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“The Once and Future Hymnal” Event

Author – Ginny Chilton is Music Minister at Church of the Ascension in Norfolk, Virginia, where she serves as organist, choirmaster, and elementary music teacher.

Welcome to the fourth entry in the Center for Congregational Song blog: Centered in Song. I’m Ginny, a 30-something organist and music minister living in Tidewater, Virginia. I’ve worked mostly for Episcopal Churches in my 13 years in church music, and I’m a cradle Episcopalian, so I was excited to be able to attend a conference at Virginia Theological Seminary two weekends ago, and I’m excited to share a few tidbits with you. The conference was called “The Once and Future Hymnal;” it was two days of lectures and conversations about the possibility of compiling a new hymnal for the Episcopal Church. Our current hymnal is from way back in 1982. “Was that a long time ago?” asks the girl who was born that year. Yes, yes it was.

Here are three takeaways from that conference that I want to talk about briefly: uncertainty, diversity, and community. Uncertainty was the word buzzing in my head after the first day of the conference. In 1982 we were coming out of the cold war and Vietnam War. The economy was recovering after a downturn in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Things were much more stable than they had been in 60 or 70 years. In contrast, things are vastly more uncertain in 2017. Globalization and rapid changes in technology have changed our world and our environment, such that, as we look ahead to the next 30 years, we are much less sure what to expect. That makes it difficult to compile a hymnal that we hope will last a long time!

Some of those gathered for the “Once and Future Hymnal Gathering”


Diversity and community are the other two subjects I have been mulling over since the conference. The Rev. Dr. Frank Wade made a wonderful point in his plenary lecture — and perhaps he’s not the first to say this — that diversity is the raw material, but the end goal is community. Currently, we are in a place as a church, and perhaps a society as a whole, that is more diverse than ever but has a crisis of community. That creates quite a challenge for us as we try to compile a hymnal, or simply lead a community in song each week. In a world that is so uncertain and diverse, how do we bring people together around shared song? What does that look like in 2017, as opposed to 1982, or 1882?

I can see how much things like uncertainty and diversity affect my work here in Virginia at my Episcopal parish. Many of us cherish our Episcopal hymnals because they formed us, while those who are new to the community bring songs from other cultures and denominations. Some want to delve into music that addresses imminent societal issues; others wish to anchor ourselves in the words that sustained our mothers and grandmothers. It sounds like a congregation in conflict, and we have our share of that. But really, all these things are good and we need them all as we work towards being God’s diverse community! We want to address hunger in our song while also singing songs that have knit us together for generations. We want to cherish our denominations’ hymns while also asking how we can reach out and include more.

As I reflect on it here, I realize my church’s diversity is beautiful, but the day-to-day work of planning worship is still really tough! How are all of you dealing with uncertainty and diversity as you lead your communities in song? Those of you who have been doing church music a long time — do you find you face more or fewer challenges now than in the beginning? Those of you who are new to song leadership — is it what you expected? What excites you about the next 30 years of congregational song? Share your ideas in the comments below. Let’s support and inspire one another as we sing our way into the future.


For more information on the gathering, you can see the Facebook page of The Center for Liturgy and Music at Virginia Theological Seminary, where they have posted some Facebook Live videos such as this:


7 thoughts on ““The Once and Future Hymnal” Event”

  1. John J. Ferguson says:

    I disagree with this statement. I have served in the Episcopal Church for many years and taught church music at one of the most respected colleges granting degrees in the church music. Many of the hymns in the 1982 are not well known in our parishes so why is there this push to revise. The supplements have done their job. The 1982 hymnal did not appear in the pews in 1982, I heartily disagree that 1982 was a very long time ago.

