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In Praise of the Hymnbook

Very Rev Principal Stafford Carson

Very Rev Principal Stafford Carson

In Praise of the Hymnbook

The Apostle Paul had a perspective on corporate Christian worship that many people would love to see reproduced in the life of the contemporary church:

“If …. an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted … he is called to account … the secrets of his heart are disclosed and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”I Corinthians 14:24, 25

We long for an overwhelming sense of the presence and power of God in our services of worship. But in many cases when it comes to worship our focus is being set more horizontally than vertically and it has not led to the kinds of worship experiences that Paul envisages, or that Isaiah or John knew as they were overcome with a sense of the majesty and holiness of God. In planning our worship we have been more inclined to ask pragmatic questions like “What will work?” or “What’s cool?” rather than “What will bring the greatest glory to God?” and ”What will edify his people?” 

One example of this pragmatism has been the energy and urgency with which some congregations have installed large screens and digital projectors in the meeting house without serious or sustained reflection on the theological and liturgical implications of such a move. There does not seem to have been a lot of debate among ministers, elders and church leaders about whether such technological innovation is in keeping with the boundaries set by the Second Commandment.

Open PCI Hymnbook
Open PCI Hymnbook

In his foreword to Reformation Worship,[1] Sinclair Ferguson mentions how that one casualty in the adoption of large screens in worship has been the church psalter and hymnary. He says that “it is rarely noticed that even the apparently well-meant and innocent change from having the words we sing printed in our hymnbooks to showing them on a large screen can have unanticipated effects.” By using large screens rather than hymnbooks we have changed the dynamic of worship. Some will (literally) applaud the change because hands and arms are now free to engage in “worship of the body”. But not everyone will be edified.

The young Christian may see only one verse of the hymn or song on the screen and its place within the overall composition of the whole song is lost. Many of our best hymns are carefully constructed to reflect the Trinitarian nature of God, the life and ministry of Christ, or the plan of salvation, accomplished and applied. That understanding of the larger context and the direction of movement within a hymn or song becomes invisible.

Another by-product of abandoning a psalter and a hymnbook is that the repertoire of songs sung by a contemporary congregation is often restricted to the choice and predilection of the worship leader. As a result, we may have denied a younger generation knowledge of the psalter with its one hundred and fifty praises and laments, as well as paraphrases of Scripture, and hundreds of other hymns written by men and women with great literary skill and sound theological insights. A considerable amount of good Christian hymnody from the past is often overlooked, and while some of it may need to be refreshed with new music, it still has much that will enrich our worship.

Christians of a previous generation often used their hymnbook as a companion volume alongside the Bible in their times of private worship and devotion. Without a printed hymnary that resource for personal use disappears. 

The introduction of large screens for the words of worship songs is obviously a cost-effective way of introducing new praise songs and hymns into worship without the expense of publishing new printed material. It allows for on-going reformation and innovation in terms of the church’s language of worship. 

But that is not without its downside. Hughes O. Old makes the point that whilst our obedience cannot become a static matter that was worked out in some past era and never needs to be re-considered, when applied to worship “reformed and always reforming” can be understood as “a form of theological Trotskyism ….. and can mean submitting the church to perpetual revolution”.[2] Requiring a congregation to be always learning new songs may actually inhibit the joyful expression of heartfelt worship and loses sight of the value of having a biblically-informed liturgy.

With the widespread move to install large screens, it seems unlikely that the hymnary and psalter will make a comeback soon. But that should not prevent us from seeking to use the full range of psalms and hymns available to us to honour and exalt Christ and the gospel so that the holy power of the presence of God may be experienced by all who gather in our services of worship.

[1] Jonathan Gibson & Mark Earngey (eds), Reformation Worship: Liturgies From the Past for the Present (Greensboro NC: New Growth Press, 2018).

[2] Hughes, O. Old, Worship: Reformed According to Scripture (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002).

Very Rev Principal Stafford Carson

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Very Rev Principal Stafford Carson

Stafford Carson studied at the University of Ulster, (BSc and MA) Westminster Theological Seminar…

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