Recently the new head of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society visited with IRD’s UMAction Steering Committee. It was the first such meeting between two often adversarial sides in the denomination. And it was very cordial, even enjoyable. During introductions, Susan Henry-Crowe asked each of us to recall an anecdote about our Christian experience.
I recalled the previous Sunday at church when all five of the service’s hymns were robust favorites of mine, which is unusual. They were A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, O God Our Help in Ages Past, Be Still My Soul, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and Crown Him with Many Crowns.
How important hymns are to worship and learning the church’s theology, as well as connecting with the wider Body of Christ. I prefer sturdy old, proven hymns. But admittedly every hymn was new at some point. The United Methodist Hymnal, published in 1989, has marvelous old hymns but prematurely included a few from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s that have not aged well and likely are rarely sung.
More recently published, The Faith We Sing hymnal supplement appears in many United Methodist churches but was never authorized by the General Conference. Striving for a distorted diversity, it includes several fatuously pantheistic hymns maybe fashionable in some liberal circles in the 1990s but now thankfully very dated and largely ignored.
Undoubtedly there are conservative Evangelical churches that too often prematurely throw a clunky if well intentioned hymn up on the wall. Perhaps such experiments are sometimes necessary if painful.
A hymn should prove itself across time and geography before its full acceptance into the church’s lexicon. It was said in the early church that authentic Christian doctrine must have been received at all times and at all places across the universal church before regarded as apostolic and catholic. Hymns of course are expressions of doctrine if not doctrine themselves and perhaps similarly should be time and culture tested.
Sermons may or may not fully rise to the occasion. But ideally hymns, reinforced by solid liturgy, creeds and prayers, effortlessly and beautifully convey the catholicity of the church’s faith and doctrine. A hymn, if fully attuned to the Body of Christ’s timeless beliefs, is a tool of and even the voice of the Holy Spirit. And for Protestants, especially Methodists, hymns are almost like icons to Eastern Orthodox, artistically offering a sacred window into Heaven.
We imagine, and trust by faith, that hymns in this world echo, if imperfectly, what the saints and angels are singing eternally before God’s throne. When singing hymns, we mystically join them and the universal church across all time.
For many of us, remembered hymns offer strength in times of testing and are sure boats in stormy waters. They will be the final words we recite or think in this world, as they speak to us most powerfully of Who God in Christ truly is.