Friday, September 19, 2008

Singing the Old Standard Hymns

While we were driving on some of the back roads outside Portland recently, we came upon this old country church. The sign fascinated us. Of all the things this congregation might have chosen to say about itself, here's the one thing that made the church sign: "Singing the Old Standard Hymns."

... which makes me wonder about a few things:
  • What are the "Old Standard Hymns"? I would guess "How Great Thou Art" and "Amazing Grace" make the cut, but is there a canon that defines what's generally accepted as old and standard? And if so, who decides?

  • How old are these "old standard" hymns anyway? "How Great Thou Art" is only as old as 1953 -- some of the people in the congregation I serve were in their 40s when that was first included in a hymnal. The words of "Amazing Grace" date back to 1799, but the tune is 19th century. When you think of the 2,000 years spanning Christian history, that's not so old, really -- in fact, those are pretty new hymns. And the first time a congregation sang "Amazing Grace," you can be sure somebody complained: "That song is unsingable!" "Who picked these new-fangled hymns today? Why can't we sing the old standard hymns?"

  • And why do we draw lines and place boundaries around our identity based on the songs we typically sing in worship anyway? We have such a rich bounty of musical options -- the classic hymns and some beautiful songs that have been composed in more recent years; music from the global community; music from Taize and Iona and Australia and Africa and everywhere else; music from every generation spanning 2,000 years of Christian history. Why do we so often limit ourselves to one genre or style?

Don't you wonder what kind of conversation in some Church Council meeting led to that on this church sign?

Oh, the things we do. Only in the church! Only in the church... this strange, beloved, flawed, very human, ordained and blessed by God and limited in vision and impact by our own human "stuff," always-striving, alive-by-grace, and full-of-such-potential thing we call the church.

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