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An Interview with George Shorney

Many times the people who are most passionate about a topic and those who do so much to empower and enable good and important work are never given the spotlight. In some ways, that is the case with the late George Shorney. A long-time member of The Hymn Society and long-time chairman of Hope Publishing Company, George was always working to encourage and promote congregational song. Often times, however, that work was done behind the scenes or in ways that the public would never view. It was a substantial gift that he left after his passing that inspired and funded the endowment campaign which has allowed us here at The Center for Congregational Song to hit the ground running. So, it is with a spirit of deep gratitude that we re-post this interview that originally was published in THE HYMN in 1992.



The following interview with George Shorney was conducted by the Editor of THE HYMN on July 7, 1992 in Washington, D.C. George Shorney, Chairman of Hope Publishing Company, was named a Fellow of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada in 1990.


THE HYMN: George, tell us how you first became interested in hymns.

GS: Well, when you’re a Shorney, born into a family that has been in hymnbook publishing for three generations, that started at an early age. I have my parents to thank for my interest in hymns. My mother was very much a word person. She loved writing, loved poetry, and admired a well-turned phrase. My father was a musician. He loved music and in particular the music of the church. So without my realizing it I guess, I came to appreciate both music and words, and when I saw how nicely they came together in the form of a hymn, I found that fascinating.


THE HYMN: Were you musical growing up? Did you play instruments?

GS: Yes, in our family we were all required to have a “speaking acquaintance” with the piano and I took eight years, but it didn’t stick. To this day I love music, but I’m far from a touring musician and I leave that to the experts. I might also mention having the opportunity to sing “Messiah” as a college freshmen [sic] at Denison University under Karl Eschman. This was a seminal experience for me as a decade later I helped launch Hope’s entry into the choral music field.


THE HYMN: If I’m not mistaken you began work with Hope Publishing Company in 1958.

GS: Correct.


THE HYMN: Tell us about some of the positions you’ve held with the company and some of the activities these positions entailed.

GS: I came in as the office manager and worked in that position for about six years, until my brother Bill came into the business in 1964. At that time I was able to move over into the editorial side of the business, and have worked in that end ever since. I always loved the creation of new product, and I find that very challenging. My brother Bill, on the other hand, is a very good businessman, and he has essentially run our business since he came on board, so as business partners we play off each other very well. He tends to the day to day business, and it’s my responsibility to keep new products coming.


THE HYMN: What aspects of the editorial work have you been involved in?

GS: We’re small enough that one has to work in all the aspects of the process. You get involved in everything from finding out where a product should be engraved, to where it should be printed, locating someone to do typesetting, the whole thing from beginning to end.


THE HYMN: Hope Publishing Company is celebrating its 100th Anniversary this year [1992]. What are some changes you’ve seen over the years, particularly in congregational song, in. terms of that company’s history?

GS: In my business life—and I’ve been involved in it almost thirty-five years now, so I’ve seen a third of that history—there have been many changes. I remember when I came to Hope, our editor Donald Hustad was trying to give me some grounding so that I would understand what was going on in church music. He said, “church music is like a pendulum, it always swings,” and he said, “right now it is resting, but stick around, and you will see the day that exciting things will happen.” And I think I waited longer for the pendulum to swing than I’d hoped I’d have to, but indeed it did start to swing, and once that pendulum started it danced a merry tune.


THE HYMN: It’s the music that’s swinging now.

GS: That’s right. (Laughs). There was no way I could foresee anything like the language question that emerged in the seventies. And originally I didn’t really see how important that would be to the church and to our whole understanding of a hymn and our appreciation for it. Not only of new hymns but of looking at the hymns that we’ve always sung and accepted, and saying, “is this in fact what we want to sing in the last decade of the twentieth century?”


THE HYMN: What about the musical styles, has there been a considerable difference since 1958 when you became associated with the company?

GS: Oh yes, I think so. The same kinds of changes have taken place musically as well…and that’s exciting to see. It’s probably much harder to identify style changes in the writing of the hymn because a hymn is strophic and rather contained, but you could probably experience it in a more marked way when you look at what’s happened in choral music. Much of the literature we published in the sixties sounds very dated by today’s standards. This has been healthy for a publisher because as things do change, it opens up new possibilities.


