Support the Café

Search our Site

Have hymnals become dinosaurs?

Have hymnals become dinosaurs?

In an essay adapted from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music’s Kavanagh Lecture on October 24 2013, entitled “Have Hymnals Become Dinosaurs?: The Costs of Extinction,” Karen B. Westerfield Tucker explores the costs and promises of printed hymnals:

Three scenarios — all of them real — can set the stage to address the question of the “extinction” of hymnals:

A congregation oversubscribes the cost of buying new denominational

songbooks that contain a mixture of old hymns and recently-composed

songs. The congregation’s minister approaches a pastoral colleague

assigned to a smaller, struggling congregation, and offers her the

surplus money for a similar purchase. “No, thank you,” she says. “We

no longer use books since the lyrics are projected on the screen along

with the other texts for worship. Although we are small, this is a

forward-looking community. We are not interested in print books that

are a relic of the past. Besides, we don’t want to be encumbered with

books to hold because we prefer to be free to lift our hands or clap

as we sing.”

In speaking about resources for worship, the pastor acknowledges that

he never uses the denomination’s hymnbook. “I like having the freedom

to choose music from any source. Of course, we have our CCLI

[Christian Copyright Licensing International] and

licenses. I find songs that best fit the theme of the day and that can

get the congregation really ‘in’ to their worship. Hymnals are far too


A student in my introductory worship course, upon learning that the

day’s session will focus on music in worship, comments in class: “I

hope you aren’t going to talk about hymns and hymnals. They really are

irrelevant to today’s worship. The music is old fashioned and the

words are often boring. I’d like for us to talk about ‘contemporary’

music and music that is produced individually or collaboratively by

people in an emerging-style congregation. That really would be more

helpful for us as future pastors.” Although the Masters of Sacred

Music students in the room cringe at that remark, they are a minority

compared to the heads nodding in affirmation of the student’s request.

The full article from the Yale Institute for Sacred Music Review is available here.


Café Comments?

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). Comments that use non-PG rated language, include personal attacks, that are not provable as fact or that we deem in any way to be counter to our mission of fostering respectful dialogue will not be posted.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Tim Sean

A group of our youth-worker-types just returned from the Youth Specialties Conference in Atlanta. We were emerged in the Worship Band culture there and we reflected quite a bit about the medium. It just is SO THIN. The band’s presentation of the modality of the music was very good, but the repetition and simplicity of the texts made it very difficult for me to engage on any kind of narrative, idea, or conceptual level.

I’m a pretty open-minded person. I really went into these sessions trying to see the good in them. The best I could come up with was the similarity to the repetition and simplicity of Taize. That is where I’m willing to meet that culture half-way. But I SO love the hymns for their images, ideas, and connection to our greater collective narrative.

I’m 46 years old, and this is where I start to sound like a crotchety old-fart. If adopting the music that I heard this weekend is one of the pieces that will keep the church doors open, I’m willing to go down with the ship.

To not be so overly dramatic, there are some meet-in-the-middle ways to have the Kick-A** Band and still maintain the richer texts by having hymns arranged for the bands modality as well as writing new tunes for hymn texts. But I didn’t see ANY of that this weekend.

Fr. Tim Sean Youmans

Diocese of Oklahoma

Chaz Brooks

Ann: the rubrics are quite clear. Page 14 of the Book of Common Prayer, 1979: “Hymns referred to in the rubrics of this Book are to be understood as those authorized by this Church.” All those hymnals you listed had to be approved by General Convention.

Ann Fontaine

Though we have the hymnal – we are actually free to use any other source. In our own music/hymnals we have Lift Every Voice and Sing; Voices Found; and Wonder, Love and Praise. Other sources can also be used with appropriate payment for copyright or One License. There is no restriction on music in the Episcopal Church.

Chaz Brooks

I’m not sure how this is relevant for the Episcopal Church because, on the one hand, we have a canonical requirement to use approved hymnals. We actually don’t have the freedom to choose music from any source. On the other hand, a recent survey found overwhelming opposition to hymnal revision. Surprisingly, opposition was especially strong among young people. It turns out that most Episcopalians are perfectly happy with their “old fashioned,” “boring” “relic of the past.”

Support the Café
Past Posts

The Episcopal Café seeks to be an independent voice, reporting and reflecting on the Episcopal Church and the Anglican tradition.  The Café is not a platform of advocacy, but it does aim to tell the story of the church from the perspective of Progressive Christianity.  Our collective sympathy, as the Café, lies with the project of widening the circle of inclusion within the church and empowering all the baptized for the role to which they have been called as followers of Christ.

The opinions expressed at the Café are those of individual contributors, and, unless otherwise noted, should not be interpreted as official statements of a parish, diocese or other organization. The art and articles that appear here remain the property of their creators.

All Content  © 2017 Episcopal Café