Singing the praises of a new hymn book

Published January 1, 1999

Imagine if a record company tried to put together a new CD with the greatest hits from the past few hundred years, from Beethoven to the Beatles to the Barenaked Ladies.

That was the kind of job facing the Hymn Book Task Force when it was formed in January 1987. The 17-member group had to sift through more than 3,000 hymns spanning centuries, trying to figure out which were the best and most relevant to today’s churchgoers.

Finally, after more than 10 years of work, the project is finished and the book – Common Praise – is for sale. But it wasn’t easy.

The group was given its mandate by General Synod and the National Executive Council (now the Council of General Synod) in 1986, which said the doctrine and worship committee (now the faith, worship and ministry committee) should develop a new hymn book “which will provide hymns and other music for worship that complement the Common Lectionary, which draw on a wide variety of styles and traditions and which are couched in language which is as inclusive as possible.”

Almost immediately, the project was controversial. Many people didn’t understand why, in times of financial constraint, the Anglican Church would produce a new hymn book. Thomas Richardson of Toronto wrote a letter to the Anglican Journal saying “I feel it would be a more Christian act to use this money to help people in dire need of food and warm clothing.”

More protest came from the conservative sectors in the church that objected to the use of inclusive language, especially when the task force began selecting hymns that made female references to God. Rev. John Paul Wadlin wrote to the New Brunswick Anglican saying “How dare we change Holy Scripture? ? Rather than being politically correct, let’s just stick to the truth of the Gospel as taught to us by Jesus and stop this dangerous drift toward accommodation of non-Christian beliefs.”

Others, such as Fiona Hill, who wrote to the Toronto Star, objected to the original exclusion of Onward! Christian Soldiers (the hymn was eventually included). Ms. Hill wrote, “It is a call to all those who love Christ to fight against evil … to defend our hearts and souls from the creeping, insidious ooze of degradation.”

Paul Gibson, project manager of the new hymn book, spent many long hours at his desk writing letters to people across the country who were upset by the choice of hymns, the inclusive language, or the simple fact that money was being spent on the project.

But no matter how bad things got, he remained committed to the project because he firmly believed the church needed a new hymn book.

“Hymns are very much a popular art form and consequently, like all popular art forms, are on the cutting edge. That means they are constantly being added to and people are constantly finding that what was last year’s fashion doesn’t satisfy any more, doesn’t speak to them any more,” he said.

The last hymn book was published in 1971 – a joint project between the Anglican and United Churches. Before that, a book was published in 1938, a volume still used in some churches today.

“If you look at the prefaces of the 1971 and 1938 books, they both say a new hymn book appears about every 25 years, so we were just about on schedule,” said Mr. Gibson.

He said there was only one way to go about choosing hymns for the new book.

“We sang the stuff. We sat here and sang hymns for hours and hours, once a month and occasionally twice a month. We sang everything. You can’t judge a hymn simply by looking at the text and the music manuscript.”

Mr. Gibson said sometimes it was immediately apparent whether a hymn was a keeper. Other times, “people fought tooth and nail either to get something in or not to get something in. It was a very human process of occasional unanimity and occasional severe disagreement.”

The members of the task force had a variety of skills, many of them being organists, music experts, or history or language buffs. There were complaints the group was overloaded with liberal-minded people, hence the concerns about too much inclusive language. Mr. Gibson defended both the choice of committee members and the work they did.

“I think that some people, not seeing the process from the inside, were very genuinely threatened that they would not be able to feel right singing the hymns that were being produced. Because they were threatened, they were very angry.”

Mr. Gibson said the inflammatory suggestions some people made about the dangers of inclusive language were needlessly upsetting. “I think some extreme aspects of the feminist movement have upset people and so they transfer that disquiet to the hymn book and envision that it might turn out as an extreme feminist tract, and it’s not.”

He also pointed out that, on a shoestring budget, the task force could only afford to choose members who lived between London, Ont., and Montreal. They had to be able to travel to Toronto for meetings without having to fly or use hotels.

There were also complaints not enough evangelical hymns were chosen for the new book. Mr. Gibson disagrees.

“I think we have drawn richly on the classical evangelical tradition in more exciting ways than we have before.” He said it’s easy to criticize from the outside. “I think almost any sectional group in the church could say there’s not enough of their particular kinds of hymns. But the essence of a hymn book is that it collects a representative body of hymns.” Mr. Gibson said some churches will choose to supplement the new hymn book with other books that expand on a particular section of hymns.

After more than 700 hymns had been chosen for the book, the group then had to write musical arrangements, verify harmonies, and edit. Melva Treffinger Graham, director of music at Grace Church-on-the-Hill in Toronto, was a copy editor.

“None of us knew what we were doing,” she said, adding it was the most complex project she had ever worked on. “We were trying very hard to make the musical notation very clear to people who had no musical training, as well as make it clear to read.”

She said they were “still discovering little bits and pieces that were missing right up until the last minute.” It was also a complicated job keeping track of all the copyright information. “It’s a miracle it ever got out,” she said, because the project was done with so little money and so few staff.

Jo Abrams, project co-ordinator of the book, found it was sometimes difficult dealing with the typesetting company, Selah Publishing Co., in Kingston, N.Y. “It was very frustrating,” she said, citing distance and a “conflict of egos.”

“New proofs would come back and some things had not been corrected,” said Ms. Abrams. “It was very frustrating until we brought a copy editor on board ? It was a very staff-poor project.”

George Black, the convenor of the task force, said other than a few people hired to do copy editing and proofreading, much of the work on the book was done by volunteers. That meant “the time they gave was unpaid time, and time in which they could have been getting paid,” he said.

But despite the travelling, the arguments and the headaches, everyone interviewed said they enjoyed working on the project and had no regrets.

Mr. Gibson, who also edited the Book of Alternative Services, said he “wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I feel incredibly privileged to have been intimately involved in the two major worship instruments of the Anglican Church of Canada at the end of the 20th century.”

So far, 22,000 copies of Common Praise have been sold by the Anglican Book Centre, for $24.95 each.


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