mission of the church. It is not a means to further any or all of the dimensions in the five-fold mission statement. Worship, in and of itself, is an essential dimension of our mission and should find its place in our accepted mission statement.

Worship, liturgy, especially the Eucharist, is understood, by the majority of Christians, to be “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, 11). St Ignatius Loyola understood “The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God” (The Principle and Foundation in his Spiritual Exercises).

Although worship is not a means, giving it centrality does lead to desirable effects. On the other hand, I would argue, the loss of the pivotal place of worship and liturgy leads to consequences, such as the loss of the unifying power of common prayer, of common worship.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about place, context for ministry. And if there’s any point at which my theological reflection on ministry is undergoing transformation, it is about the importance of understanding and responding to the particularity of local context.

There’s a great ongoing project This is our city that focuses on how evangelicals are reclaiming ministry in urban contexts. I’ve learned a great deal from it.

Today, I read this piece by Jake Meador on what Wendell Berry might have to say to urban evangelicals. Meador writes:

But in recent years, some Christian writers have warned that we shouldn’t mistake right thinking and right behavior for the holistic well being of a person, or a city, for that matter. James Davison Hunter and Andy Crouch (executive director of the City project) each made this point in To Change the World and Culture Making, respectively. Philosopher Jamie Smith devoted a whole book, Desiring the Kingdom, to this point, stressing that human beings are not chiefly thinkers or believers but worshipers. It’s here, I argue, that Berry’s vision of community life and creation is most vital for urban evangelicals. For all the things we do well, I’m not convinced that we know how to live as communities of worshipers day to day. Enter Port William.

What I see in Berry, and what I’ve been learning to live out, little by little, is the centrality of worship to personal and communal health. By that I mean something like one of Clyde Kilby’s resolutions for mental health: “At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.”

Peters points out the importance of shared liturgy to the identity and unity of Anglicanism. Meador points in a different direction–to the fact that worship occurs in particular contexts and that it flows out of particular experiences.

Now I’m not much of a Calvinist, but I do think there is some truth in the Westminster Confession’s statement that our “chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Surely glorifying God includes worship.