    1. admtcfcs says:

      That’s an interesting point, John, and one that many within your denomination as well as many others make as one of the primary arguments against updating their hymnals. And, you’re right, in the grand scheme of Christianity…35 years is not long at all. Also, compared to denominations like the Christian Scientists, who are still using their 1932 hymnal, it’s also not long. However, the ELCA Lutherans, Presbyterian Church (USA), Roman Catholics, and Southern Baptists have all come out with updated hymnals since their 1980s/90s hymnals, and both the Mennonites and United Methodists have begun committees to update theirs. So at least 6 other major mainline denominations, making up at least 33% of all Christians in the US, have determined they needed updated hymnals. When you consider that another 33% of the country identifies as “evangelical” and most likely relies heavily on the CCLI Top 100 for their “hymnal,” it should come as no surprise that the Episcopalians would be considering an update to The Hymnal 1982.

    2. Joshua Castano says:

      The “just because someone else is doing it” isn’t necessarily a great argument. The Episcopal Church’s liturgy and worship is very different, being tied to the Book of Common Prayer. Most of the other denominations you mentioned are not ‘liturgical’ in the same way that TEC is. I think the arguments around revision are similar to some people’s perspective on the prayerbook — and just as with the hymnal, there is much more to be taken from the 1982 Hymnal before deciding we need to update for the sake of updating. Also, I didn’t hear one reason given that addressed music or theology.

      1. admtcfcs says:

        If you want a reason having to do with music and theology, then it’s as simple as looking at some of the absolutely stunning texts and tunes that have been written since the 1982 hymnal (or even the more recent supplements) have come out, such as those by Carl Daw, Ruth Duck, Delores Dufner, Adam Tice, John Core, Dan Damon, etc…it’s also important to note that the Episcopal denomination has already voted to receive proposals on how to update the Book of Common Prayer, which is intimately linked with updating the Hymnal. So it’s really about following the leadership of the denomination and remaining open to the exciting work that God can do through a new denominational hymnal.

        1. Kathleen Rae Moore says:

          Thank you for those thoughts, Adam! I am continually astounded at some of the beautiful, profound, poetic and theological texts that are being written today. Sometimes I read a new hymn that takes my breath away. I also sometimes wonder how the church as a whole will ever use the plethora of fine hymns being written today, but creativity is flowing through church music today. I’d hate to think we wouldn’t make use of that. I enjoy introducing a new hymn to the congregation, especially one of my own, and some people will invariably express appreciation, while others will invariably grumble!

  2. Tom Baynham says:

    Ginny: What a terrific article and thoughtful reflection. I would expect nothing less from a BU alum! As I read your words, I was reminded that I’ve been leading congregations in song and hymnody since 1979,nearly forty years. I have used every edition of the Baptist Hymnal from the 1957 edition to 2008, and I introduced the current UM hymnal to my first UM congregation in 1989. I served congregations that have used the Celebration and Chalice Hymnals. Each hymnal, in their own unique way, introduced a desire to express congregational song and God’s love for us. Part of the diversity you reference is the moving of God’s spirit in the lives of God’s creation, the Church, and that movement must be reflected in what and how we sing. The congregation I now serve is still steeped in the traditional hymns, and are receptive to new text and rhythms. This congregation desires to speak with a stronger voice for social justice. That will only come as they learn new songs and texts. How will our congregational song reflect our passion for the homeless and refugees? How can ministry to our LGBTQIA and transgender persons of faith without a song that speaks to their story and journey?
    I am excited to see the Episcopal Church and the UM Church begin the process of discerning how to help our congregations sing a song and Gospel of relevance and grace.

  3. Valerie Riddle says:

    Planning worship at a large Episcopal School is a huge challenge. Students are ages 5-18, teachers 26-76. We have 4 services and try to choose age appropriate music. Maybe 20% are Episcopalians so we have many denominations, nationalities, and faiths represented. Having youth and adults work together to select music each week is key for us. Like you said, Community is our goal. Thank you for this wonderful article. Diversity in our music is also key for us. We use at least one song from The Hymnal but we don’t stray far from the most well-known.

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