Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Celebrating the Celebrating Grace Hymnal

Last month I delivered the annual Lourdes College Ecumenical Lecture at Lourdes College in Sylvania, Ohio. In that lecture on the topic "How Baptists Receive the Gifts of Catholics and Other Christians," I suggested this about the ecumenical implications of the Baptist practice of hymn singing:

"Baptist hymnals are arguably the most significant ecumenical documents produced by Baptists. They implicitly recognize hymn writers from a wide variety of traditions throughout the history of the church as sisters and brothers in Christ by including their hymns alongside hymns by Baptists....[In addition to numerous] patristic hymns, Baptists receive through their hymnals the gifts of Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Jesus, Martin Luther, the post-Reformation Roman Catholic author of 'Fairest Lord Jesus' from the M√ľnster Gesangbuch, the Methodist Charles Wesley, and more recently the Pentecostal pastor Jack Hayford, to name a few hymn writers whose ecclesial gifts Baptists have gladly received with their voices and hearts."

As an example of the sort of receptive ecumenism Baptists have long practiced through their hymnody, I mentioned the recently launched Celebrating Grace Hymnal developed and published by an independent editorial board and staff but closely associated with the churches of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In this blog post I celebrate four things I like about this hymnal beyond the ecumenical range of its hymns that I highlighted in the lecture.

First, I like the twofold theological structure of the hymnal: the Triune God (hymns 1-244) and the church as the people of this God (hymns 245-707). In many ways this is an improvement over the "unitarianism of the second person" implied by earlier Baptist hymnals that emphasized hymns about Jesus and "gospel songs" about the salvation he brings.

Second, I'm gratified by the attention to the full Christian year. The sections of hymns devoted to God the Son and God the Spirit in the first theological division of the hymnal are arranged according to the seasons of the "festival half" of the Christian year: Advent, Christmastide, Epiphany, Lent, Eastertide, and Pentecost. An appendix to the hymnal includes a helpful outline of the seasons, themes, and liturgical colors of the Christian year and a brief essay by Deboroah Carlton Loftis (Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond) and Paul A. Richardson (Samford University) explaining how the observance of the full Christian year can enhance congregational worship.

Third, this ecumenical theologian who cut his teeth working on patristic theology as a Baptist doctoral student is glad to note an expanded presence of hymns with texts composed during the patristic period (about AD 100-800), the era of the "Great Tradition" that all divisions of the contemporary church share as their common heritage. The Baptist Hymnal published in 1991 by the Southern Baptist Convention, the hymnal used for the better part of the past two decades not only by most Southern Baptist congregations but also by those that now identify more closely with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, included seven patristic hymns. The Celebrating Grace Hymnal retains six of the seven patristic hymns in the 1991 Baptist Hymnal and adds three others: the fifth-century Latin hymn "That Easter Day with Joy Was Bright"; "Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain" by John of Damascus; and "Christ Be Near at Either Hand" from the Breastplate attributed to St. Patrick.

Fourth, I'm delighted that the Celebrating Grace Hymnal has resisted the practice of altering the wording of hymns by non-Baptist hymn writers that were sometimes perceived in their original wording to be at odds with aspects of Baptist theology. While perhaps done with the best of intentions, such Baptist tweaking of hymn texts often results in disasters both theological and aesthetic. Case in point: “The Church’s One Foundation” by nineteenth-century Anglican priest and hymn writer Samuel John Stone (1839-1900). The first stanza of the hymn originally began with this couplet: "The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; she is his new creation, by water and the word." That last phrase seemed to suggest a theology of baptism that was a bit too sacramental for Baptist voices to sing, so many Baptist hymnals--including the two hymnals of most of the period of my own Baptist formation, those published in 1975 and 1991 by the Southern Baptist Convention--altered "water and the word" to "Spirit and the word." Not only did that ruin a nice alliterative pair of words; it communicated a soteriology that is ultimately Gnostic. Thankfully, the Celebrating Grace Hymnal retains Stone's original wording. Many Baptist hymnals also excised the third stanza, which describes a church "by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed," and also omitted the original fifth and final stanza that began, "Yet she on earth hath union with God, the Three in one, and mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won." With the omission of those two stanzas, many Baptists missed the opportunity to be formed by an ecclesiology that values the visible unity of the church, the doctrinal catholicity of the church, and the nature of the church as a Trinitarian fellowship in which all the redeemed of all the ages participate in God and in one another. The Celebrating Grace Hymnal restores these stanzas, too. (The new Baptist Hymnal published by LifeWay Workshop of the Southern Baptist Convention, however, continues the earlier Baptist doctrinal doctoring of the hymn.)

I offer my sincerest thanks to everyone involved in making the Celebrating Grace Hymnal a much improved Baptist hymnal from the standpoint of its capacity for fostering receptive ecumenism even while it fulfills its primary function of facilitating the worship of God and its secondary function of forming Christians in faith and faithfulness. The range of musical styles represented makes it possible for the hymnal to serve each of these ends in congregations that blend the "contemporary" with the "traditional" as well as in self-consciously "liturgical" churches. May it be so.

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