Sunday, October 9, 2016
Rethinking some things about hymnody. . .
Though I have lived in tension with regards to the 3 year lectionary vs the historic or one year system of readings appointed for the Sundays, one of the magnets that continually drives me back to the 3 year is that rich flourish of hymnody that has accompanied the move from a one year to a three year system of repeated readings. That said, I do note that there has been a cost and a high one.
Part of that cost has been the almost universal idea that hymns are primarily, if not universally, appointed to fit the lectionary. This idea is so pervasive that many of those planning the hymns to be sung find it hard to justify the appointed Hymns of the Day precisely because they do not see the direct textual connection with the readings appointed for that day. It is true that some of them, many of them, perhaps, are thematic more than textual with regard to the appointed pericopes of the day. While it is good that we weave together hymns using the readings themselves to draw everything together into a fabric, it is also true that many of the good, even great, hymns of old simply do not relate to a specific text and have fallen into lessor use or out of the realm of the familiar within most congregations.
Lutheran hymnals since the move to English have always struggled with what to do with the hymns of their heritage. Many of them were non-liturgical (not tied into the lectionary or particularly to a season of the church year) and some of them were a little to directed toward us than we feel comfortable in our God directed idea of Gottesdienst. Survey after survey of use has shown that our people tend to like and sing more American and English hymns than the Lutheran hymns of our heritage -- almost to the point that we have become strangers to the hymnody that flourished in the post-Reformation period.
The great hymnwriters of old, like Paul Gerhardt, are often unknown to Lutherans today and their hymns (complete with many more stanzas that folks tend to want to sing) are also strangers to our people and to what we sing on Sunday morning. The hymns we have included have generally been cut and pasted to reduce 12 stanzas to 5 and 20 stanzas to 7 -- thus eliminating some of the hymn's developmental logic and witness.
The absence of a family altar where the family sing hymns in the home, the lack of hymns such as these in use for Sunday school openings, and the virtual absence of the daily offices from parish life have conspired to remove from us part of our best heritage of hymnody and devotion.
Why the demise of these great Lutheran hymns? Probably the experts have decided that there is not much use for such hymns. Probably because of their length, the folks in the pew do not miss them. Probably because they have not been translated or translated well. Probably because we think more globally than domestically (and Lutheranism is here profoundly domestic, as Gracia Grindal has noted).
What can we do about it? We can re-introduce our people to their heritage. Matthew Carver has certainly done a bang up job of translating hymns not previously accessible in English (with all their wonderful peculiarities and many stanzas). Some hymn writers are becoming more attentive to the need to translate and recast these songs of our past. The gift of desktop publishing has placed all of their efforts within our reach. So let us try to reacquaint our people with these strongly vocational, manward oriented, and richly ornamented songs of the faith that are both theologically faithful and rich while also profoundly poetic. In any case, I am reminded that these sturdy hymns of old deserve a wider usage and will try to keep that in mind as I plan the hymn calendar for my own parish.