THE HYMN: And it seems that Hope is always in the forefront of these winds of change that you’ve mentioned. Many readers of THE HYMN are familiar with compiling a hymnal from the perspective of a committee member or editor or the hymnal or a contributor to a new hymnal, but you know it from the perspective of the publisher of the hymnal. Can you tell us about the work of the publisher of the hymnal?

GS: When the publisher accepts the job of putting a hymnbook together, he or she has to try to contain the project. It is important to put together a budget, because there is a great amount of money that goes into producing a hymnbook before you sell the first copy. Today we are looking at a half-million dollar investment before the first book is in print, before a penny is returned to the investor. So you must have a good banking connection, a lot of patience, and a well defined market…


THE HYMN: Or “hope”?

GS: A lot of “hope” (laughs), and you have to have people in charge of that project who understand deadlines and are willing to make the kinds of sacrifices that have to be made to get a book out. We reviewed two brand new hymnals at the conference yesterday, and for me it’s like getting in a new car. I even like the smell of a new hymnbook. Going through a new book I can certainly relate to the pain and agony they went through to get that book produced. Hearing Russell Schulz-Widmar and Jeffrey Rowthorn say that at the last moment they lost a signature, that forty hymns had to be deleted—that hurts. The gestation period is so long in a hymnal, you hate to lose any of it. And the Brethren and Mennonites with their hymnal, and the problems they had with three different groups to get everybody’s voice heard and to have everybody represented in order to have a book that they could all buy into. That can be a tough political game.


THE HYMN: What aspects do you look for when you are going to publish a hymnal? What are some of the things that don’t appear on the surface?

GS: Well, you have to first find out if you’re talking about a denominational book or an independent book, and we’re of course independent so that means we have to identify a market. A denomination has that market and is serving a specific constituency. We, on the other hand, have to find places that the denominations have missed. For many years we thought that the denominations could have put us out of the hymnbook business, if they wanted to, by serving their own people. That Methodists, I think, in their most recent hymnbook must have said, “We’re tired of having Hope sell books to our people.” And they did an excellent job with their new book in serving both the church with more sophisticated musical tastes and the church that still wants to sing gospel songs. They have combined these, I think, very nicely in this new hymnal and covered all the bases for their denomination.


THE HYMN: Also there are a lot of denominations that don’t have an official hymnal or publishing house, and you can certainly serve that market as well.

GS: That’s correct.


THE HYMN: Any other aspects of hymnal publishing from the publisher’s viewpoint?

GS: Well, of course, the market is the crucial one. You have to identify a market and then try to serve that market. And if you do it blindly, you may be in trouble. You need to have some feedback from this group that you’re trying to serve as to what they need and what they’ll be happy with when you get there. One of the things that has come on very strong today and been important for evangelical publishers has been orchestration. That is another huge investment—it almost doubled the cost of the Word hymnal, The Hymnal for Worship and Celebration, but it was a stroke of genius because it has helped the book sell amazingly well. Those are the kinds of things a publisher must consider.


THE HYMN: Hope’s most recent major hymnal, The Worshiping Church, was published in 1990. Tell us about your involvement in the process of compiling that particular book.

GS: This was the most joyous—I think that’s the right word—the most joyous involvement in a hymnal project that I’ve been a part of in my career at Hope. It was great fun, because we decided we were going to do the hymnal that we wanted to do. I just said earlier that you have to define your market and go for it, but in this instance we said we’re going to do this hymnbook for ourselves (laughs). So we challenged Donald Hustad, who had done seven or eight hymnals for us in the past, and said, “Let’s do the hymnbook we want to do. Let’s define it the way we want to define it. Let’s aim it for the evangelical church that is concerned about inclusive language, that is concerned about worship and liturgy, and textual things that we’re concerned about.” So we put together a committee of twenty-five like-minded people who represented different denominations and different areas of the country where we hoped to be able to interest people in our book, and said, “This will be our sounding board.” It was the first time we had used a large committee. This group met, and we corresponded with them over a period of almost six years. Then we had a smaller group of six of us on the executive committee that met monthly for much of that time frame, and that was a great and very rewarding experience. It was fun just to be part of the process, and now that it’s over, I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms.


THE HYMN: Perhaps you’re looking forward to the next one.

GS: I sure am.


