By Taylor Burton-Edwards
As some of you may have heard by now, the effort to create a new United Methodist Hymnal for the United States has been officially halted. A link to the UMNS story/press release is included here and below.
Hymnals have been very important in Methodism from the earliest days. Back in England, the hymnals published by John and Charles Wesley were not found in pews of congregations, but in the shirt pockets of Methodists. Why? Because in most of the churches in England at the time, including the Church of England and many Presbyterian and Baptist groups, hymn-singing was banned in public worship. Why? Because what was to be sung were the pure words of scripture (psalms) and the ancient prayers of the church (spiritual songs), not the "man-made" texts one found in hymns.
There were some notable exceptions. Isaac Watts wrote for his fairly Calvinist, separatist congregation, and other congregations of like order had no trouble singing these texts. But they were the minority, the vast minority in England in the 18th century. They were the minority in North America at the time, too.
Which meant, for the Methodists, most of whom would have attended Church of England congregations, the hymnals were for Sunday night meetings of the society, for class meetings, and for daily personal and family use.
Think of the early Methodist hymnals as the iPod (R) of Methodists. They were literally carrying their songs with them wherever they went.
This was hymnal as missional collection. This was hymnal intended and practiced as "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." Why? Because they weren't singing these songs "in church"-- and certainly not only "in church." They were singing them every day of their lives, wherever they went.
With the demise of the current US hymnal project for the UMC comes the opportunity not only to re-think what a hymnal for US congregations might be, but to ReBe a hymnal in the Wesleyan tradition-- to bring about a new Methodist Missional Hymnal, a missional iPod (R) for the 21st century.
Keep in mind, too, that the early Methodist hymnals were all "public domain." Individual intellectual property rights (and with it, copyright law and DRM) didn't exist back then. That meant that these songs could spread freely in both print and oral versions and mutate as they needed to locally, and no one got into trouble for it (John Wesley's almost imperious "Instructions for Singing" notwithstanding).
It was missional text and music that could go viral. It was a collection that could "fractal."
So who wants to ReBe a hymnal for the UMC-- one that substantially contributes toward the project of making disciples of Jesus Christ who function as missionaries of God's reign wherever they are because disciples sing these things wherever they are and can legally spread them freely wherever they go?
Plans for UM Hymnal Revision Halted for 2009-2012 Quadrennium