I wish to talk about a recent hymnal that is about to circulate the Brotherhood. It is designed by a group called Sumphonia. The hymnal is called Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs.
I'll summarize my thoughts and then go into some detail below.
The initial feature of the hymnal - that is most conveyed in the hymnal websites - is the poetic phrased layout. In my judgment, this particular feature should have been abandoned early on; for the most outstanding feature of the hymnal is the excellent assortment of hymns - although, I have not given myself time to sing through the unfamiliar ones (and there are many). The hymn-writing interest that is currently a part of the non-institutional Brotherhood culture is resulting in some really good songs - many of which will endure. The Sumphonia hymnal has a lot of songs that were written by the editors. I cannot tell how many because the book does not have an author index.
To its credit, I found only one song by Alton Howard: I Believe in Jesus. That is the one song by Howard that I like.
Before I go into detail, I want to reflect on the hymn selection process. There are two versions of All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name. One version is very familiar and beloved among the brethren and the other is musically unworthy singing. I can say the same for Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah. Why do both the good and crummy versions of these songs make it into recent hymnals - including Sumphonia's? I have a theory. The hymnal editors circulate questionnaires where church members give their opinions on what songs are so core that they should appear in all hymnals. When they come up on the crummy version of Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah they check it off as a core song simply due to name-recognition (and maybe lyric recognition). Sometimes a song leader will select the wrong version of the song but sing it with the familiar music. Embarrassing.
The binding, paper, print and bookmark of this hymnal are high quality. I deliberately tried to unravel the bookmark and it pretty much retained its shape. Next, just to be cautious, I sealed the end with a match anyway. I have become sensitive to cheap ribbons from my home congregation's experience with the R. J. Taylor hymnal called Songs For Worship And Praise. When children handle that hymnal the bookmark somehow unravels all the way to the spine.
I was a little surprised to see the song In Christ Alone, by Keith Getty, in the new hymnal. The song includes the Calvinist-leaning lyrics:
No Guilt in life, no fear in death,
this is the pow'r of Christ in me;
from life's first cry to final breath,
Jesus Commands my destiny.
No Pow'r of hell, no scheme of man,
can ever pluck me from His hand,
'til He returns or calls me home;
here in the pow'r of Christ I stand.
It's a good song and I use it in public worship. I brought those lyrics to the attention of the congregation and explained briefly that, although no external power can snatch me from the hand of the Lord, there is nothing that will prevent me from jumping. I, personally, have the power to snatch myself from His hand. And that's what I mean when I sing those lyrics. Everybody seems fine with that approach. I believe it is commendable that the Sumphonia group retained those lyrics that, although they can be sung unScripturally, can be sung Scripturally as well. The editors explained:
"What's clearly unscriptural remains a judgment call," said [board member David] Maravilla. "Sometimes we don't know the author's intent, but it can be sung scripturally." In this, the board sought to respect not just the author, but the congregation. "We wanted to put as much control as possible in the hands of the churches," [board member Steve] Wolfgang added. "We'd rather let songleaders and elders make the decision not to use a verse or a hymn than unilaterally make the decision for everyone using the hymnal."
I did notice a few changes that puzzled me. For example, the excellent song Come Share the Lord, by Byran Jeffery Leech, contains the lyric:
Come, take the bread; come, drink the wine; come, share the Lord.
Does anybody have a problem with this line in reference to the Lord's Supper? Somebody on the Sumphonia board must have, for the lyric was changed to
Come, take the bread; come, drink the cup come, share the Lord.
What's wrong with wine? In my humble opinion, wine is fine and it poetically flows better. Whatever!
The hymnal editors definitely had a strong corporate worship motivation. It appears that any good song that has Scriptural meaning but is difficult to sing congregationally was rejected from the hymnal. Also, arrangements that are easier and/or more familiar were preferred over versions that are more original yet more difficult. Take, for example, the song Take the Name of Jesus With You. Sumphonia used an arrangement that is most often sung by congregations - even when they have a different (original) arrangement in front of them.
Compare this arrangement with the more original version that appears in the hymnal Songs for Worship and Praise:
The Sumphonia version (Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs) was selected clearly because it is more congregationally useful. The R.J. Taylor version (Songs for Worship and Praise) was selected clearly because it is more beautiful and original.
Sumphonia was not completely consistent on this effort. The song Our God He is Alive (the old 728b) is rarely sung according to the way it is written. Below, I show a portion of the arrangement that appears in the Sumphonia hymnal - along with a red note indicating how the song is usually sung by most congregations. The Sumphonia group, obviously, kept the original version.
At this point I think I can make a general observation about Sumphonia and two popular hymnals: The Sumphonia hymnal has a very strong congregational worship motif. Songs of Faith and Praise has a strong non-traditional sing-it-the-hip-way flavor - with many jazz-band-esque descants. R.J. Taylor's Songs for Worship and Praise features songs with real beautiful music and traditional songs with original arrangements. It has a corporate worship motivation but also a strong multi-use function - with songs for many different occasions and skill-levels. I'll illustrate these differences with the song His Grace Reaches Me, which appears in all three hymnals.
Here's a scan of the song from Songs of Faith and Praise.
Compare this arrangement with the one that appears in Songs for Worship and Praise (which is very similar to the version in Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs).
The most important activity we are doing when we sing worship songs is we are singing words that have meaning. If we are singing "Ah---" it's pretty hard to pay attention to words. I'd rather keep silent and listen to words (1 Corinthians 14:26) than be humming and perhaps miss out on the meaning. Any arrangement of His Grace Reaches Me that has the harmony parts singing words is a vast, VAST improvement over the arrangement in Songs of Faith and Praise!
Now. Let's take a look at these songs as they appear on the pages of the R.J. Taylor hymnal and the Sumphonia hymnal:
Songs for Worship and Praise
Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs
It's interesting how much blank space is on the pages of many songs in the Sumphonia hymnal. In the example above, the first page kind of looks like a printing error - like only part of the page got printed; but it resulted from the effort of the editors to make the music match the poetic verse of the words. When there is a new line of poetry, there is a new line of music. Thus, what we see is a lot of wasted space. In contrast, the Taylor hymnal puts two full length songs on the two-page spread; but with the versed layout, the Sumphonia hymnal can only find space for the one hymn in roughly the same space - and there is an awful lot of blank space on the page. Taylor's hymnal has no wasted space at all. It looks like he crammed the two songs into the layout with a shoe-horn! So, what do you want? Aggressive use of space or poetic verse layout? Personally, when I lay my money down for a hymnal I want the best balance between the most music and a not-too-heavy book.
I'm not so sure about the wisdom of locating the song number where it is located. It may not be so easy to see when a worshiper is trying to get to the correct song before the song leader starts the song. Maybe now I'm nit-picking.
I wish the Sumphonia book were republished with the excellent song collection but without the space-wasting poetic verse layout; but then the song order would have to be revised. Thus they wouldn't be useful in a worship-room (auditorium) that has both hymnals. The song numbers would not match.
A final note. I don't think hymnal publishers get a whole lot of money for publishing hymnals. To a large degree it is an effort of love - not profit. They may even publish at a loss. With this result in mind, I wish to thank those who go to the trouble to publish hymnals: To the editors of the Sumphonia hymnal, to Robert J. Taylor (Songs for Worship and Praise) and to R. J. Stevens and Dane K. Shepard (editors of the Hymns for Worship hymnal) and to the Guardian of Truth Foundation (publishing both Hymns for Worship and Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs), thank you!