THE HYMN: I have hard predictions that hymns as we know them today are going the way of the dinosaurs due to advances in technology and changes in the basic repertory. From the perspective of a publisher, what do you see as the future for the “standard hymnal” as we know it today?

GS: I think that’s one of the great concerns we have as a hymnal publisher looking into the twenty-first center. It’s the way things are moving in both the evangelical church and in the mainline church. As you say, the hymnbook may be a dinosaur by the twenty-first century and if so, we have to find another way to survive. We are looking at many ways of using technology as a publisher to help us adapt, saying to the church, “We’ll license directly to you, Sunday by Sunday,” that sort of thing. Most church today have the kind of equipment that already makes that possible. And that might even extend to choral music, as awful as that thought is to me. Those things may well happen, and those changes are what the next generation will have to deal with.


THE HYMN: Do you foresee a continues need for major hymnals for the immediate future?

GS: Well, when I came into the business they told me that hymnbooks would be gone in ten years, indeed, that all books would be gone in ten years. No one would be publishing books in the seventies, and yet, books are still available. They’re expensive, and maybe we don’t sell as many as we used to, but people still like to hold a book in their hands and put in [sic] on the shelf. Maybe it’s a smaller group, but I think there will always be a hymnal in the pew rack or somewhere in the church.

The market for hymnbooks in the future could well be dissipated by two things that have happened. First, in the evangelical church, we’ve seen a whole new form of worship that has become very popular in which the hymnbook has been totally thrown out. Almost all music as we recognize it in a traditional sense is pretty well gone in this new practice. This style is being emulated in many other churches because of its popularity, and they’re saying if we’re going to attract people we need to get with it. Well, “getting with it,” I’m afraid, means throwing out the baby with the bathwater, and that’s already happened in a lot of our churches. It has revolutionized the style of worship, and I’m afraid not always for the good.

We also have concern about the direction things are going in the mainline church. The very title of this year’s conference, “Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in our Hymns,” has raised for me a real concern. This ethnic or multi-cultural emphasis being taken to extremes reminds me of how quickly the politically-correct movement was corrupted. Historically, minorities have been abused and overlooked, but historical revisionists need to be careful that what they are doing separates therapy from history and fact from fiction. That Japanese children are now being taught in the classroom that they were victims and not instigators and aggressors in World War II may be easier for children to assimilate, but is a calculated misuse of the facts of history.

The counter-revolution protest against anglocentric culture may well be nothing more than a manifestation of the global fever of nationalism or ethnicity seen as a pursuit of some pure, sacred origin more mythology than anything else.

While in Washington, we went with our New Zealand friends (John and Shirley Murray and Jeanette and Colin Gibson) to visit the Lincoln Memorial. Reading again his second inaugural and the lines of the Gettysburg Address reminded me that we still have a long way to go in securing equal rights for all minorities here in our country. But to reject the ideals of those who signed the Declaration of Independence or of Lincoln that “we are dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” violates all that I hold sacred and good in the American dream. Those are the ideals we need to keep before us—not ethnic or cultural differences which, to this day, recreate ancient quarrels in countries as close as Canada or as far as Serbia and Croatia, Russia and Georgia, England and Ireland. Beyond that, much of the continent of Africa is so overwhelmed by the problem of AIDS and famine that other differences fade in importance. Although we have admired the economic growth of some of the Pacific-rim countries, no one would wish to be a female in Japan, and even basic human rights still do not exist in China.

So I am not ready to throw out what we call American democracy or to feed it to those who have lost faith in our future. In short, I take issue with such gurus and find their vision faulty and misguided—a by-product of what I call academic poppycock.


THE HYMN: George, you have consistently brought leading hymn writers from Britain and other countries to North America both in person and through publication of their hymns. You often seem to know (almost before anyone else in North America) who the significant hymn writers are in other countries. I wonder if you could tell us how you keep in touch with these developments in other countries.

