Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A body of song for the Body of Christ - an interview with Chelsea Stern

There is a comfort that comes in the moment in worship when the next hymn is announced or when music signals its beginning. It is a comfort that comes from reaching for a familiar book in a familiar spot, turning its seasoned pages to a (hopefully) well-loved song, chorus or chant and, with the familiar weight of that hymnal in hand, rising to sing in confident praise of God.

I have been singing hymns my whole life, but in the past year I have become aware of hymns and hymnody in a way I never had been before. Studying in the Master of Sacred Music programme at Perkins School of Theology has made me conscious of the diverse kinds of hymns and their individual effect and meaning. Also, this summer I attended my first conference of the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN. There I was made aware of the community of hymn writers, composers, scholars, musicians, and in general of a group of people who find joy and spiritual renewal in coming together and joining their voices in the songs of our faith. I had the opportunity to meet and speak with composers of hymns which I have been singing and appreciating for years. This made the ministry of hymn writing and singing much more vital to me, as I put faces to the names at the bottom of the pages of my hymnal.

The immediacy and importance of the ministry of hymn singing, however, has been most strongly brought home to me in recent conversations I've had with my friend Chelsea Stern. Chelsea is one of my colleagues in the MSM programme at Perkins, and a member of the newly-renamed Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song (PCOCS), which is tasked with the creation of a new hymnal for the Presbyterian Church USA. I have vague memories of the joys and heartaches that come with being a member of a hymnbook task force, as my father Andrew Donaldson was co-editor of the most recent hymnal of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Book of Praise (1997). He, with his partner Donald Anderson, worked with a team which undertook the immense task of surveying hymnody of the past, present, and future, and deciding on a canon to reflect the needs of worshipping congregations. While I was too young to understand most of what went on (I was around eight when he and Don were appointed to the committee), speaking with Chelsea brings back memories of my father's participation in this important and challenging process.

Even in the best of circumstances, the production of a hymnal is a passionate matter. I estimate that the measure of calm and indifference that is displayed by a given congregation member in reaching for their hymnal in weekly worship is in inverse proportion to the fervour, apprehension, indignation, and even fury which would be displayed by that same congregation member at the suggestion that the hymnal should be changed. Anxiety over the proposed inclusions, exclusions, theology, scope, languages, typesetting, and weight (about which more later) of the as-yet-unborn hymnal ensues. Congregation members write in to the (increasingly haggard) committee members of The Embryonic Hymnal, demanding that such-and-such hymn be included, on pain of said congregants leaving the church. Invariably, the next day different congregation members will write in categorically demanding the omission of the aforementioned "Such and Such" from The Embryonic Hymnal, also threatening defection should their wish not be accommodated.

I say these things in all seriousness, for in a time when the Church in North America is shrinking and societal indifference to organized religion is a documented trend, the topic of what hymns the Church should be singing and on whose terms remains one of high energy and emotion. I was very interested, then, to learn that my friend Chelsea would be a part of the shaping of the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church USA. Though I desperately wanted to ask her what colour the new book will be (and to submit my suggestion of "asparagus"), I kept that one to myself for the time being. I began by asking her about the challenges inherent, as she sees it, in being a member of the committee. A big one, she said, was "dealing with how I felt after reading many emails and other correspondence about The Presbyterian Hymnal (1990) and the current project. Of course, many people made suggestions and provided critical analysis about the past hymnal. Some have also questioned the decision of the General Assembly to call for a new hymnal. It was hard to realize that I could not answer or communicate with each person who wrote in with a concern or critique. I can only do the best job I can do to serve God's people in this project and to trust God's guidance and rely on God's grace."

I can identify with Chelsea's concerns. In such a large undertaking, which often unfolds over the course of close to a decade, uncertainty from the Church at large over the "need" for such a lengthy and costly undertaking abounds. I am certain every hymnal committee member will field the question of why a new book is needed when "we have a perfectly good one already." This is a complex question. However, I personally feel that, among many other things, this book will benefit from the input of younger hymn-lovers, whom Chelsea will represent admirably. I asked her how it feels to represent a younger generation of hymn singers on the committee. "Wow!" she replied, "Many, many young people applied to serve on this committee. I am grateful that so many young adults want to serve the church and are so interested in and committed to congregational singing! I have already had the privilege of meeting a few peers who applied to serve, and look forward to their continued involvement in the project. I am also equally excited that the Presbyterian Church (USA) had the foresight and wisdom to specifically include two young adults (under the age of 25) on this committee. To my knowledge, this is the first denominational congregational song / hymnal committee to do so." (It is with a measure of Canadian pride that I add that the task force for the Book of Praise included a teen member from Saskatchewan. With any luck, this is a growing trend.)

I imagine that this is also likely the first denominational hymnal committee to offer a forum on Facebook for discussion of the ongoing project. The Facebook group "Presbyterian Congregational Song Project" was set up to connect the committee to people of all ages who want to voice their excitement and concerns about the hymnal. As a member of the Facebook generation, Chelsea was an ideal person to create and oversee the forum. "Of course, keeping the Facebook page going is a priority!" she said. "I have and plan to continue having conversations with other young people about the project. I embrace the fact that I was chosen as a young person to serve on the committee and I hope to use my 'young status' as a gift and a blessing for the project. I have already gained much insight from peers about congregational song and the next resource that is published. I hope to continue to be a conversation liaison between young people and the committee members for the duration of the process. I look forward to introducing some new texts/tunes to groups of young people before the book is published."

The idea of introducing new songs to people both young and old can be a delicate one, especially when it comes to inclusions and exclusions in a congregational hymnal. In my above comments on my father's experience I used the word "canon" deliberately – the final contents of a hymnal can feel to some like a judgment on the quality of certain hymns, or a statement of theology for the denomination. Of course, in many ways it is, but the question is more nuanced than that. The fact remains, however, that after reaching for the same familiar book for so many years, the creation of a new hymnal can feel like a personal attack. As Chelsea put it, "people, including me, get upset or shall I say passionate on behalf of their hymns because they care! And we often do see them as 'our' hymns. It is going to be 'our' hymnal and a feeling of possession does come along with that." I asked Chelsea where she felt this deep passion for particular hymns or styles comes from. "Many hymns take on layered meanings over one's life," she said. "There are hymns that I know by heart because I have sung them since I was a child. There are a few hymns that remind me of specific people, certain worship services, other poignant times in my life like youth summer camp or memorial services for loved ones. I think most people feel the same way about hymns. We all have favorites.

"Of course," she went on, "hymns are the congregation's song, and the congregation is the body of Christ. We gather together in community to worship God and our hymns enable us to worship together. As the body, we need every part. But, sometimes the 'parts' don't seem to agree on the hymn or song!

"I think it is really important to remember that the church is diverse with diverse needs and we all have to come together as a community in worship through song."

I very much look forward to seeing what shape a new musical resource will take under the prayerful guidance of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song. As Chelsea put it, "I pray that this book will serve the church in a new, Holy-Spirit filled way; a way that will transcend all our humanly limited visions and aspirations for it; a way that only God can know."

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