Monday, February 6, 2012

The Hymns We Used To Sing

This past Sunday we sang "Father Hear the Prayer We Offer." It is a hymn I have known and loved since childhood. It caused me to reflect on the way our hymnody shapes our theology. Certainly the sentiments of this hymn seem close to my own convictions--Christianity as a courageous not an easy calling. 

We sang Libby's harmonies to the melody that Ralph Vaughan Williams "adapted" from an English folk tune. I remember watching a documentary that explained how Vaughan Williams passed-off as "traditional" a number of the tunes he wrote for the English Hymnal (1906) -- I wonder if this is one of them. Anyway, Libby's harmonies have a little of the South African quality to them.  . . we'll do it a bit faster next time.

Father Hear the Prayer We Offer. (audio) (sheet music)
Before Christmas I came across this interesting "survey of 28 mainline Protestant hymnals" of the last 130 years or so (Christianity Today, March 2011). The result is the top 27 Protestant hymns. Cast your eye down the list below and see which ones you know. 

At the end of last semester I passed this list out in a couple of my classes. Now keep in mind that these are all religion majors many of whom want to go into some kind of Christian ministry and who are very involved in their own churches. I asked them to give me their personal score. The rule was that you had to be able to sing the first line.  What was interesting was that some students scored very highly while the rest barely made it on the board: either in the high teens or below five (I scored 22). This seems to confirm the observation that for many younger Christians there has been almost a complete break with their musical heritage.

I will not join with the creaking traditionalists who automatically think that if something new displaces something old then that is a Bad Thing. However, it is interesting to contemplate what such a clean break with the past suggests about the way churches today view both their own pasts and those who seem reluctant to make such a clean break. It also makes me wonder if the new praise songs sung by my students will be unknown to their own children?

As long as my kids are still singing #s 13 and 19 by mid-century, I will be satisfied!