Embracing our musical heritage

I have an embarrassing confession to make. When I first came into the Episcopal Church a goodly number of years ago, I loved everything about the liturgy except for one thing: I was pretty sure the songs we sang were chosen specifically either to torture me or to put me to sleep.

There were a lot of them I didn’t know, and a lot I didn’t like. I thought it was ridiculous that the songs didn’t have names, only numbers. “Unsing-able,” I deemed a number of them. I remember one in particular that earned my wrath: No. 57. It begins “Lo! He comes, with clouds descending.” Craziest tune I ever heard. And for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why we were singing clunkers like that so close to Christmas, when by rights we should have been singing Christmas carols!

Now, a lifetime later, I’ve definitely changed my tune, so to speak. Songs that once stymied me I can now sing by heart and love doing so. I now understand why we don’t sing Christmas carols until Christmas Eve; and the aforementioned No. 57, sung during Advent, has become one of my all-time favorites, especially since I heard it sung by the choir of Trinity College Cambridge. Heavenly!

We have 720 hymns in our blue Hymnal 1982, easily at our fingertips every Sunday. And that doesn’t even include the 288 different settings available to us in the Service Music section. These are things like different versions of the Sanctus, the Fraction, the Lord’s Prayer, etc. – things that can be either said or sung. We have an additional 185 hymns available to us in Wonder, Love & Praise, the 1997 supplement to Hymnal 1982. There are another 316 hymns in Lift Every Voice and Sing II, the African American hymnal that we are increasingly choosing to use.

That is more than 1,500 musical possibilities open to us on any given Sunday. And when I was in seminary, I had to learn them all.

I’m not suggesting that out of 1,500 songs, there aren’t a few stinkers. There are a handful of tunes that still fall harshly on my ear, and I find challenging to sing. And though I loved it growing up, we’ll never sing #562 (“Onward Christian soldiers”) in any church where I have a say in the hymn selection.

But what I am saying is this: As Episcopalians, we are the inheritors of an incredible musical legacy. Our hymnals are arguably the finest available to any denomination, filled with timeless, beautiful music and profound lyrics espousing sound theology – just the opposite of some of the vapid drivel

Which is why I’m delighted that our music director, Gretchen Timmer, is leading a three-week Coffee Hour class, “A User’s Guide to Episcopal Hymnals,” beginning this coming Sunday. I commend this class to everybody! You won’t be required to learn every hymn, as I had to, but you’ll still get a glimpse of some of the amazing treasures these books hold.

Beyond that, I hope the more time we, as a congregation, spend with the music in these hymnals, the more we will come to appreciate this resource, and the songs therein will become more and more familiar and beloved. Our musical heritage as Anglicans is glorious. Let’s embrace it.