On The Hymnal: Nihil sub sole novum
In the wake of the 78th General Convention of The Episcopal Church, the blogosphere has been, if not abuzz, at least mildly stirring with thoughts, concerns, and essays about the looming Prayer Book and Hymnal revisions that await the church at some as of yet unknown point in the calculable future.
As a way of, if not contributing to the conversation, at least reflecting along with it, we here offer the following excerpt, taken from the Introduction to The Hymnal 1940 Companion (3rd Revised Edition, 1951). In an age obsessed with the goods of inclusivity and expansion, it is instructive to note that these concerns were engaged – and satisfied – by our spiritual forbears lo these many decades now past. As Ecclesiastes 1:9 reminds us,
אין כל חדש תחת השמש : there is nothing new under the sun.
Among the outstanding characteristics of the Hymnal are its inclusiveness and its universality. Race, nationality, time, religion, learning are barriers which sometimes divide men. When we praise God we become aware of the unity which underlies our differences.
Christmas hymns include the Roman Catholic “O come all ye faithful,” the Unitarian “It came upon the midnight clear,” the Episcopal “O little town of Bethlehem,” the Lutheran “All my heart this night rejoices,” the Moravian “Angels from the realms of glory,” the Congregational “Joy to the world.” We sing them all with equal fervor.
We are at one as we sing the Wesleyan “All hail the power of Jesus’ Name,” the Baptist “Blest be the tie that binds,” the Plymouth Bretheren “O Lamb of God, still keep me.” “The Church’s one foundation” was the expression of partisans at a time of controversy within the Church of England. Faber wrote “Faith of our fathers” as a prayer for the conversion of England to the See of Rome. Both hymns now belong to Christians of every name.
The Hymnal is also a chain of praise throughout the ages. There are paraphrases of such ancient Psalms as “O God our help,” the third-century “Candlelighting Hymn” nos.173 and 176, the fourth-century hymns of St. Ambrose, the ninth-century “Veni Creator Spiritus,” the mediaeval “Jerusalem the Golden,” the Reformation “A mighty fortress,” the eighteenth-century hymns of Watts and Wesley, and the hymns of our own day speaking to our present needs. Each age has its peculiar insight and emphasis, but the Hymnal gathers all into one great treasury of praise.
The authors of the texts include all sorts and conditions of men. Some, though by no means all, of the great poets are here – Milton, Pope, Tennyson. There is also Mary Duncan known only for her lovely children’s hymn “Jesus, tender Shepherd, hear me.” There are leaders of great spiritual movements – St. Francis of Assisi, Luther, and John Wesley. There is the little isolated group of Malabar Christians in India. There are great Christian statesmen like St. Ambrose and scholars like St. Thomas Aquinas. There is the unknown Negro [sic] slave who wrote “Were you there when they crucified my Lord.” There are Bunyan the Baptist tinker, Newman the Roman cardinal, and many a simple unknown Christian.
Many lands have made their contribution. The hymns of America and Great Britain needed no translation. We have also the Dutch “We gather together;” the Danish “Through the night of doubt and sorrow;” the German “Now thank we all our God;” the Austrian “Silent night;” the Italian “Come down, O Love divine;” hymns in the Latin tongue, Greek hymns by John of Damascus and Clement of Alexandria, the Jewish Psalms; “Strengthen for service, Lord” from India, and “Jesus, Son of Mary” from Africa.1
1. “Introduction,” in The Hymnal 1940 Companion, Third Revised Edition (New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1951), xxvii.