In which I prove my curmudgeon credentials

Being a self-identified curmudgeon, I think there have been exactly six changes for the better in the history of the universe. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that I am not very enthused at the idea of a revised hymnal for the Episcopal Church. Our ideas of what is relevant in 2012 are not likely to have any more staying power over the next decade or two than what our parents thought was cool in 1982. As I just got through joking on Facebook, if we could predict cultural trends even a few years from now, we all would have bought Apple stock in the 90s.

It therefore warms my Wesleyan heart to see that pretty much nobody actually wants a new hymnal except for clergy who are near 50. Furthermore, the resistance is strongest among the young people to whom newer styles of music are supposed to appeal. The post I linked to is worth reading. I found myself shouting amen in a most un-Anglican fashion when I read some of the remarks of the people interviewed. We young people, that supposedly coveted demographic, don’t need or necessarily want to sing the same music in church that we stream on our computers. A coffee shop, a party at someone’s house, and a club all call for different types of music. Why should church be any different?

If anything is clear about the much-exaggerated demise of traditional churches in North America and Europe, it is that most of the things people used to be able to get in church can now be freely had elsewhere. You don’t need to go to church to demonstrate your respectability or enhance your upward mobility. You don’t need fellowship hour to catch the latest news. And you don’t need the Sunday afternoon recital to hear music. You have a computer and an internet connection for all of this. So if our outreach strategy is to provide young people with goods and services they can easily get elsewhere without having to wake up early on Sunday, we’re screwed.

The important cultural functions that are not presently being fulfilled in other venues are things like having multiple generations in the same room singing together (I stole this line, but I can’t remember from whom). And since we now have a generation that has not grown up with church music and liturgy, they don’t have the the same baggage surrounding it. It’s not old hat. In fact, it’s rather intriguing (that one is courtesy of my campus chaplain). It’s a way to be connected with a broader history and community in the midst of the individualist and capitalistic wasteland that our culture can be in its less flattering moments. Pitch that right, and you’ll at least pique somebody’s curiosity.

Notice that I was talking about the most important cultural functions in that last paragraph, which I mean in a rather narrow sense as the sorts of things a governmental ministry of culture would concern itself with. But really, the cultural bit is only a nice by-product of worship. I want scripture read, the Gospel proclaimed, and the sacraments celebrated, and I want this done according to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer (rite II, since you asked. Preferably with Eucharistic prayer A, though nothing against the others). If the liturgy resonates with the gospel, you can really stick in whatever music you want. If you aren’t taking the scriptures seriously, if you don’t think we’re mired in sin and need to be saved from it, and you don’t believe that despite the unfortunate politics surrounding its origins, the Nicene Creed nicely sums up the relationship between God and human beings, nothing you do will be worth getting up on Sunday for (at least not for this curmudgeon).

The truth is that it doesn’t matter whether we have organs or guitars. Though I tend to gravitate toward Bach, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and plainsong, some of the best worship I’ve experienced incorporates evangelical praise choruses, that stuff the Jesuits came up with in the 70s, Taizé chants, gospel, and 19th century old-time-religion sorts of singing (if you think I’m talking about your church, you’re probably wrong), and the worst was a by-the-book sung evensong in a college chapel in Oxford. The very best was at a charismatic church that rigidly adhered to the Vatican II rubrics. Music choice has little to do with it. (Actually, what killed the evensong for me was the same thing that kills most “contemporary” worship I go to: it’s a concert, and usually a boring one.).

Anyway, since the idolatry of our time is what the young people want, I’m a competent judge of what is compelling for another four years. And I say we don’t need a new hymnal (unless we want to add a few verses that were woefully omitted from the 82 hymnal).

The one thing that I find surprising about the study is that the only identifiable group that tends to support a revision is female clergy. When the women in the room are the only ones who don’t think everything’s going swimmingly, and the discourse seems to be going on just fine without them, that’s usually a sign that something is amiss. I would be interested in seeing what patterns appear among the responses from ordained women.

That’s pretty much the only thing that could–Oh wait. I just thought of a worship experience worse than the choral evensong (if you think I’m talking about something you did, there’s a decent chance you’re right).