What a new hymnal should be …

If we have a new hymnal, it should …

That’s the thing, right? It is so easy to complain about the hymnal we have (by we I mean the Unitarian Universalist Association and its member congregations, and by the hymnal we have, I mean Singing the Living Tradition), or say it’s dated (it debuted in 1994), or whatever your particular complaint might be (and I have a few, though on the whole I think it does a pretty good job at a difficult task: helping UUs worship).

But what would the replacement be?

I wrote last week that it’s time for a new hymnal, so it’s only fair that I (start to) answer the question of what a replacement would be. I already mentioned the new Presbyterian hymnal, called Glory to God, not because we should copy its content, but some of its formatting decisions. Like a new UU hymnal would be, it’s very much a 21st-century thing — a nod to tradition in some ways but also firmly grounded in up-to-date technology and usage. But that’s only part of the equation. Besides some much-needed technological updates, what else would a GREAT new Unitarian Universalist hymnal include?

Three things crucial for a successful new hymnal:

  1. Utilize contemporary technology: As I said before, it has to incorporate new technological and liturgical realities. In short, it has to be digital, projectable, printable, and usable on a laptop, tablet and phone (that’s all in addition to traditional paper books, which are not going away). When Singing the Living Tradition came out, the Internet was new to most people and very, very few people had cell phones. Now those aren’t just possibilities, they’re realities that successful congregations must engage. I don’t just want a tablet edition of a hymnal, in today’s culture I basically need it.
  2. More breadth and more current hymns: Church music is a lot different in 2015 than it was in 1990. A much broader range of world cultures are reflected in our lives and our worship, but SLT only shows this a little bit. There is also, and I say this with the greatest enthusiasm possible, a lot of really great stuff being written by UUs. I’m talking about people like Jason Shelton, Amy Carol Webb, Sarah Dan Jones, pretty much everyone in the Silliman competition, and that’s just some of the stuff I’ve actually heard about. Is all of this stuff going to stand the test of time? No, absolutely not. But some is, and it needs to be in our hymnal and in the worship life of UUs everywhere. AND … we have to
  3. I’m grouping two changes I think should be made (and are likely to be controversial) together here. A) Is it time to give up readings (you know, the short things in the second half of the hymnal)? Not quite entirely, but nearly so, perhaps: this isn’t the old days when the only congregational readings we were likely to have were what was in the hymnal. Worship Web has collected great stuff from UUs that anyone can use. An online database of no-longer-copyrighted readings from other sources could be (relatively) easily made. If we want to keep a few “greatest hits,” and perhaps some responsive readings, sure. But why use paper for what can be better done online?  B) Entire worship service formats should be included; that is, outlines of suggested orders of worship. In Hymns of the Spirit (the major hymnal in Unitarian and Universalist from 1937 until the 1960s and longer; you can learn a lot about it from this site my colleague the Rev. Scott Wells created), there are a handful of full worship service outlines for various occasions. I’m especially fond of the shorter Communion service. I think there’s a real role to be played in helping congregations (especially smaller congregations) shape liturgy in powerful, positive ways. We should do this.

There, that’s three concrete suggestions for improving upon what I think is already a pretty good hymnal (if I have time I might expand upon a couple of those ideas). What are your suggestions? What would you want in our next hymnal?


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