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Finding Harmony: New Presbyterian hymnal hitting all the right notes

November 19, 2013

Then David and all Israel played music before God with all their might, with singing, on harps, on stringed instruments, on tambourines, on cymbals, and with trumpets. (I Chronicles 13:8 NKJV)


We dedicated the new Presbyterian hymnal at our church on Sunday.


I remember dedicating buildings, pastors, Sunday school teachers and babies, but if I participated in a hymnal dedication before, I don’t really remember it.

Glorious music from the new book filled the service: 15 songs or pieces of music in all—far beyond the staid old 3 hymns and a (choir) anthem of many services. At least 12 of our own sang solos, helped with special music or accompanied—all as various parts of the service, so it didn’t feel like a talent show or school music program.

Even for a small congregation of about 115-125 on an average Sunday morning, we put out. Of course it helps that half the music department of James Madison University are members (another joined Sunday), and of course I exaggerate. Good music attracts those who like to sing, and we owe some of that to three tenor “Johns:” John Lyon (longtime head of the music department at JMU, now retired), John Held, children’s choir director who I’ve written about before here, and John Henderson, a songwriter, guitarist (pictured here) and faithful choir member.

The lovely music tradition at Trinity is also because of our pastors: Ann Held has served the last 23 years and has put a welcome emphasis on music in the congregation, including chaperoning our youth to national “Music and Worship” conferences held at Montreat, N.C. If you come away from music week at Montreat uninspired about the role of music in worshiping God, something’s wrong.


I might also mention we do not have an organ. While I enjoy good, appropriately used organ, (like they use occasionally at Montreat) everyone knows it can kill congregational singing, so we stick with piano.


And some well-placed drums, occasional violin, flute, trumpet, or oboe, (whatever the youth of our congregation are good enough at to not embarrass their parents).


Back to the new Presbyterian hymnal, called Glory to God. Splendid name, instead of the obvious as used in prior rounds, Presbyterian Hymnal or Hymnal or Mennonite Hymnal or Church Hymnal —all collections which I either own or have used at various points in my life. At one point in the approximately 9 years it took to produce Glory to God, the hymnal committee opened the name choice up so anyone could vote online for suggested names, colors, design, type style and look.


Glory to God seems to have hit all the right notes IMHO: bringing together many musical traditions and eras, yet with the goal of imparting the salvation history of the Christian faith, with inclusive language when it comes to talking about people, but appropriate theological language when it comes to talking about God and Jesus and Holy Spirit, even (gasp) daring to call the three Father, Son and Holy Spirit—along with other images used in the Bible as well: mother hen, female prophet. Here’s more about all that. We’re not afraid to use “Lord” anymore to refer to Jesus and God and the final verse of “Be Thou My Vision” summons the “High King of Heaven” once again.

It includes old favorites like “How Great Thou Art” (once deemed theologically shallow, I remember someone once saying), “Be Still My Soul” (Finlandia tune), and newer tunes like the rousing and rapid Brazilian “Cantai ao Senhor,” (Sing to the Lord) with the most fascinating back story which my harmony seeking soul enjoyed. A Lutheran missionary musician heard it first at a pastor’s conference in southern Brazil in 1982, then went home to Argentina where he was serving, translated it to Spanish. Later, when back in the U.S. he translated it to English (my husband grew up Lutheran). Which leads me to a song in this new collection which I first heard and learned to love at a hymn sing at Stuart’s home church: the emotional baptismal hymn, “I Was There To Hear Your Borning Cry.” Originally created to accompany a video series on baptism, the words speak of God of course, but parents and grandparents can’t help but feel connected through stunning verse like:

“I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold … If you find someone to share your time and you join your hearts as one, I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun.”

To hear some of the music we sang Sunday morning, by different groups as found on YouTube (the videos aren’t much, but the music here can sweeten your computer time–I love it as background as I work)

Be Still My Soul*, a cappella

Cantad al Senor (Spanish with guitar)Posted by Jim Tabor

Rain Down – Mennonite women singing informally, a cappella

The Servant Song – what our pastor called the “theme song” for our church.



My dual Presbyterian/Mennonite journey is well known on this blog (or if you know me) and I was awed how this hymnal brings together my Mennonite and Presbyterian ties. The new Presbyterian hymnal Glory to God even lists as its main designer, longtime Mennonite Gwen Stamm, who also designed at least the cover of Hymnal (navy blue, above). As I’ve worked for the Mennonite church in media for over 38 years while worshiping in a Presbyterian congregation for 37, I’ve always enjoyed participating in Mennonite office retreats, meetings, conferences and conventions because:

  • I got to sing awesome Mennonite a cappella music
  • There were always many songs, spirituals and choruses with an African beat and we drummed with our set of car keys, chairbacks, whatever was handy
  • Loved singing African-American spirituals that went on and on and on – in a soul-stirring way – like singing “Amen” with John Powell
  • And got to frequently sing, “Praise God From Whole All Blessings Flow” in the long long version (606 or 118, and you have to be a Mennonite to get the numbers) with Mary Oyer. If you don’t know what the long version of Praise God is, check here or Google “Youtube Mennonite 606” for numerous renditions.

Now, working for the Mennonite publisher MennoMedia and knowing that the Mennonite church is also in need of a new song collection which is in the long range plan, I’m looking at this fantastic Presbyterian collection and thinking: wonder if we could just skip the long long selection process and expense and just adopt or copy this book?

Or not. Of course not. A new Mennonite hymnal or song collection will be equally marvelous and theologically appropriate and all that jazz, but, still.


For more on Glory to God and to puchase at $17.50 each through December 2013, go here.

A whole collection of Mennonite a cappella CDs is available from the MennoMedia store.

*Be Still My Soul is available on an album Angel Voices, available from Amazon


From → Faith

  1. The controversy concerning this hymnal and the PCUSA response in their Aug 9 2013 newsletter was quite interesting. I am still curious why it was sought to include the questioned hymn if it could be re-written to exclude “wrath of God” language (denied by author of hymn copyright ) yet vote against the hymn if the language could not be changed. PCUSA’s history of selective editing and exclusion of hymns and sometimes scripture has been challenging. After a half century of involvement in the PCUSA I have learned to monitor their official publications and their reports from General Assembly. Back in the 1980s the GA report included text stating “we should not be guided by a cosmic rule book…” (The Bible, in this case) and “abortion is an act of good stewardship if one feels one can not raise a child to maturity”. (Ask any parent if on any give day they have confidence they can do that outside the daily bread of God’s grace). Other language included “when pastors counsel on abortion seekers adoption should not be mentioned.”
    The PCUSA has never disavowed or condemned those writings. They have increased their support and funding of crisis pregnancy resolutions using additional options however.
    I am glad you are pleased with the new hymnal and even the option of two color choices for the cover seems quite nice.

  2. Caro - Claire Wiles permalink

    Thank you for sharing your new hymnal and some of the lovely songs with us I have a large collection of hymnals that go back a long way and it is nice to hear of a new one that will have some of the newer hymns as well .

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