Classical hymns in chronological order
December 17, 2009
They knew that “Amazing Grace” would make the cut, and that “How Great Thou Art” was a sure thing. The committee that chose the 250 hymns for Hymns for Worship, considered these songs “classical hymns,” said Calvin music professor Bert Polman.
"Hymn texts from olden time to modern times,” elaborated Polman, a member of the committee and the co-editor of Hymns for Worship. "Hymn texts that have appeared in most hymnals and are still in use today.”
The category of “classical hymns” also includes songs such as “In Christ Alone,” at seven years old, one of the younger inclusions in the new collection. “‘In Christ Alone’ is a fabulous piece,” Polman said. “It has gotten popular in the last five years for very good reasons.”
A walk through church music history
Besides its breadth—everything from psalms and canticles to contemporary worship songs—what makes the new hymnal distinctive is that its songs are listed chronologically. “The order of the book follows the early Christian church, the medieval church, the Protestant tradition, the rise of Methodism, the Oxford movement, the Great Awakening, the rise of the black church in the United States, and so on,” Polman said.
This musical walk through church history is intentional, he explained, because Hymns for Worship was designed to serve as more than a hymnal. The collection is also a textbook for courses in hymnology, church history—even systematic theology. “In systematics, you’re dealing with doctrines, and hymns tend to be a lay person’s theology text,” said Polman of the latter-named usage. “What we believe, we tend to sing.”
While a layperson typically knows something of doctrines and creeds, Polman said, she or he also knows a lot of hymns. And hymns articulate the range of the Christian believer’s experience: “We sing doxology. We sing prayers of petition. We sing baptism and burial songs. We sing songs about faith and sometimes about doubt,” he said.
While the songs in Hymns for Worship, reach back as far as original psalm texts, others, such as “When Memory Fades,” reflect a contemporary faith experience. “It’s a song about dementia. Our congregations are graying,” Polman said. “Pastoral care of the aging is an issue.”
Lining up the notes
The committee responsible for selecting the hymns in Hymns for Worship included staff of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW). The co-editor of the hymnal, Joyce Borger (the editor of Reformed Worship and music and worship editor for Faith Alive Christian Resources), handled all of the copy editing and layout chores for the collection—making sure that notes lined up properly and that there were no awkward page turns. “That’s where Joyce and her Faith Alive staff go above and beyond,” Polman said.
Hymns for Worship is among a trio of hymnals co-produced in the last couple of years by the CICW and Faith Alive. (The first was Contemporary Songs for Worship, and the third, Global Songs for Worship, will appear in 2010.) The three smaller hymnals are meant to stand on their own as worship resources and also to serve as trial runs for a new hymnal to be co-produced by the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America. “Hopefully, people will get their hands on them, use them and give feedback,” Polman said.
A hymnologist by trade, Polman has edited several hymnals in his career. “There are very few of us in the world,” he said. “To be a specialist about hymns is rare.” He is also an author/composer who has contributed to several hymn collections. His name adorns number 256, the final song in Hymns for Worship: "God We Sing Your Glorious Praises.” Two years ago, that song was chosen as the banner hymn of the 150th anniversary of the CRC.
"You have to be very careful about what you put in a book that you edit. Otherwise, it becomes a very private vehicle,” Polman said. “This is a hymnal for all people of God.”
~by Myrna Anderson, communications and marketing