What Is the United Methodist Church Hymn Tradition?
Paul Westermeyer, Professor of Church Music at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, author, president of the Hymn Society and past chaplain of the American Guild of Organists, asked the following in his plenary address, "What Is a Hymn Heritage?" at the 2007 Hymn Society Conference, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada (source: The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song, Vol. 59, No. 1, Winter 2008, p.9):
If a large number of people in a given tradition define that tradition in such different ways that there is no coherence among them, does a heritage in fact exist at all? If there is no memory, is there societal Alzheimer's? If there is societal Alzheimer's, is any common song or common life possible at all? Are we unrelated pieces of jetsam and flotsam floating in an ocean of chaos? A summary of these questions might be phrased something like this. Does anybody get to define a hymn heritage however she or he chooses? Can anyone just make it up? Is it defined by old or new legalisms?
A shared body of hymnody is a group of hymns and songs used in worship repeatedly and over a period of time so that the words, music, content, and theology inform the beliefs and worship practices of the people. For some congregations, this hymnic tradition may be defined by musical style: gospel and revival songs, praise choruses, contemporary songs, great hymns of the faith, country music, chant and Taizé, and a variety of ethnic and cultural styles. For others, it may be defined as a blend of a variety of styles and sources which, over time, has resulted in a core body of hymns and songs that form the tradition.
If a congregation's heritage is traditional hymns of the faith and Wesley, the introduction of praise choruses or Taizé may be disruptive, destructive, and resented by the people; or it may be welcomed as something new to be incorporated or at least tolerated for the sake of others, especially if the majority of hymns come from their heritage. A heritage of hymnody unifies a congregation by its predictability: people are individually attracted and satisfied by it and take comfort in the knowledge that it will continue each Sunday in worship. As a group in worship, people come together who share those attractions and satisfactions.
Most United Methodist congregations can identify their particular hymn tradition or heritage. Even if the pastor or musician argues that "we have an eclectic, blended style of worship music," the nonmusical people in the pew can readily identify what the tradition is because it is one of the things that brings them back each week.
In its formative years, especially while under the guidance of the Wesleys, Methodism probably had such a shared identity and tradition. John and Charles and the other itinerant Methodist preachers as well as local lay preachers probably all used the same body of songs sung in nearly the same manner. Charles even wrote most of them, and they relied on mostly existing tunes familiar to many. John translated a good number of others into English from the German. During their lives, the Wesleys published dozens of hymnals, mostly of Charles' texts, to be used by the early Methodists. The texts (poetry, politics, and theology) and the music (style, form, performance practice) remained remarkably similar during those years.
But as Methodism grew and expanded outside of England -- to Europe, India, Africa, Asia, Southeast Asia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, North America, South America, the Caribbean, and around the globe -- that shared body and tradition of hymnody became enlarged and diversified by numerous languages, theologies, political systems, national histories, folk songs, ethnic and cultural traditions and songs, and diverse worship practices.
The result is that the United Methodist Church today no longer has a hymn heritage that identifies and unifies us. Rather, we have a collection of national, regional, and local hymn heritages. We are as diverse in our hymn content and singing as we are in our languages, cultural, races, and geographical locations. This in part accounts for the proliferation of official and unofficial United Methodist hymnals and songbooks around the world in recent years.
What about the Wesley hymns? Surely we share those in common and surely they serve to unify and identify us. While this was certainly true in the eighteenth century and perhaps into the nineteenth, it was shattered in the twentieth century and no longer exists in the twenty-first. Most United Methodist musicians and pastors can't even name more than seven or eight Wesley hymns in our present hymnal. Other than the Wesley hymns sung regularly: "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing," "Love Divine," "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," "Christ the Lord Is Risen Today," and maybe one or two others, the majority of our hymnal's 57 Wesley hymns go unsung, unknown, unstudied, and have no role in unifying or identifying us as the United Methodist Church.
What does the loss of a hymn tradition as unifying and identifying factors of the United Methodist Church mean today? It means that those factors have passed from the denomination to more localized entities, the most common being the local congregation. The denomination publishes official hymnals -- not just one, but several. It also makes available numerous supplemental songbooks that cater to numerous styles and traditions. At least three general agencies are engaged in hymn publishing by print, digital, and website. Other denominations and publishers are similarly engaged in trying to sell to local United Methodist churches. There are hundreds of online sites that sell or give away hymns and songs for worship. There is a large unpublished body of song that makes its way around the globe by oral tradition. New artists and groups write, record, perform, and promote their material to anyone who will listen and buy. The result is that all over the world, local United Methodist Church pastors, musicians, and people are deciding for themselves what is their hymn heritage and tradition. The United Methodist Church has not one tradition, but thousands, all determined locally rather than by General Conference, denominational agencies, bishops, or even our history.
The question is obvious: Is this good or bad? What does the fact that we sing different songs in worship and that we sing them in widely different manners mean? It means that as a denomination the United Methodist Church does not have a shared tradition, identity, or practice. Many will say that this is a great loss. Others will say that it can mean more vital worship and singing and a means of hospitality, nurture, and evangelism. The fact is that no one gets to say definitively if this is good or bad, and no one person or group makes these decisions for the denomination.