GS: I had a great opportunity back in 1981 when Carlton Young convinced me that I should spend a week at Oxford, at the joint Hymn Society meetings that were held that year between the IAH, the Hymn Society of America—as it was called at the time—and the Hymn Society of Great Britain and Ireland. It was a full week’s program in Oxford that gave us a wonderful opportunity to get acquainted with Robin Leaver and Brian Wren and Pratt Green, Fred Kaan, and on and on. I had known the names but never known the people. I had an absolutely glorious week in Oxford meeting these people, singing their new hymns, and it was very eye-opening for me. In the next decade I tried to find some way to import what they had in England, thinking that might encourage hymn singing in this country. So we tried by bringing John Wilson, Michael Perry, Christopher Idle, Peter Cutts, Timothy Dudley-Smith, and others here. This was a two-way street. It helped them to understand some of the concerns we had; with language, for instance, where we were way ahead of them. The language question had not really been seriously addressed by most of the British hymn writers until they spend some time in the States. So they learned a good bit coming here, and it was very encouraging to us to meet them and to sing their hymns and get acquainted with them. Hope represents many of these hymn writers here in the United States and Canada. So as they continue to write we encourage them to continue to publish. We have done supplements now for most of the hymn writers, and will continue to do so.


THE HYMN: And you continue to go overseas and keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening?

GS: We need to do that. I try to get back to England at least once a year. One of the things we’re doing this year is a celebration dinner marking our centennial in London, and we’re inviting all of our hymn writers. This will be a first for many of them, because some have not met each other. At this point we are expecting about one-hundred people.


THE HYMN: It’s going to be quite the party!

GS: Indeed it should be.


THE HYMN: Are you going to do any hymn singing?

GS: Yes we will, and, as a matter of fact, Peter Cutts and Brian Wren have written a little skit roasting the host, so I’ll be anxious to see how well I fare in that one.


THE HYMN: I’m sure you will!

GS: (Laughs.)


THE HYMN: On a different subject, do you think pastors, church musicians, and other persons who are responsible for hymnody and music in the church are more knowledgeable about the use of copyrighted material today than they were say, ten or fifteen years ago?

GS: I do think they are. Many of my friends in the business disagree with me and complain bitterly about the copying they see. Maybe my eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, but I don’t see as much of it as I used to. I think CCLI [Christian Copyright Licensing, Inc.] has helped enormously in the Evangelical church. A one-stop shop to take care of all of this with a single license for a whole year is a great book to the church that uses a lot of overhead projection. CCLI has been a real help for that kind of church. Just getting the weekly copyright clearance and bookkeeping off the church’s back is a giant step forward.


THE HYMN: As we say, “there’s always room for improvement,” and we certainly hope that churches will take advantage of that, or at least obtain copyright permissions from rightful owners.

GS: I really hope so.


THE HYMN: One of the other hats that you wear, is that you supervise The Hymn Society copyrights for us. Tell us about what’s involved with that.

GS: The most exciting thing that’s happened there in some time is the publication of Holding in Trust, and I’m really delighted about this. I believe the ideas has been in the works for five or six years. We encouraged the Society to put together a collection of their best hymns, and some tunes are included as well. They set up a committee to look at the hymns and make any changes that they felt needed to be made, to put the hymns into a form for modern use. Now when a hymnal committee asks for Georgia Harkness’ hymn, it isn’t in fourteen versions. We can say, this is the approved form we would like you to use, and please use the one that appears in this collection. This book is just out in time for the conference, and I’m very pleased to see it.


THE HYMN: Anything else about the copyright that comes to mind?

GS: Today publishers must be able to give churches a quick response. In our office we have three people answering copyright requests mostly by phone and fax. What’s interesting is that we now know which day the phones will be the busiest. And that’s Wednesday—Wednesday for this coming Sunday, not for next month. The phones will ring non-stop on Wednesday, and by Friday it’s pretty well quieted down. But Wednesday and Thursday it’s chaotic.


THE HYMN: Remind me not to call on Wednesday.

GS: I’ve always felt that if the people of the church knew what was right, they would do it, and I truly do think that is what’s happening.


THE HYMN: Do you have any other comments you’d like to make for the readers of THE HYMN?

GS: I am thankful every day for the double legacy I inherited. To be able to work in a rewarding job serving the church is truly an unmerited blessing. I look forward to going to work each day and am grateful for the kinds of people, many of whom are here at these meetings, that I rub shoulders with in the daily discharge of my responsibilities. These activities renew and encourage me and give fresh meaning to the word “hope” which has been such an important entity and concept in my life.

THE HYMN: George, on behalf of The Hymn Society, let me say thank you for all of the things that Hope and that you personally have done for The Hymn Society. I want to wish you and Hope the very best in the future.

GS: Thank you, David.